Racing For Free
We shall be following the Racing For Change week of free racing, attempting to visit as many of the meetings as possible and to report back on how it seems to be going down.
Two free meetings to begin the week with Wolverhampton and Towcester being the free courses.
I opted for Towcester but speaking to those who went to Wolverhampton the response was very positive and there was a much better atmosphere than usual on a Monday afternoon.
Towcester was going to be an interesting meeting for the experiment as they already have free admission for most of their meetings and even General Managing Kevin Ackerman was unsure how the experiment would work.
As it turned out 3,360 came along, an increase of 744 on the corresponding meeting last year and Ackerman was most pleased with the result.
The most striking difference I noticed was the number of female racegoers at Towcester on Monday, a very large number and quite a few of those I spoke to were first timers.
The “entertainment” for the afternoon, apart from the racing, was Channel Four’s Derek Thompson or Tommo.
Now Tommo is a Marmite character, you either love him or hate him. However, even his fiercest critics will concede he is great at “working the crowd” and he did this with absolute aplomb this afternoon. Running proceedings from the parade ring with the Tote’s George Primarolo, fresh from running the London Marthon the previous day, as his stooge he entertained the crowd as only he can.
Running free draws, including some excellent racing related prizes, the crowd were certainly engaged and, without doubt, he added to the experience for racegoers.
Two free meetings today, both evening meetings and both successful. At Sedgefield, by all accounts, they had one of their biggest crowds.
I was at Nottingham and, again, the figures were impressive. This corresponding meeting last year only attracted a couple of hundred racegoers but, with free admission, the last crowd figure I heard was just over the 1,300 mark and some unconfirmed figures suggested it could have been around the 1,600 mark.
There was no Tommo at Nottingham, he was commentating at Sedgefield and , compared to Towcester the day before, the presentation was more low key, although Mike Vice did his usual job of engaging the crowd.
It is interesting that John Hunt was commentating both at Towcester and Nottingham and his approach was different over the two days.
On Monday he left it to Tommo to provide most of the information, whereas at Nottingham he was providing more information that would be of use to the first timer, even attempting to explain what the odds of 7/2 mean. However when I suggested he ought to then explain Rule 4 following a withdrawal, he then decided it would be an explanation too far.
There was entertainment provided by an Irish band, the sort of music you could not help but stamp your feet to and there was still a good crowd listening to them when I left half an hour after the last race.
As was the case at Towcester there seemed to be more women at the meeting than usual and a significant number were either first timers or, infrequent attendeed who are put off by the normal admission costs.
Managing director Pip Kirkby was delighted by the response and she did not rule out future free admission in future, saying they would carefully examine the financials after this evenings meeting. She did suggest, however, they would still retain a “premier” enclosure as an upgrade, even if they did go the free route.
Smile of the evening came when a chap, who had backed an odds-on shot, asked how much he would win for his £10 stake. When he was told he would win £9 he had a hissy fit, demanding to know what is the point of betting if he loses money, even if the horse wins. I managed to calm him down by pointing out he would also get his stake back, so he would still be £9 up – that seemed to mollify him.
One think Racing For Change had promised during the week was clearer announcements for racegoers. I have to say, on the whole, these have been conspicuous by a near absence.
We still hear “photograph, photograph” and “weighed in” when we were promised more meaningful announcements – it is early days though.
One negative at Nottingham was the decision to send runners in the races on the round course straight to the start and not having them parade in front of the stands.
When I spoke to the clerk of the course she explained it was to preserve the ground.
That excuse would have been more valid had the going been soft, however it was officially Firm, although in reality Good to Firm. Also there are two tracks at Nottingham so it would not have been a major issue in terms of ground maintenance.
The amount of extra work it may have created is minimal compared to the experience of racegoers.
As one person pointed out, “you take the children to the front of the enclosures to see the horses before the race and they do not appear.”
Time cannot be a reason either, for one of the contests on the round course the runners were at the post six minutes before the start.
Day three and the free racing roadshow moved to Ascot. In terms of numbers it was a great success with a crowd of 19,215 as opposed to just over 8,000 last year.
A large number were newcomers and contrary to reports in certain sections of the media the additional numbers were not part of a Saga outing.
As with the first two days there seemed to be more women than usual at the meeting.
There were free racecards and free cups of tea and coffee.
Once again a lack of consistency when it came to announcements. Today we had “the result is now official” although more as an afterthought after the usual “weighed in, weighed in” announcement.
The commentator today was Jim McGrath and he made no effort to add more info or add to the atmosphere, just another day for him.
Ascot TV was broadcasting, although competing with other television channels showing racing elsewhere and the snooker. It was a shame it had to compete, as it had some very interesting features and I especially liked the segment explaining what to look for in the paddock.
Today was the experiment in using decimal odds. I should say from the outset I am a great supporter of decimal odds. They are far easier to understand.
It has to be said it was something of a damp squib and, in all honesty, a farcical exercise.
Out of 60+ layers only four firms, on five boards, were using decimal odds and one of them was so far down the line they had very few visitors.
Precisely what such a small scale experiment is going to prove is highly debateable.
The main opposition from layers comes because of the cost. They claim it will cost £2,000 each to convert their systems to use decimal odds. I’m afraid I have to say that is, if you pardon the expression, absolute bollocks. I used to work in IT and it would not cost that amount to convert to decimal.
Think about it, computers cannot work in fractions, the software currently in use has to convert the currently used fractions into decimals before they can perform any transactions.
