By Tony Stafford
Two years ago on a Friday night at Newmarket, I struggled to try to see why people wanted to flock to see Tom Jones. OK he did the odd song from the 60’s, but was more intent on plugging the stuff he does nowadays.
Last Friday night he was back, watched by 22,000 generally worshiping fans, and once again it was principally a set of “newies”, generally derivative stuff, but still admired and enjoyed by the bulk of the attendance.
There’s an economic necessity for racecourses to try to pack them in and with more than double the Saturday crowd that saw the July Cup on the third day of the recent July meeting on the track, Newmarket clearly have got something right.
I say “something” advisedly. It was certainly not running the July Cup on a Saturday, or even the stopgap Friday that first broke up the traditional Tuesday to Thursday structure. When they moved that race to Saturday, the argument was that we had to put on the biggest races at the ideal time for the benefit of OVERSEAS punters.
Last month the off-course major bookies finally gave the lie to that received wisdom, providing figures that showed the preponderance of major races in a narrow time-frame on a Saturday, actually reduced betting activity.
I doubt many of the people that organise race programmes have ever been such nutty punters as I was for most of my life. You went in at the start of play, had a bet, waited for the next race, and it was helpful if you were able to collect any winnings in the interim.
Three meetings, ten minutes apart, was the ideal. Even that, with a three-mile chase for instance, was pushing it, for the ordinary betting-shop punter. Major races five minutes apart at five English tracks, topped up by one or two from Ireland, is simply a case of overkill.
Newmarket, though, have their Friday nights, thanks to the far-sightedness of their former (many years ago) clerk of the course Nick Lees, who happily is still running Leicester with great skill.
To see the crowd gathering under the stage from the fourth race on is testimony to Nick’s foresight, and the fact that Premier tickets for Tom went for as much as £40 a shot shows just how much they are making.
I’ve checked on this Friday when Dizzee Rascal – think he’s from Hackney, though I’ve never seen him round the café of a morning, maybe 7 a.m.’s a bit early for him – will be a target for slightly younger racegoers and music buffs.
He’s actually a cheapie, just £35, but Newmarket’s new-found economic hardball shows up in that maximum of two under 16’s are allowed at £17 a shot. If you’ve three or more kids you’ll need another adult at the full monty.
I thought it would be good to go a little down the scale. The Grandstand may seem potentially a cheaper option, and it is, at £30 a throw, but still the £17 for under 16’s. If you want to be in what Newmarket calls the family enclosure, down by the furlong pole where the kids’ playground is, that’s £23, and no mention of kids’ tickets. Maybe the grown-ups get to use the swings?
So let’s try to be objective. Reckon half the crowd – and there were very few youngsters in attendance on Friday – might have paid for Grandstand, and the other half, two to three Premier against Family. I calculate they could have collected around £700,000 for the night.
Then Newmarket are very shrewd where the bars were concerned. More than once racegoers were encouraged NOT to rush off after Tom’s stint ended – he eventually got round to Delilah at which point I left – but “avoid the queues out of the car parks as the bars and other catering points stay open for another 90 minutes”.
So we’re probably talking about a £1 million operation on the day. In that context, even with Sir Tom pocketing say a quarter of a million, a kernel of what passes for the new hardball approach was the treatment of at least one owner. He arrived at the track – so I understand – at 6.10 p.m. ten minutes after his trainer had withdrawn his horse from its race.
Newmarket’s new policy is to withdraw the standard offer of a meal to the owner in question in such circumstances. As I’ve stated before in this column, the food there, especially the ham, is very nice. But it’s hardly a banquet, and probably costs the track a couple of quid tops to provide. The owner has had to pay to make entries and declarations, and travel to the track, where he would probably buy drinks. In mitigation to him and his trainer, they would almost certainly have wanted to run had the ground been anything other than very fast.
Many other trainers have seen fit to take horses out around the country during the hot weather, legions of them in Goodwood’s opener, the Stewards’ Cup consolation on Saturday. Oh and by the way what was that all about? You can’t call the Stewards’ Cup the Stewards’ Cup anymore. Like the Saturday July Cup and Ebor, it’s just another ravage of important aspects of our racing heritage.
As to Newmarket, to say they are short-sighted is an under-statement. That owner and possibly his friends and the trainer concerned might well start to boycott the place. There is a precedent for that. About three years ago my wife and her friend, over from Russia, came with me on a Friday night.
We had owners badges, but a hawk-eyed jobs-worth on the gate noticed the two ladies were wearing jeans, albeit quite expensive designer ones, and said they could not go into Members. Despite the embarrassment of one of the bosses, who’s not there anymore, we all left and had a nice enough meal at a pizza place in Cambridge. I’ve given up asking her to return there.
Surely racing – especially tracks which take so much for relatively little – cannot afford such cavalier alienation of its key component – the owners.