Galway's Festival will require a lot of stamina...

Satisfying The Modern Racegoer: A Rant

I’m not an occasional racegoer, writes Tony Keenan. In 2015, I went to 35 race meetings – 14 at Leopardstown, 9 at the Curragh, three at Galway, two at Naas and Killarney, one each at Down Royal, Dundalk, Fairyhouse, Gowran Park and Navan. And that was a down year for me compared with the last decade so I feel well qualified to answer the question: what does the modern racegoer want?

I don’t go racing to get a betting edge; if I wanted that I would stay at home. I go racing because I like live sport and the ‘meeting’ part of the races; I enjoy shouting one home, discussing racing with other punters, having a drink, a cup of coffee or something to eat. I’m going to go racing regularly this year again as the positives outweigh the negatives but there are aspects of the raceday experience that frustrate me.

Attending the last two days of Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival was the spur for this article.  It’s the track I attended most last year and I rate it about the best in Ireland but there were a few things that weren’t right last week and I wasn’t alone in this belief judging by the reaction online. Chief among them was ticket prices. The course were charging €30 per day and got plenty of blowback about this; I realise this is a relative pittance compared to UK prices where it was £50 for premier admission on King George and £30 is a pretty standard fee into good Saturday fixtures like Cheltenham on Trials Day and the Clarence House Chase at Ascot this month. By Irish ticket prices, €30 is relatively expensive, that figure only really reached on Derby Day and a few of the big events at Galway. For instance, it’s €20 into the Irish Champion Hurdle, €15 for the Thyestes and the same for Punchestown Sundays.

Enough nit-picking about prices though. Ten euro here or there isn’t the main issue and Irish racegoers should count themselves lucky when they think of their UK counterparts. There are more important things that need to be sorted.

  1. Food and Drink

I have no problem paying high-end prices for a drink at the races; I do have a massive problem with piss-poor service in delivery of said drinks. Some tracks get it right, Galway standing out; they always have plenty of staff that are polite and efficient. Wags could point out that’s because it’s more a drinking festival than a racing one but the point is they get the job done.

The Curragh, where I’ve been a member for years, is the worst and it’s not even close. I’ve had a drink in about every bar on the course and there have been as many bad experiences as good ones. The staff are either woefully inexperienced and know nothing about the running of a bar or are gruff and more interested in picking out selections for their Lucky 15s than serving punters.

All the same comments apply to food service and one area where tracks constantly fall down is staffing for the big days; they simply do not seem to get that they will have more customers and the systems that work fine on an average day are now stressed to breaking point. Again, the Curragh fall down here – I’ve been in the self-service restaurant where they’ve run out of potatoes after the first race.

The quality of food at racetracks is a constant irritant to anyone who has even a passing interest in good quality cuisine. Fast food, and generally bad fast food, is the norm and while some argue that you get no better at a concert or a GAA match that doesn’t mean racing shouldn’t aspire to a higher standard. In any case a race meeting is an entirely different event; instead of the action taking place over a prolonged period it happens in short bursts with ample time for standing around in between.

It’s not impossible to have semi-decent food at a racetrack – Leopardstown did a good line in tapas for a while a few summers back but it seemed not to catch on – and the same thoughts apply to coffee. We live in a coffee culture now where people are more discerning and serving them up coloured hot water just won’t cut it.

One final thing on staff: could they please be nicer to older customers? I’ve seen many instances of rudeness to older racegoers (men, really) when they are the very people who have kept tracks going in terms of attendance over the years. All the clichés apply here – ‘it’s their only social outlet’, etc. – but there’s truth in them and they are an important group at the track that need to be catered for.

 

  1. Viewing

Every track in the land should have a big screen, no ifs or buts and that’s regardless of whether there are two meetings on that day. The action can take place more than half a mile away from the stands and binoculars are becoming more fashion throwback than racecourse essential so punters need to see. And the feed to the screen should be in time with the live action; some tracks have seen delays of as many as four or five seconds lately which defeats the purpose.

An even better solution than a big screen would be the use of hanging TV sets in the stand as seen at a track like Navan. They take some capital outlay but provide a crisp picture, superior to the big screen. Banks of TVs should also be used efficiently within the stands and enclosures, showing all the action from other tracks and sporting events. Racegoers are sports fans and don’t just turn off their interests as they come through the gate; expecting them to locate the one TV in the corner of a bar on the second floor that is showing the action they want to see isn’t right.

