Should Young People Get Into Horse Racing?

Warwick Racecourse (JTW Equine Images)

By Samantha Martin (@sam_angelina22)


For any readers who don’t know me, I’m a fifteen year old girl who writes articles about all aspects of the sport I love – horse racing. In the vast majority of conversations I’ve had with fellow fans, trainers, jockeys and TV presenters, one issue is frequently raised:


“We need more young people in horse racing.”


No one can dispute that young people are the future any sport. Rein It In Racing is a site with articles purely by young people and it was created because of the lack of representation of young people in horse racing media. Like the rest of the team, I love the sport – horse racing is my biggest passion; I own a share in a racehorse and spend my Fridays nights previewing races and studying form. However, when I tell people I love horse racing, they look at me like I have just told them that I enjoy badger-bating and the misuse of Class A drugs! On one occasion, someone even asked my parents why they would let me be a horse racing fan!


Interacting with the horse racing community has vastly improved my ability to explain my opinions with confidence, taught me to stand up for myself in the face of hate as well as learn from my mistakes and lapses in judgement. It has nurtured a passion and respect for the greatest creatures on earth which, I’m sure, will last me the rest of my life.


Unfortunately, interest in horse racing seems to be on the decline. It has been reported that, in 2015, 6.13 million people went to a UK race meeting but, in 2019, this reduced to 5.62 million. The figures are steadily decreasing as the years go by and that can’t be a good thing. I’m sure we’ve all been in the situation where we’ve travelled through a built up area and someone (usually older) remarks wistfully, “I remember when all of this was fields”. I don’t want to be driving through Kempton or Warwick or Chester and say to someone, “I remember when this was a racecourse…”


If we can understand why this is happening, we can work out ways to attract more young blood into racing and not allow it to stagnate. In this article, I’m going to flip the earlier statement on its head and ask the question –


Should Young People Get Into Horse Racing?


Frustratingly, horse racing seems to be misunderstood. People generally believe the stereotypes surrounding the sport and I’ve pinpointed four factors which contribute to these misinformed judgements.


Racing’s stereotype appears to be that all racing fans are retired, ruddy-faced men with a flat cap on their head, a cigar in one hand, a glass of whiskey in the other and a wad of cash in their inside pocket. That was probably the case in the 1900s but, fortunately, things couldn’t be more different now. Racing is a sport that is enjoyed by both genders and, unlike some other sports, men and women compete on a level playing field. The recent successes of Rachel Blackmore and Hollie Doyle cannot fail to inspire young girls.


The stereotype of racecourses strikes me as being that they are no place for children, with drinking, smoking and gambling all taking place in one confined area. If done responsibly, there should be no more drinking and smoking than outside your local on a Saturday night. Take Warwick racecourse as an example: the betting ‘ring’ is close to the main entrance where the majority of drinking occurs, but, if you keep walking, the crowds thin when you get closer to the parade ring. Here, it’s quieter and more child-friendly – the perfect spot to watch the horses. Debbie Matthews has done an excellent job helping to make many courses around England accessible to people living with anxiety, dementia, autism, loneliness and invisible illnesses through the ‘Go Racing Green’ project. Nottingham, Chester, Newbury and Salisbury all support the initiative by having ‘quiet areas’ where racegoers can avoid the busy hubbub of a racecourse, and employ members of staff who are ‘awareness-trained’. Newbury is particularly good for introducing children to racing. At the Ladbrokes Trophy meeting, they had lots of interesting tasks for children to undertake to learn about the life of racehorses.


Many courses also have ‘Family Days’. These are where there are children’s activities, such as bouncy castles and fairground rides, on course. What these lack, in my opinion, is a connection to horse racing that would nurture an interest in the children. Normally, adult ticket costs anything from £16-£25, under 18s nearly always GO FREE. This represents a great value day out that isn’t nearly publicised enough! Another way to involve children and families would be to target schools in the local area with leaflets advertising ‘a day at the races’. A positive experience would encourage people to come back year after year. The work of ‘Racing To Schools’ brings racing to the classroom and is an incredible initiative. Through this, students at my school have visited Nottingham to experience a raceday.


On a recent Rein It In Racing Podcast, we suggested ways that racecourses could enrich the raceday experience to educate racegoers. An idea was to introduce information boards surrounding the parade ring, like in a museum. This would help visitors understand why horses wear certain equipment; what the form means; the differences between Handicap and Stakes races and the way gambling odds work, for example. This information is hard to access at the racecourse – I can’t understand why! This would make a day at the races not just a good time but an opportunity to learn more about this great sport. Cutting through the jargon would definitely help draw people in.


Sadly, much of the mainstream press attention racing recieves is negative – normally if a fatality occurs or a gambling horror story, as I will mention later on. This comes particularly from organisations like PETA, Animal Aid and, sometimes, the RSPCA. Their comments on social media spark up heated debates about how racing is ‘cruel’ and the horses are ‘whipped until they bleed’ and ‘forced to race’. I’m a bit biased but I don’t believe horse racing is cruel. From my experience, if a horse doesn’t want to race, or do anything for that matter – they won’t! No one can persuade them otherwise once they’re mind is made up.


Fatalities are what racing is infamous for. Take the Grand National for example – a unique test over four miles and two furlongs with fences only the brave can jump. This race is by far the most famous horse race in the world and it is the one that people naturally base their opinions on. Last year, Up For Review got brought down at the first and, devastatingly, had to be put to sleep. There is constantly a risk of a life-ending injury with horses, regardless of whether they’re a top level racehorse or the family pony. Considering their size, horses are so delicate. A study showed that it is 62% more likely for a horse to be fatally injured in the field in comparison to a 30% chance when ridden. This danger is a contributing factor to adults not wanting young people to be involved in horse racing.