If bookmakers think paying £2k a shot is the price to pay then I will be more than happy to do it for £1,000 a shot and, believe me, I would still make a huge profit.
However going back to the farcical experiment today, it is this type of half baked approach that is going to get Racing For Change a bad name.
For me the smile of the day came when by the paddock for the last race and I overheard a woman saying to her friend “I like that ginger horse” – priceless!!!
Day four and the free road show rolls onto Huntingdon and I am beginning to get some “free racing” fatigue.
Even Tommo, hosting once again, is beginning to grate. Hearing him perform with the crowd for one afternoon is liveable with. Hearing the same patter again gets tiresome and he wasn’t quite on top form with one or two comments crossing the line at a family meeting.
Tony McCoy arrived mid-meeting by helicopter for Thompson to proclaim “Tony McCoy has a big chopper,” then proceeding to chortle as if he had told the funniest, most original, joke in the history or mankind. Sorry Derek it wasn’t original and it wasn’t particularly funny either.
There is also a game being played concerning numbers, something I first noticed on Tuesday at Nottingham.
The numbers I have been quoting for last years corresponding meetings have been the “official” Levy Board figures, which are effectively bums on seats, i.e. everyone attending the meeting.
Hence I quoted last years figures for Nottingham as 724 racegoers and for tonight at Huntingdon 1,176 (tonight by the way is 2,537, a decent increase despite the gloomy weather)
However the figures for last year quoted by the racecourses are differing. Nottingham quoted a 2009 figure of 374 and Huntingdon this evening are quoting a figure of 536.
Why the difference? Well the Levy Board figures include everyone admitted to the course including, annual members, owners, press etc., whereas the figures coming from the courses are for those paying on the gate.
So looking at the raw racecourse figures the initiative is seen in a better light.
I have been moaning about the lack of consistency in the new “clear” announcements. I think I have finally sussed this one out and they seem to be trying a different one every day.
I quite liked this evenings one. Only a subtle change but judge Dave Smith announced the result of each race with “The winner is …….” Instead of “First ……..” a very subtle change but I liked it.
Before racing I was worried how commentator Iain MacKenzie would be with the “engaging the crowd” mode and I have to say he was on pretty good form. Certainly not Thompsonesque but relaxed and informative and some of his very dry sense of humour came through.
Day five took us to Doncaster on a day which began sunny but the rain arrived mid-afternoon.
This is a new meeting so no 2009 figures for comparison, however the course are delighted with the 9,500 attendance. The average at other Friday afternoon meetings here is around 3,000.
A good mixture of families and ages. As at the previous meetings a larger number of women here and many of them dressing up in style despite it not being branded as a Ladies Day.
A large number of younger racegoers here, by which I mean those in late teens and twenties.
It says something that Doncaster is the only course I have been to which has contraceptive vending machines in the lavatories …. although looking at how the younger generation are enjoying themselves it may not be a bad idea.
The good news is we have no Tommo here and Graham Orange, the front man for Go Racing In Yorkshire did his usual sterling effort and explaining things for the first timers.
Indeed there was none of the hard sell seen at the likes of Towcester and Huntingdon.
No sign of any “new” user friendly announcements over the PA, although commentator Doug Fraser, not renowned for loosening out, seemed more relaxed than usual and added a few extra snippets as the runners went down.
Certainly fewer gimmicks here but it does not seem to have deterred the racegoers, nor has the light rain.
Well day six and over 1,000 miles on the clock we finally reach the end of our week of free racing.
What better place to conclude the odyssey than one of the loveliest courses in the country, Goodwood.
The course issued 11,000 free tickets in advance and this number has been supplemented by some 2-3,000 arriving and paying on the day.
Even the overcast, showery weather has not put people off.
By comparison the official figure for the corresponding meeting last year was just under 8,500.
Of course this being Goodwood there is no brashness or over the top engagement seen at some courses this week.
Certainly no Tommo here. Instead the presentation has been shared by regular Goodwood presenter Lee McKenzie and commentator Richard Hoiles. An excellent combination as both have the ability to engage and explain without going over the top.
One danger with giving too much irrelevant to new racegoers is it has the potential to alienate the regulars.
Of all the courses I have been to this week Goodwood seems to have struck the ideal balance.
As at the meetings throughout this week there are more younger people than normal and, being a Bank Holiday Saturday, more families.
There is some entertainment laid on but, again, nothing over the top nor anything that will detract from the racing.
Even at their “normal” meetings Goodwood run guided trips to the start, with former commentator Robin Gray as the guide. A good, informative experience. Normally the course have this facility for one or two races on the card, today they are doing it for all seven. This is a good initiative ehich other courses should look at.
The one downside of the larger numbers are the inevitable queues but that is, from the courses perspective, probably a positive problem.
I have been to six different courses this week, each of which has handled the experiment differently. Feedback from all the courses has been positive and speaking to racegoers at all the courses the reaction has been good.
However for me the two courses who managed to get the balance spot on were, unsurprisingly, Ascot and Goodwood.
In terms of success the free admission has attracted more bums on seats and it will be interesting to see if any courses follow this up with more free racedays or, if not free, reduced admission prices.
It is not a model which will work for all courses and, being realistic, I cannot see it being financially viable for the larger courses.
From the grandstands the experiment seems to have worked.
There were not that many of the new, “user friendly” announcements and of the ones I heard the only one I particularly liked was “The winner is …..” instead of “First ……” from the judge at Huntingdon.