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  1. Technology

A small request would be for racecourses to provide banks of mobile phone chargers at a point or two within the course; not plugs now, actual different chargers for various phones. I’ve seen this at AT&T Park in San Francisco and it works really well [the clue may be in the name there! Ed.].

The main issue at any track however is Wi-Fi provision and the sooner it gets sorted the better. Bookmakers, journalists and track workers are already using it and people have just come to expect it at venues now. It’s particularly important at some rural tracks where phone coverage can be patchy.

The counter-argument to this will obviously come from the on-course bookmakers. They would argue that racecourses would be simply playing into the hands of offshore layers that don’t give back to the game. But it’s too late for this; everyone is doing it anyway. I have some sympathy for on-course bookies, out in all weathers and often facing tepid trade, but they’re akin to horse and carriage taxi drivers in the first days of the motor car. The show has simply left town here and they did enjoy the good times for quite a while with their excessive margins. Anyway, this is not a debate on the morality of bookmaker contributions to racing but what the modern racegoer wants.

 

  1. Parking and Freedom of Movement

Parking at racetracks should be free; that’s a pointed comment intended for Galway which is the only course in Ireland that charges customers to leave their car. It should also be in the same parish as the track; yes Leopardstown, that’s you with your overflow carpark halfway down the M5o.

While I acknowledge the need tracks have to extract top dollar from corporate clients, one irritant over the Christmas Festival at Leopardstown was that large portions of the track were closed off to the normal racegoer. UK racegoers may be well used to this but in Ireland there has always been a more egalitarian feel to the tracks; no special enclosures, everyone pays the same price in, people can go where they like within reason. This has long been one of the great attractions of Irish racecourses – I’ve watched many a race beside big owners and trainers like Michael O’Leary and Willie Mullins – and to get rid of this would be wrong.

 

  1. Toblerone Women

People who have never been racing in Ireland will be reading this title and wonder what is he talking about; those who have will be smiling or perhaps grimacing. Regular Irish racegoers will be familiar with these harpies invading your personal space in the carparks before and after meetings, whether it is trying to fence you a racecard or ram a bag of rotten fruit down your throat. If a racegoer wants to buy a racecard surely within the track is the place to get it; that way the money will actually go to the course.

That’s not even to mention the ubiquitous Toblerones, more prevalent at racetracks than any airport duty free; they may be on sale for a fraction of the airport cost but on your own head be it if you buy as you’ll be pestered to buy more from now to eternity. There’s an argument that the Toblerone women provide ‘colour’ at race meetings but in truth they’re a nuisance and racecourses would do themselves and their customers a favour by getting rid of these leeches.

- Tony Keenan

What are your main bugbears at the track, Irish or UK? Leave a comment and let us know.

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18 replies
  1. BRian Farrow says:

    My gripes are:
    1. Racecourses do not keep racegoers fully informed of delays to racing.
    2. The persistent bucket rattlers for charities, that goes on throughout the whole race meeting.
    3. Poor quality of drinks and food. Service is often very poor.
    4. High cost of racecards and entrance fees.
    5. Late arrival of horses into the parade ring.

  2. David Varnam says:

    A great article Tony with so many of your arrows hitting the various targets!

    Parking and entry costs? This is a perennial peeve of mine. In the USA, where I lived for 10 years, the tracks often charge a minimal entry fee and parking is free.
    How do they manage this? Probably because the grandstands are full of slot machines. Racecourse owners should take a trip into any high-street betting shop. The profit comes from their gaming machines, not the betting. Did you notice how the bookies squealed when the government raised the tax on these FOBT’s (Fixed Odds Betting Terminals), predicting that without these machines many bookie shops would close?

    An insightful article on FOBT’s can be found here:

    http://www.stopthefobts.org/what-are-fobts/

    Once again, good work Tony. 🙂

    David

  3. tigerking says:

    what gets me is i like my £5 e/w treble i never do favorites i go for value as it soon mounts up and you can make a nice little earner just on the places . if they win is a bonus. like on the 4th of December did my same thing £5 e/w treble Vision des champs won 11/1 Antony won 14/1 Mr Fickle won 11/2 total return £5977.68 have a copy of the ticket in front of me i have two points to make here even if all 3 had got placed would of made £117.68 profit not bad for £10 stake . i only go for value and 3 places what gets me angry and i lost just under £500 last week when they pulled an extra horse out mine came third so i lost as it went to two places. why can we not have reserve horses like they do in Ireland it unfair pulling horses out at the last minute normally when most the bets have been put on for the day .and it happens to often. but i like my e/w trebles so will plug on as usual .

