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The Changing Landscape

Good morning all,

My thoughts on falling attendances and the reaosns behind it on today's Punt, plus one from Worcester tonight.

For a while now, I’ve done the odd piece on diminishing crowds, and the reasons I feel have been behind it. We can point to Covid and the cost of living crisis being part of the reason and that is undoubtedly true, but what it does is mask the fact that attendances have been on the slide for some time.

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I think the first time I really noticed it this year was the Cheltenham April meeting. You can guarantee a crowd of around 10-11k for both days every year -indeed, the last time crowds were at the fixture in 2019, it was 11k on the Wednesday and almost 12k on the Thursday, but this year it felt very, very quiet. And I was right, it was – 6,500 on the Wednesday and 6,600 on the Thursday. That’s some drop off. Then came the Hunter Chase night, and I worked on the bottom rail, the one near the horsewalk. It was as quiet a night as I have known at Cheltenham. 14,634 back in 2019, down to 8,900 this year. I didn’t take 150 bets all night.

Newmarket, mid-April, was down from an average of 5,520 in 2019 over the three days to just 3,031 this year. We’re still waiting for the official figures for Guineas weekend but I can tell you now they will be down. York last week, well, I worked all three days and frankly it was as if they hadn’t opened the gates on the Wednesday. Things were slightly better on the Thursday and again on the Friday but well down on what would be expected.

York, as I have said before, is the blueprint every track should aspire to. You could buy a badge for the three days that would cost you between £60-80 (depending on when you bought it) for three days of top-class racing. Neither are you overcharged for food and drink once you’re in. If York can’t get a crowd, what hope is there for the rest of the tracks this summer?

The mantra being echoed around a fortnight ago was, “well, let’s see what the summer brings.” I’ll tell you now what it will bring – attendances well down, 30%-40% will be the norm, if not worse at some tracks. Things need to change, now, not in a month, not in a week – if the tracks want it to.

It is STILL far too expensive to go racing midweek. ARC have, to some extent, realised that putting their prices up earlier in the year has backfired. Who the hell wants to pay in excess of £20 to watch what the likes of Worcester is going to put on, when you could pay that to watch York? You know what you should pay midweek for any fixture where the crowd will be less than a thousand? In my opinion, a fiver, particularly now when runners are low.

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And courses need to start taking cash. The majority that come in the week are those with time on their hands, and that means the elderly. Many simply don’t have cards or are reluctant to use them. If you have cash, then rolling up and paying a fiver makes a day at the races far more appealing. Have a look at this tweet from @BettingWally earlier in the week;

“I’ve just turned up at Brighton and it’s card only on the gate. I had to pay on my card for a pensioner (who’d travelled down from London) and he gave me the cash otherwise he wasn’t going to get in. Joke.” You can see the problem.

We’ve been over racecourse food and drink so many times on the Punt that I’m fed up of saying it. At the majority of tracks it is too expensive, with a few notable exceptions. We now have ARC charging you 50p (non-refundable) for a plain, plastic pint holder at their tracks, a massive joke. Yes, it’s reusable but something costing about two pence to make and marked up to 50p to sell to customers if they want a pint really is taking the mick. Almost Ryanair territory, that.

With Britbet/RGT taking over from the AGT at the end of August, it almost certainly means the beginning of the end for on-course bookmakers, as Britbet will want all the best sites for their own pitches. Whatever your views on the books, it’ll mean a colourless, boring ring.

The more you look at the whole situation the more it appears to me that customers are now a nuisance to the tracks, and the bookmakers not far behind. Media rights are now the main moneymaker for the tracks, and the revenue from punters just a mere irrelevance. If the punters and bookmakers weren’t there, would the tracks miss them? I suggest not, and as attendances continue to fall, and parts of tracks continue to be closed off (as I write this, the main stand at Wolverhampton isn’t in operation today due to low ticket sales, and last Saturday the Lawn Enclosure at Doncaster was similarly shut) the tracks will only keep pushing customers away, unless they really are serious about things changing, of course – in which case, action needs taking now.

