You might think that when a popular horse like Jim Goldie’s Hawkeyethenoo runs at Lingfield, he makes just as splendid a spectacle on the sand as he does on the turf at Ascot or York. You might think so, but you’d be wrong. Same horse, same jockey, same tactics, completely different level of interest.
week The Racing Post’s principle tipster, Tom Segal, confessed that he
struggles to find any enthusiasm for all-weather racing. Meanwhile, Alan Lee,
writing in The Times, remarked on the dearth of racegoers at Britain’s
all-weather tracks – an average of just 788 per day across 314 fixtures. When
it comes to racing on an artificial surface, it seems that the majority of race
fans develop attention deficit disorder.
truth is that the majority of these fixtures are not scheduled with racegoers
in mind; they are scheduled for the betting industry. Initially the all-weather
tracks bridged a gap in the schedules when freezing conditions impacted on turf
tracks. The tracks weren’t always as resistant to adverse weather as their name
suggested, but in general they performed a valuable service. In later years the
focus changed to exploiting new time-slots.
all-weather tracks at Wolverhampton and Kempton were designed with floodlights,
enabling them to race during dark evenings, which in turn allowed high-street
betting shops to remain open for longer hours. The all-weather racecourses are
rewarded financially by the betting industry through media rights payments and, to be fair, they have recently announced some dramatic increases to their prize funds.
has a business plan which effectively promotes all-weather racing: if the fixtures generate
sufficient off-course betting turnover, the Horserace Betting Levy Board (HBLB) makes significant contributions towards the prize money and integrity costs of each meeting, irrespective of their appeal to racegoers. Why else would there be plans to build two or three more?
danger of reducing a spectator sport to this level is that the focus shifts
away from the core values that established the fan base. Customers vote with their feet - or the lack of them. On some days the gates may as well
stay closed to the public - perhaps this will be part of the business model for
all-weather tracks in the future.
By voicing such concerns, I could be accused of espousing elitist snobbery with a tenuous grasp of the commercial realities that drive the sport... But hang it! Cartmel is hardly elitist and I fully appreciate that the racing and betting industries are inextricably linked.
I like to have a bet as much as the next man (and possibly the two men standing next to him, the lady next to them and the one watching the dogs on the main screen; although the guy playing the roulette machine, in the corner of the betting shop, probably has it worse than I do). The thing is, I believe that the sport of horse racing is integral to my betting enjoyment - not an incidental side show.
it comes to racing on turf, Alan Lee noted that Cartmel achieved an average
crowd of 9,012 per fixture in 2013 – more than any of the three tracks which
host the Classics of the Flat racing season: Doncaster, Epsom and Newmarket (as
well as Newbury where this week’s selection is Chris Pea Green
- each way in the race that the nostalgic will still think of as the "Schweppes").
While I’ll gladly accept any plaudits, the current management
team at Cartmel can take very little credit for the amazing crowds that we welcome each
Summer. It was our far-sighted predecessors who created the formula for a fun racing event which attracts
hoards of people to this beautiful corner of Cumbria. And it is these people, the
ones that attend year after year, who lend racing at Cartmel its vitality and
party-like atmosphere. To me, fixtures at Cartmel – and similar events where
the racegoer is key to the proceedings - are what horse racing is all about.
Twenty years ago, media rights payments from betting shops were paid according to a formula which took account of the number of racegoers in attendance at each meeting. If
the HBLB could find a way to reward racecourses for generating larger crowds,
all tracks (including the all-weather ones) would place a greater emphasis on
attracting and entertaining the public.
The fixture list would look very different. Levy yields may decline slightly; they may not. Jump fixtures in the winter would have to be protected. There might be fewer all-weather
fixtures - but I bet that they would be more fun to attend, they'd attract bigger crowds - and the horses
that race on the sand might just create as good a spectacle as they do on turf.