Saturday, May 12, 2018

Saturday afternoon isn't alright for fighting

Well, hopefully we're homing in on the target.  Two runners this week: second and fourth.  Roy put in another typically sound Brighton performance when finishing second in a relatively competitive race.  The winner Esspeegee has now won six of his last seven races.  Ironically, three of those six wins have come over a mile and a half at Brighton, and we have finished second to him each time: twice with Kilim (beaten in a photo-finish each time) and now with Roy.  He won off 68 this week.  The two times he beat Kilim, he was racing off 45 and 50, which in retrospect emphasises that Kilim did indeed end her racing career in good form, bless her.

White Valiant ran a nice race.  Sort of.  He finished fourth, but beaten less than four lengths, and closing on the horses in front of him at the end.  That was good.  What was less good was his jumping.  He jumped very nicely in the first half of the race, but his jumping fell apart under pressure when he was getting tired.  The thing is that one doesn't replicate that, ie jumping when tired and jumping under real pressure, in practice at home, and they just have to learn in the heat of battle.

It was good that he ran well despite the bad jumping (his mistakes at the third last and last would have cost him more ground than he was beaten by) but bad that he made those mistakes.  Overall, though, it was promising.  As long as he learns from the experience (which he ought to have done) it suggests he can do better still in future, and it was very heartening that even so he kept running on bravely all the way to the line.  He's a little bit sorry for himself afterwards, not least because he picked up a few bumps and scrapes on his legs for hitting the hurdles, but should be ready to return to Fontwell early next month.

In the wider racing world we have had a couple of rather discomforting stories.  The first was the fracas at Goodwood last Saturday.  The film which has been circulated on the internet of part of the fight is pretty grim.  One would hope that it would be relatively straightforward for the police to apprehend the principal aggressor and then pretty straightforward for the CPS to put him away on a charge of attempted murder.  But that, of course, will only go a small way towards solving the recently-much-discussed problem of violence on the racecourse because he and his friends are not the only potential on-course assailants.

It is easy to go overboard on this one (as plenty of people have demonstrated over the past week) because violence on a racecourse is nothing new.  It's been happening since the early days, and the world hasn't yet stopped turning.  I have tried to find details on the internet but I can't because it's too far back and, of course, as far as Google is concerned, something doesn't exist if it happened before about 1996; but I am sure that I remember an incident roughly 30 years ago when a racegoer (called, I think, Keith Dance) was fatally stabbed in an altercation in the coach park after racing at the July Course.  And I am sure that we have had isolated violent incidents on busy summer racedays every year since then.

Going back farther, of course, I am sure that racecourses in the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century were much more violent places than they are nowadays.  And I don't just mean Graham Greene's razor-gangs at Brighton.  But that's not our concern here: what we need to worry about is how to ensure that the Goodwood debacle doesn't keep being repeated.  Probably re-assessing the whole massive marketing campaign of racing being a 'great day out' might be the best way to start.  Of course the great-day-out crowd boost the gate and spend fortunes on the course, but they only do so occasionally.  And they arguably cost too much when they do so.

If a pub regularly becomes a site of alcohol-based violence, it has its license to sell alcohol revoked.  That could happen to a racecourse which regularly hosts punch-ups.  That would be a massive setback to the course and its finances.  One could say the same about one of the alternatives: employing an army of security guards to prevent violence would be really expensive.  Probably the easiest way to minimise the outbreak of drunken brawls might be to sell the sport as a sporting occasion, rather than a great day out (which in 21st-century parlance means an excuse to get drunk). Soccer is invariably sold as a spectator sport rather than a party, and plenty of people watch soccer even so.

This brings me back to something which stuck in my mind at the end of last year.  There was an article in the Racing Post in which someone (I can't remember if it was someone from the Racecourse Association or just a general marketing man) was patting us on the back on the basis that racing had supposedly been the second best attended spectator sport in Britain during 2017, behind soccer (of course).  This prompted a letter in the paper a few days later in which a reader observed that that is inaccurate: it wasn't the second best attended spectator sport, but the second best attended sport-related social gathering.  And that's right.