Today at Worcester I like Serjeant Painter in the first at Worcester, the 5.15. A field of thoroughly exposed individuals, Serjeant Painter, whilst not bred for the job, has enough size about him and I don't think the yard would be wasting their time with him over the bigger obstacles unless he'd schooled well enough. He was consistent last year and I suspect he can make a winning start over fences today.

Good luck with all your bets today,

David.

15 thoughts on “The Changing Landscape”

  1. I take your points on overcharging both on entry and hospitality. This Country never learns and has it’s rightful nickname rip off Britain. It just can’t carry on, they will eventually price themselves out of the market, it’s just unbridled greed.

  2. £5 admission Midweek £10 Saturdays – Classics G1 ETC £20 Max.
    Target the Grey Pound Midweek Pensioners Free on Certain Days promotions it worked at Pontefract . Separate enclosures for Over 60s Week-ends.
    Food Drink Tea Coffee Capped maximum prices Midweek i.e £2 coffee/ Tea Sandwich – Meal deal etc. Beer / Lager capped @ £5 per pint still think that price is outrageous.
    All this if the courses want people on site Nobody knows only the courses themselves – Arc have made there stand hence why i wont go to Southwell anymore unless things change .

  3. Agree with everything you say I was at Wolverhampton yesterday we were sent upstairs as downstairs was closed due to a corporate event whatever that is! Some of the older generation had problems accessing the stairs because the lift has been broken for weeks I had to help one chap down the stairs to have a bet and help one get up,he’d sat down on the steps and he couldn’t move without assistance!Only 4 books in attendance as well,they don’t want us.

  4. Hi David I must agree whole hearted with you I sell the post at a few tracks it’s like trying to flog a dead horse the older brigade aren’t coming racing and the younger brigade just want to get pissed I fear for our future in that’s progress you can keep it I think they are all watching on tv for 25 a month

  5. I couldn’t agree more Dave, myself and a mate are frequent visitors as members to Windsor on Monday nights.

    Last Monday neither of us had remembered to pick up a Racing Post, never mind we thought we’ll buy one at the track. No RP stand outside, hasn’t been one yet this season. You can buy them from the desk where they sell race cards we were told. The ladies on the desk said they were sold out, they had only had 6 copies anyway.

    We then thought we’d have a cup of tea in the members. This has moved 3 times in the last few years. It used to be a nice permanent marquee with lawn outside near the finishing line selling everything one could want, this is now a champagne and snack bar, no tea, coffee or draft beers. Predictably empty nowadays. Tea is too downmarket I presume.

    The next members room was a windowless box under the main stand where one made one’s own tea. Soulless and miserable though it was at least you could get a cuppa. However when we went there the members had moved yet again and is now in the front of the main stand with a reserved outside seating area as well, a great improvement on the windowless box.

    Unfortunately the sole staff member appeared to not only have had a charisma bypass but also appeared to find tea and a half of cider a completely new concept. The tea in a large cardboard cup was about 3 times as much as the teabag could cope wit, particularly as the milk was sloshed in by the staff hand. The half of cider was half a bitter because “they only have cider in bottles”.

    This sort of totally under-trained staff who appear to have had no previous acquaintance with customer service is a problem not just at Windsor but all the courses I go to nowadays.

    Also the member’s outside seating was those composite seat and table timber picnic sets, ok if maintained but these have obviously been moved from years of service in the public enclosures and were in a sorry state.

    Almost every time I go racing now I am shocked by the lack of value and apparent carelessness when it comes to training and basic customer service. There are always lots of friendly ancient retainers around on the gates etc who are great but the racecourse catering is often just hopeless.

    The brochures and marketing gets ever glossier and the product delivered is in tawdry decline.

  6. Great piece totally agree with everything you have said.
    I forecast this a long while ago but find Arena are no different from many businesses who merrily put prices up then complain sales are down.
    I also think that some of the scenes of drunks fighting puts people off. Having acts on after racing is another thin g that isnt helping.
    The power that be need to take a long hard look at whats happening.

