By Niamh Townsend
The recent Covid-19 pandemic has been lifechanging for everyone, particularly children. As life returns to some sense of normality there is still a long wait for many kids before they return to school, and that means they will need something to keep them entertained over the extended summer break a lot of them have had. While the usual activities may include swimming, sports, going to the cinema, theme parks and many other attractions, my suggestion to any parents or guardians reading this is to take your kids for a day at the races!
Every sport relies on its fans, and the racing industry is no different. There has been a lot of discussion in recent months about how we can interest younger fans in going racing and I truly believe that the key to this is getting them to the racecourse and introducing them to the sport through that medium as opposed to just watching it on the television. I speak from personal experience here, when I was younger I would happily watch the racing on TV if it was on due to my love of horses; but it wasn’t until my grandad actually took me to Aintree to watch it all from the course that my obsession truly started.
My point is, taking your kids racing is easy, affordable, and most importantly it is fun. Not only that, but it is vital now, even more than ever, that racing can interest the next generation of racing fans to fall in love with the sport.
Like many businesses during the pandemic, the majority of racecourses have felt the financial pressure. With the cancellation of racing initially and now the lack of crowds, they are receiving very little income. In recent days there have been more positive signs that crowds will soon be allowed to return to the racecourse and the news broke that Goodwood will be the first racecourse to allow a limited crowd of 5000 people to watch racing at the beginning of August, an initiative that has been introduced in France already. As soon as crowds return to racecourses, I would love to see as many tickets sold as possible to support our racecourses and introducing new racegoers will be key to that.
Most people will live within an hour of a racecourse, there are 60 racecourses across Britain (a list of which can be found here – https://www.britishhorseracing.com/racing/racecourses/). Most major towns and cities will have a racecourse nearby and they are all relatively easy to access by both cars and public transport such as buses and trains.
I suppose the concern for many right now would be the cost of taking an entire family to the racecourse, but the honest truth of it is that to get into most racecourses for a full day out it will set you back less than a family trip to the cinema, since all children get entry into any racecourse in the UK for free. Just find where your local racecourse is, go onto their website and see that price list for yourself for any of their upcoming fixtures. You can book online (often for a discounted price if you book in advance) or it is just as easy to turn up on the day and buy tickets at the gate. On top of that, there are rarely queues to enter the racecourse, so the kids won’t have to stand around for too long.
If you’re concerned that the racing itself won’t appeal to your child, then I would suggest looking at the ‘Family Days’ your local racecourse offers since the majority will hold at least one every year. These are great occasions to introduce kids to the racecourse because it is not just the draw of the racing on offer, but many other activities such as fairground rides, petting zoos, face painting, etc. Therefore, it’s the perfect opportunity to test the waters and see if racing is something you might like to watch again as a family without necessarily wasting the money to enter because there are plenty of other things to entertain the kids on the day if they don’t necessarily take an interest in the horses and the racing itself.
Horse racing is unlike any other sport, because a visit to the racecourse will give you direct access to the stars of the sport – the trainers, jockeys, and of course the horses. A visit to the parade ring will allow you and your kids to see the horses up close from behind the barrier, the perfect opportunity to pick which horse to cheer on in the next race. If you ask nicely as well, more often than not, you will be able to get a picture or autograph with one of the jockeys as they come out of the weighing room before the next race. If your child takes a liking to horse racing, they will have direct access to their favourite athletes.
It has been 9 years since my first trip to the races, and since then the sport has become deeply embedded in my life. Not only has it provided a welcome distraction from life’s various stressors, but I have also been able to integrate it within my school work whether that be an end-of-year research project aged 11, or the central focus of my EPQ at A Level. I have visited racecourses around the country, taken trips to see ‘behind the scenes’ at many yards, met some of the sports greatest horses, jockeys and trainers, and currently work part time in a racing yard. Even now, at the beginning of my journey into the working world, my one goal in my professional life is to become a broadcaster so that I can apply this passion I hold for the sport into my everyday work. I owe all that to my very first trip to the races at Aintree in June 2011.