If you go to the races to watch racing, then you're a racegoer.  But if you go to the races for a party (which has racing in the background) you're not going as a race-goer but as someone who is attending a racing-related social occasion.  If that sounds stupid, think of this.  I have seen Paul Kelly singing live on four occasions: two in concert halls, one in a tent and one in a pub.  On all four occasions, in my mind I have been going to a concert.  When I saw him play in a pub in Cambridge, I didn't go to the pub for the evening: I went to a Paul Kelly concert.  In the same way, there would have been people in the pub that evening who weren't going to a concert, but going to the pub (and just happened to find that there was an Australian singing and plyaing his guitar in the background).  To count the latter as a concert-goer would be as silly as it would be to count someone who goes to the July Course because Paloma Faith (or whoever) is singing there that evening as a racegoer.

I would imagine that there is a pianist playing in the cocktail bar of the Ritz.  If I decide that the Ritz is a very pleasant place to meet some friends for drinks in the evening (its pleasantness enhanced by the live muzak in the background) I am not going to a piano-recital: I am meeting some friends in a bar for a drink (while a pianist tinkles in the background).  But if I and my friends love piano music and meet up in the bar in the Ritz so we can listen to the pianist, and we have a few drinks while we are there, then we've spent a very pleasant evening at a piano-recital.  Shouldn't we just be selling a day at the races as an outing in which watching the racing is king and all the other things are secondary to that?

Of course we should.  We found that out, by pure coincidence, in the Racing Post this week.  This was not connected to the Goodwood incident, but by chance there was an article in which Simon Bazalgette, on behalf of Jockey Club Racecourses, ruminated on what he sees as the way forward (or, rather, what the way forward ought to be).  His ruminations, most of which were pure common sense, were summed up perfectly in the opening sentence (written by Bill Barber, who generally hits the nail absolutely slap-bang on the head when reviewing the state of the racing nation): "Racing needs to seize an opportunity to invest in engaging and converting casual racegoers into committed fans of the sport."

Easy, isn't it?  If that can be done, then we'd be well on the way to solving most of our problems.  How to do it is the hard one.  But selling a day at the races as a trip to a sporting occasion rather than as a 'great day out', as a racemeeting rather than a 'beer festival' or whatever other guises one sees being used at various times of the year, would be a start.  After all, it isn't difficult to love racing as the most wonderful sport: we're not very bright and we manage to do it, and if we can manage it then anyone can.

The other 'issue' to catch my eye was the so-called civil war within the BHA Board.  It was hard to take anything out of the article at all, beyond thinking, "This is nonsense".  It was hard to see that Steve Harman's alleged misdemeanours, as described in the paper, amounted to much of an offence at all; easy to see the affair as Storminateacupgate.  There was one worrying thing, though: the BHA responded by saying that the article didn't tell the story correctly, but it couldn't comment as the Board was (correctly) maintaining "strict confidentiality as any organisation should when dealing with a complaint over a matter of conduct concerning one of its own people".

That's all well and good - except that the BHA Board can't be maintaining strict confidentiality, can it?  If it were, then the Racing Post wouldn't have had any clue that anything was going on.  There had to have been a breach of confidentiality for even a whiff of this to have reached the press.  It might be more worthwhile for the BHA Board to be investigating the leak rather than investigating Steve Harman's conduct.  When I read the Racing Post's report of his supposed misconduct, I wasn't concerned; but it does make me uneasy to find that the BHA Board believes itself to be holding an internal investigation in strict confidentiality, while the Racing Post is carrying a report of that investigation.


Dominic Garrettt said...

Morning John, firstly unlucky with White Valiant almost certainly undone by his jumping but on a positive he didn't fall and ran through at least 2 hurdles like they never existed, what a tank! Secondly, although I agree with you to an extent on how racing markets itself to being potentially the root cause I don't think just changing how you sell racing will reverse what now has become a cultural issue. People that attend any racecourse with the sole intent of getting intoxicated and having a "Ruck" should receive blanket bans. Like everything in modern life capitalism has changed the dynamics and in certain scenarios the very fundamentals of human behaviour. The combination of gambling,drinking and huge crowds has always been an explosive mix yet racecourses require all 3 in order to maintain their commercial viability. The scary answer to me is increased security, which carries an increased commercial burden which almost certainly will be a cost passed on to the regular race goer making it less affordable for genuine enthusiasts. I have seen other sports "evolve" to the point where the average joe has been priced out of attending. All very sad really.

John Berry said...

Thank you, Dominic. And, yes, one can see that evolution changing the mechanics of running a big raceday changing the sport massively and sending the costs through the roof. It's already happened in soccer, which nowadays is unrecognisable from how it used to be in former days. Sad, but that's 21st-century life.