  7. A few years ago there was a move to open courses for free.
    I would seem that this idea has now bee scrapped.
    What do you and others feel to the idea of free admissions.
    e

  8. Hi John they could certainly let pensioners in mid week for free after all they would’ve genuine racing fans who actually want to watch the racing and not find the nearest bar

  9. I’m glad Dave has raised the issue of falling attendances.

    The plenty of reasons why attendances are on a steep decline. I won’t go into all of them in this post as some commentators have already mentioned them. For me there are two standouts. The first is one of the sports own making and the other is out of its hands.

    A card not cash policy at what will soon be 80% of racecourses doesn’t help. It doesn’t particularly concern me but for others it’s a big issue. What seemed like a temporary restriction due to Covid seems to have morphed into something permanent?

    Many people like to pay for things in cash rather than card and it’s for a myriad of reasons. These unnecessary restrictions don’t help attendance figures and they impact on the number the walk up customers, as we saw at York last week.

    We are seeing inflation rates higher than for a generation.

    Will people be able to afford to go racing if inflation starts to squeeze people’s disposable income?

    Are the attendance figures mentioned above indicating that people are starting to tighten their belts?

    The answer is yes to both.

    Now this isn’t something that’s going to be restricted to horse racing. The whole hospitality and entertainment industries going to feel the pinch. Any leisure money people have to spend will be on spent on the events that offer them the most value for money. Can the sport really say it’s offering that now?

  10. It’s all a bit deja vu isn’t it?
    Racing is where the dogs were 40 years ago & we know how that turned out. Tracks only still in existence to provide tv coverage for the bookies shop & online feeds & crowds that barely exist.

    I was at Nottingham on Tuesday. Special occasion so I forked out for hospitality.
    85 quid per person for an OKish 3 course meal (small portions) & afternoon tea.
    After handing over that amount of money drinks were extra. 6 quid for a bog standard pint of cider.

    At Nottingham. On a Tuesday. Jesus.
    I also had to lend my radar key to a bloke in a wheelchair as the disabled toilet in the grandstand was locked & there were no staff around.
    Plenty of Showsec security though, probably a dozen for a day with a minimal attendance & 80% of the crowd aged over 50.

    As someone else has said, the cost of living crisis hasn’t really started yet. It’ll hit high gear in October when the next energy price increase kicks in & the weather turns cold. Then we’ll see the real disasters.

    I’ve said for a few years now that racing is doomed. I’m 57, which makes me the average age for a UK racing fan/customer. Thats not sustainable for any industry. Add in the financial crisis looming plus the lunatic fringe of the animal welfare lobby who won’t rest until the entire sport is banned outright, thousands thrown out of work & every race horse in the country put down (for it’s own good of course) & I think 20 years is probably the most we can hope for before the jumps is banned & another 15 or so for the flat. I hope I don’t live to see it to be honest.

    & that timeframe might need revising depending on what horrors the gambling review throws up.
    We have a government that panders to the views of people who have passionate opinions about things they know nothing about & is desperate to do something that appears on the surface to be caring (apparently ALL gamblers are problem gamblers & we need to be handheld & controlled because some bloke from somewhere put his gas bill money in an online slot)

    We’re on borrowed time. Enjoy it while it lasts.

  11. So so so true and look at all the comments. It agree with all said in the above. Let’s hope we turn a corner on this very straight loooooong road.

  12. Hi David -always enjoy your column as someone who started working in betting shops as an underage boardman back in 1965 and eventually a shop owner the changes in that time have been unreal -but not all for the good back then shops were mobbed 90+ % of business was horses and dogs only one dog meeting 2 horses 3/4 on a saturday.and the average punter age then was 50+ .Fifty years on they have all disappeared for obvious reasons to be replaced by a much smaller younger audience whos main interest is football and gaming machines .with a knock on effect to racecourses resulting in the smaller customer base.;the entry cost may be part of the reason but that does not seem to be a problem with football stadiums charging astronomical sums -maybe the product has become too diluted 6-7 midweek fixtures in the summer vying for the support of a diminishing horse population and for less prize money than 20 years ago .Most people have access to on line sites so combine that with t.v. coverage of £25 a month to watch every race it probably costs more to actually get to a course without entrance fees on top and catering.so it’s little wonder that we are seeing such a decline.Maybe free or cheap entry and a tote monopoly (sorry Dave) but it does work in Hong Kong is the way forward

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