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Hi Robert

      I’m afraid the reserves are only eligible to run until about 10am. After that, non-runners reduce the field size, just the same as here.

      Well done on your treble – nice work!

      Matt

  4. Jeff Walton says:

    Horse racing is a newish pastime for me as working all my life seemed to make it difficult to attend regularly.However,now retired I attend whenever possible in Yorkshire where I live.My biggest problem is the constant procession of drunks that can be seen,especially on sunny days, who seem only interested in sitting in groups,blocking the exits and being generally raucous for their own selfish ends.I also find the culture of dropping slips,glasses,bottles a disgrace.Last year at the Grand National meeting I even saw a group surrounding a man so that he could urinate int a glass which he then poured out onto the grass for others to walk through.Great article and thanks for being honest.

  5. Chris says:

    I went to Newbury for the first time as an owner last week (and my horse won!) but the explanation at the gate to me about the facilities available was nil. Yes, I should have asked but it is their responsibility. The courtesy of the staff everywhere was outstanding though, except in the Owners and Trainers bar!.
    As a punter, I firmly believe that entry should include a racecard, at the high prices charged.
    Tracks failure to attract someone like me, a life long racing follower, shows how poorly their ‘marketing’ and facilities have done for decades. I’ve preferred to watch on TV or not at all because the experience is usually an endurance test rather than a pleasure.

  6. Martin Harrington says:

    I was at the York Ebor meeting this year and leaving the racecourse was a disaster.
    I know officious car parking attendants can be a pain especially when they act like they are directing air traffic but when they are not there chaos reigns.
    There was at least 15 different lines of traffic all targetting one exit point with cars joining from all manner of different directions.
    A complete nightmare!

  7. nickmra1 says:

    Entry Fees: The associated arrogance of the main courses when it comes to ticket prices is breath-taking. For the same money as a Cheltenham ticket I can travel by train to London, see Kenneth Branagh and Judy Dench in a play and return; or I can take a train to Gatwick and fly to Spain for Lunch, eat and return. That makes their pricing comparatively ludicrous. The fall-back position will of course be a comparison to a football match, where of course you need a season ticket. However even buying a ST and attending only Home Games would still cost less than £70 on average for 80 minutes of premier action. (Source: tinyurl.com/zgjt9es) compared to a six race NH card with an average run time of 5 minutes per race.
    HOWEVER……. Only two or three racecourses within JCR actually make money and without the Levy and The Basic Daily Rate most courses would cease trading.
    Food and Drink: The biggest issue is the amount charged by The Racecourse to the Caterers for the Concession often around 20%. Add to that the required ROI needed on the Capital Investment by the caterers into new stands, kitchens etc etc and agency staff costs and you get the following from a £2 cup of tea served in a plastic cup. £2 less 20% VAT =£1.67. Deduct 20% Catering commission = £1.39. Deduct Staff costs (approx. 37½%) – £1.01. Deduct 20p Tea Bag, Milk, Sugar, Cup = £0.80 Deduct 15% of Net (1.67) for Repayment of Capital costs leaving 58p to run the company, run the contract, pay for operating costs etc. In brief, if the caterers make 12½% profit its been a tremendous year. There is no sensible solution that any racecourse has thought of other than York (some of the worst food I’ve ever had) with its reputation for cheap Champagne and Ludlow, which just does it consistently well and very simply.
    Technology: Couldn’t agree more. Free Wifi is a must.
    Car Parking: Must be Free – but as importantly accessible. Cheltenham’s ridiculous new parking system and Newbury’s determination to send everyone down to Auchtermuchty via Cornwall is a nonsense
    Floggers: It is not beyond the wit of man to ban all Touts regardless of whether they’re offering bent tickets, dodgy chocs or Lucky Roadside Gorse – especially those looking like extras from Les Miserables!

  8. alpha2 says:

    Too true Tony, my particular bugbear is the lack of training for staff where pouring a pint or operating a till seem to be a foreign concept to young people who have been hired to carry out that very function.

    The most blatant idiocy I have seen recently was at the Friday of the Amlin Chase at Sandown where with a traditional NH audience of perhaps 75% men and 75% over 45 the management had seen fit to install a boyband in the premier section of grandstand hall drowning out announcements and other meeting commentary between races with music that no-one wanted to hear. I didn’t see anyone ‘getting down’

  9. Joe says:

    Tony,

    Some excellent points which you’ve hit right on the money.
    I too have been going to Leopardstown regularly for over 25yrs (since I was a wee lad) and my biggest issue is with the lay out of the main hall and betting shop. It’s so poor you cannot move in the place, the experience is really uncomfortable.
    I found this at Cheltenham too on the open Saturday.
    Leopardstown needs a massive overhaul in layout to accommodate the big crowds and keep the punters coming back.
    I won’t even get started on bar service at tracks irish or UK as it’s beyond a joke!