But don’t just take my word for it, listen to what some of the younger generation had to say about their own race day experiences:
“I like going racing because I can watch the horses closer than on telly. They are much nicer in real life. I also like to wear my best clothes. I have met some jockeys that my Grandma knows, and her horses at the yard and the racecourse. I quite like the family days at the races, but not when they keep you so far away from the paddock, cos then you have to run really fast in time to see them. I have been to Stella Barclay’s yard, my favourite horse there is Sharrabang. He’s been my favourite since he was born. I’ve been to Luke McJannet’s yard in Newmarket, and he let me sit on a horse which I was scared at first, but the horse was really nice so I wasn’t scared after. I have also been to see Bean who belongs to Rosie Margarson. He is proper funny. I can’t wait for us to be allowed to go racing again cos I miss the colours and excitement.” – Amelia, 10
“I love going racing with Daddy and Grandma, it’s well funny when they start shouting the horses names, but the people next to you don’t know their pet names, and they give you funny looks. It’s sad a bit though cos you can’t go in the paddock to see your horse cos there are rules about not being old enough to go in. But I know racehorses cos they are my friends, and I’ve sat on a few and they are kind. My favourite horse ever is Nicky Nook (Rosie) I love her. She is big and shiny, but she doesn’t run very fast so she’s going to have a baby. I don’t like the big queues at the family days, and it’s really far to walk to the parade ring from where the family bit is. I love the big shiny horses, the jockey’s sometimes wave and I like the colours. When we are not at the races for real, we watch it on the telly. It’s nice because I can say I know that horse! I have a silk for my riding hat that is the same colours as Grandma’s horses silks! I want to go racing again soon, but there are germs, so I have to wait. I don’t like waiting.” – Lexi-Mae, 8
“My dad tells me that I was only a few inches tall when I first went racing. It was at Wincanton on 27th of March 2010 and I was in a big blue pram. I only had one view of the racing that day – looking around a steel frame with a blue middle. My mother doesn’t go racing often but she was there with my father and one of my brothers. I remember that there was a lot of mud and cars. In the distance there was a group of people wearing bright colours on huge brown and grey things. We were in one of the car parks and, to this day, I am not sure whether this happened or it is what I imagined happening. I am now ten years old and have been racing 237 times and 29 at Wincanton. The memories which first come to mind at Wincanton would be playing cricket in one of the fields past the grandstands, as soon as we feel the ground shake we run straight to the fence and watch all the horses just a meter away. At Fontwell, I think of a rainy day with close to no people there and the stunning architecture of the owner’s area. I have been to lots of racecourses now and they all have something good about them. But what I like most about going racing is the shaking of the ground and my favourite, the glorious sight of a horse jumping a fence.” – Sam, 10
“I like going to the races as its one of the best sports to watch seen as you can get really close to the horses, jockeys and even trainers at smaller courses. I don’t think in football you get to meet the stars of the sport at every game as there are thousands upon thousands crammed into a stadium – in racing, apart from The Cheltenham Festival where there’s 70000 people, you get signatures and pictures (if you collect them). However, though I was brought into racing by my dad, I think it’s harder to get into racing without people like my dad as some go only for a day out, but if you go more constantly you can grow on the sport.” – Joshua, 13
“One of the main things I enjoy about the races is the social aspect, being able to go with friends or meeting new people with the same interests can make the day even more enjoyable. I also like being able to follow the horses, owners and trainers throughout different races and choosing a horse in the parade ring that I think will win the race, which adds to the excitement when you see the horses run.” – Jessica, 15
The honest truth of it is that racing is not going to appeal to every single child out there, but if there is even the slightest opportunity that a day at the races could spark a new craze for your child then surely it is worth giving it a go. With a visit to the races being so affordable for families, and with a vast majority of courses and days to visit, what is there to lose?
It changed my life, and it is a sport that will change the lives of many more to come after me. I really hope you will give it a go, and I hope you enjoy it.