Another contributing factor is gambling. Gambling has been intertwined with racing for years and betting shops sponsor many big races, for example the Ladbrokes Trophy and Betfair Hurdle. Nowadays, you can bet on pretty much anything – from the name of a royal baby to cheese rolling contests. I was shocked at the quantity of sports you could gamble on through the Oddschecker website.


In Great Britain, the total Gross Gambling Yield (GGY) from April 2018 to March 2019 was £10.7 billion. According to Statista.com, as of March 2019, there were 8320 betting shops in Great Britain, a 239 decline from the previous year. This shows the significant effect that mobile devices have had on the gambling industry because gambling is so much easier when you don’t have to leave the house to place a bet. In April 2009 – March 2010, the GGY of the gambling industry in Great Britain for betting was £2.8 Billion and for remote betting, bingo and casino gambling the figure was £632 Million. In the financial year of April 2018 – March 2019, the GGY of betting rise to £3.2 Billion and the remote betting, bingo and casino gambling rose to £5.3 Billion. In terms of horse racing alone, the turnover of off-course bookmakers has decreased from £5,743.5 Million in April 2008 – March 2009 financial year to £4,219.02 Million in 2018/19. These figures show that people are gambling more but they’re choosing to bet on other sports, casinos and bingo sites instead of horse racing. This could be construed as indicative of a lack of trust in the horse racing industry.


People gamble to different extents – from solely at the Grand National, to when they go racing, to most days, to multiple times a day without fail. Aggressive advertising campaigns blasted around racing-related websites and TV channels make it appear that you are missing out and won’t enjoy the race as much if you don’t have money staked on the outcome but these always end in “Be Gamble Aware” or “Bet Responsibly”. To me, this gives mixed messages. In the UK, it is estimated that around 350,000 people suffer from gambling addictions. However, NHS statistics show that only five percent of people seek help and only one percent actually receive it. My heart goes out to anyone who suffers with a gambling problem and I encourage them to seek out help and advice from services like www.gamcare.org.uk and www.gamblingaware.org.


Brothers Fred and Peter Done, who founded Betfred were in the news lately as they also own a company called Health Assured, which has contracts with the NHS and councils providing services to gambling addicts. Seems like they have the best of both worlds. In response to this, newspapers jumped on the story regarding the ways bookmakers entice and take advantage of vulnerable gamblers. In one report, in the Daily Mail, a man was put into a ‘VIP Club’, where they used free tickets to keep him on-side. In the end, his addiction, which his family claimed the betting site fueled, developed into a ‘psychiatric disorder’ which caused him to steal money and culminated in a three year prison sentence.


This is a rare, extreme case and isn’t directly connected with racing, yet rubs off badly on the sport. Because of this, I can understand why someone would be wary of introducing a young person into horse racing as anyone with an addictive personality is instantly at risk of developing a problem. In my opinion, it is the responsibility of parents/carers and schools to educate young people about the repercussions of gambling irresponsibly. My parents have told me about gambling and what an addiction can lead to and I’ve always been told “Never bet what you can’t afford!” by my Grandad, who rarely staked more than £1 in ingenious little accumulators back when the odds were on blackboards. At my school, we’re taught about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse and how to manage money, but gambling is not even mentioned. Surely it is time for this to be added to the curriculum?


So far, I’ve mentioned the features of horse racing that the general public seem to dislike to try and comprehend the reasoning behind these negative perceptions, but horse racing has so many wonderful qualities.


One excellent thing about racing is how welcoming it is to anyone and everyone. Regardless of your age, gender or sexuality, everyone is included. There are also so many careers on offer too – not just the obvious ones like stable staff or jockeys – but Racing Secretaries, Veterinary Welfare Officers, Handicappers, Stipendiary Stewards etc. For anyone interested in a career in racing, the Careers In Racing website http://www.careersinracing.com/ is an invaluable source of information. Also, the British Racing School gives young people with dreams of working in the industry the perfect starting point from their Newmarket base.


In conclusion, the best thing about racing – hands down – is the horses. For me, there’s nothing more wonderful than a Thoroughbred racehorse in full flight. Horse racing showcases these animals at their very best – their strength, agility, willingness, to name just a few characteristics. The bond between horse and rider, galloping at 40 miles per hour towards huge fences, can’t be underestimated. The trust shown reflects just why these animals are so loved all around the world.


The stories are also what makes horse racing so special. Nicky Henderson’s star two mile chaser Sprinter Sacre was in the prime of his career when it was discovered that he had a heart problem. With perseverance, from equine and human alike, Sprinter Sacre bounced back and won the Champion Chase. Or how about Lady Buttons? The Philip Kirby team have nurtured this mare since she was a foal and, in doing so, captured the heart of the racing public. Now, she’s won fifteen of her thirty-two starts, including five listed races and a Grade Two. On the flat, Jet Setting went winless for her first four outings and was picked up for only 12,000gns after that. For new connections, she won the Irish 1000 Guineas and was then bought for £1.3 million by China Horse Club. It would be a crime not to mention Andrew Gemmell! Blind from birth, he’s a passionate racing fan and he has been a key player, as the owner, in the Paisley Park story. This gelding shot into the limelight when he won at the Cheltenham Festival in the Stayers Hurdle and he looks primed for a second win in the race.


So, should young people get into horse racing?


From my experience – yes, a million times yes! I have sat on the edge of my seat, transfixed by the thrilling action before me; seen the racehorses up close; met some incredible people and had some wonderful opportunities thanks to racing, all the while surrounding by warm, welcoming, like-minded people. I’m extremely proud to be part of this sport and I hope that more young people will fall in love with it so horse racing doesn’t just survive but thrives in the future.