    Joe

  10. steve says:

    Tony
    Great article. I’m UK based, mature in age and an enthusiast – I have been to every UK course at least once, and most of Irish courses – many as an owner. Standards vary enormously, but I think overall the Ireland experience is much better than in England.
    For me the biggest negative about UK racing is the weekend coach parties of drinkers – often in fancy dress – on a day out. Behaviour is often awful. For example Ascot make you wear a tie but it is OK to have your trousers round your ankles and to engage in group chanting. The new Newbury offers parking further out than the 4 furlong marker pole, asks top prices and offers a 200 yard queue to pay exorbitant admission prices. Smaller courses generally do much better than that.
    In Ireland, I have found behaviour on course to be so much better. Most racegoers are interested in the racing and significantly less yob factor prevalent. Food I would say is much better too. A cooked roast dinner might be 12 Euro – eg Sligo – nothing like that at the price in England. The bookmakers percentages are greater in Ireland, but the overall racecourse experience is so much better. Discounted admission cost for us over 65s is very rare in England.
    Well done for setting out your views in this way – I have given feedback to courses before but it is generally ignored….
    Steve

  11. bob mc coubrey says:

    i think Down Royal get a lot of these things right . one thing i would like to see is someone giving live commentary in the parade ring – explaining type of race, where horse/trainer has travelled from,any interesting info about jockeys or owners – anything that will get casual racegoers more interested in the sport.

    • buckieboy says:

      You make a good point, Bob; my partner had never been racing and only came because I had a horse making it’s debut, but she later admitted that she had found it interesting because of the knowledge I could offer.
      I think today, as a result of infotainment, a lot of people are looking for the combo of racing background info and gossip – something that will make a story and a memory – to be gained from their day out.

  12. Nakedneck says:

    Brilliant article Tony you have opened a can of worms here a lot of these have been ongoing for many a year and the majority have been written above – drunks, prices, parking, entry fees I think there are a million and one things that need altering to make it more attractive for race goers. Why can’t they introduce a day meeting that also holds an evening card? Some of the suggestions above are quite exceptional maybe Matt can forward these on?

  13. Peter Bell says:

    Parking in the centre of the course at Royal Ascot this year was £30 – a complete rip off, where the gateman asking for it were embarrassed and knew it was wrong.

    It would be marginally cheaper for me to go to the course by train, though it takes longer and I’d have to go in and then out of London. Unless you’re Sheikh Mohammed and get a helicopter in and out, those are the only realistic ways to get there, so they’ve got you by the short and curlies and are going to leverage this position until your pips squeak, it appears.

  14. Pat says:

    Now that HRI are funding racecourses again for millions is it not too much to expect that each track be in a position to provide hi speed internet/wi fi coverage with mobile charging points.
    It’s 2016 after all.

  15. Liam says:

    I endorse everything you wrote Tony. I’ve been on most tracks in both Ireland and the UK over the years, and I’ve vowed – One of my New Year resolutions is never to go racing again.

    Over-priced entry fees, bad food, bad service, bad mannered staff, bad toilet facilities, bad communications, ie bad customer service and the parasite’s stuck in your face from as far as half a mile away from the track – enough is enough – I guess I was just a slow learner!

    My last visit to a track was to Punchestown’s 2015 festival where you couldn’t even get a copy of the Racing Post, but yet I could be offered race cards, entrance tickets etc before I even had time to get out of the car.

    Will the powers that be listen to what their customers needs are?

    As of now I don’t really care, I won’t be back.

    Ps
    Thank God CH4 is leaving as well!

  16. Eddie says:

    Great article.
    Re Leopardstown I am a top level seat holder to best enjoy the big days.
    My bug bears are the fact the members’ car park is too small for busy race days and not on hadrcore surface but grass so was quite slippery on wet days. The coffee bar top level is just too slow and the prices for sandwiches etc exhorbitant.
    Also top level you cannot get soup anymore though the sea food chowder was good value to be fair.
    Finally they have halved the size of the gents so more queues !
    In essence top level patrons ideally travel by chauffeur, have all ablutions well done before leaving home and abstain from all liquid refreshment while on course.
    Alas I am a country boy so I drive, enjoy soup and enjoy a tea or five, Barrys of course to” turn the moment gold” !

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