With drunken brawls becoming more comonplace at UK race meets, Gina Clarke asks why.
A decade ago, chances are the words “a day at the races” would have conjured up images of smart suits, long frocks, and rubbing shoulders with royalty – not forgetting the hats of course! But the recent and depressing news of brawls at race meets mean that going to the races today is generally synonymous with having a punch-up or a doping scandal.
The days of race meetings being associated with a wallet full to bursting and a bucket of champagne appear to be long-gone, with recent events now taking revelers from pre-drinks in the paddock to cocaine in the toilets. Scenes of fighting have marred many UK races this season, with the biggest headline-inducing incident taking place at this year’s Goodwood meet. It’s impossible not to wonder whether the UK’s racing scene can recover its image and continue to keep its sponsors and owners.
A quick look at social media after a brawl at Goodwood involving some 50 people, shows comments such as: “The bouncers are completely outnumbered. If they started to kick people out for taking drugs, then there would be no one there!” And: “I used to work here ten years ago. People weren’t ashamed to participate in drugs. It wasn’t just in the toilets, and we couldn’t control it.”
And it’s not just Goodwood where drugs are prevalent; back in 2011, organizers of Royal Ascot installed drug amnesty boxes at the event following a rise in illicit substance abuse. The boxes sought to allow racegoers the opportunity to dispose of narcotics – no questions asked – before entering the race ground. Meanwhile, police patrolled the area with sniffer dogs to detect illegal substances within the grounds.
Fighting in suits
The latest blow to the sports previously glitzy reputation comes with news of another large-scale fight breaking out at Royal Ascot in Berkshire just last week. The incident occurred despite organizers’ promises of increased security following a similar disturbance at Cheltenham earlier this season. Footage of the fight shows smartly dressed men tussling whilst holding each other by the collar, with reports of around 30 people being involved in the episode. Although security personnel quickly removed the problem guests, the fight reportedly continued outside the venue. In my view, when men in suits start to fight, there really is something wrong in the world.
Arguably, this shift could be down to the prevalence of race tickets on discount apps such as Groupon, as well as the army of coaches that now arrive at the most prestigious venues. Haydock, in particular, has a reputation for catering to a huge number of coach parties on its high-summer Saturdays, where those aboard have been drinking way before they arrive and are determined to continue for as long as they can.
Newmarket’s July course and York also attract large numbers of coach parties to their Saturday cards, as do less high-profile venues like Thirsk and Ripon. Whilst, on the one hand, it is making the sport – and the experience – more accessible to a wider public, could it also be the reason behind the cheapening of the whole event? The issue seems more likely to originate from the general shift in drinking culture as a whole.
All day at the races
Going to the races is now an all-day affair that seems to start with drinking whilst getting ready and continuing when traveling to the event itself, meaning that even on arrival, punters could already be well over the acceptable limit – is it any wonder that a glass of fizz has lost its appeal? Add in the reportedly widespread use of drugs and high levels of tension over money being won and lost when betting, and it’s not surprising that it has ended up being the perfect storm for anti-social behavior.
It would seem the only way to get this downward trend under control would be for events to go back to basics and ensure that those attending are aware of the behavior expected of them – as well as the dress code – and adopt a zero-tolerance approach to anyone who does not comply with the rules. Luckily, this now seems to be on the cards. But if it isn’t, organizers are likely to face not only owners backing out of meets and horses potentially being pulled, but also sponsors dropping out and, most worryingly, the risk of alienating generations of racegoers who have regularly attended meets in the past.
After all, a day at the races is supposed to be fun for all involved, but as it stands, certain groups of revelers are making the experience hostile for others. And whilst cheaper ticket prices may be partially to blame, the wider drinking-culture issue contributes far more to this problem. If racegoers are not willing to accept that a certain level of correctness is expected of them, then perhaps they should desist and go to their local pub and watch the races there instead.