When you join the Racegoers’ Club, you are sent a nice badge and a nice membership booklet full of nice admission discounts for all the racecourses.
At Christmas time, you can send off for a nice Racegoers’ Club diary and an even nicer Racegoers’ Club calendar. You can even go on nice stable tours and join nice owners’ clubs.
It is an undeniably nice and noble organisation, boasting thousands of contented members.
But strip away the veneer of smashing, great niceness and do you find the teeth and the nous to fight for those members when the voices and views of racegoers need to be heard? And if not, why not?
The question is raised in the wake of the decision to run next year’s Grand National at tea-time. At 5.15 pm to be exact, in a bid to increase its TV audience and raise its profile.
The announcement released a tidal wave of media coverage, opinion and PR guff, but not one mention of the consideration of racegoers. Not one mention of the logistical problems that will be caused by extending the meeting to 6.10 pm (the time of the final race) for the thousands who make the annual pilgrimage to Liverpool from all corners of the country by train on Grand National Day. Not one mention of how tricky it can be to get home by train from that part of the country on a Saturday night. One celebrated columnist reckoned racegoers wouldn’t even notice the new start time. Cocooned in his ivory-tower of a Press box, how would he know?
For all I know, the Racegoers’ Club might well have been involved in consultations with Aintree and might well be beavering away behind the scenes on any number of issues that smother our sport. If so, I apologise. Conversely, the Racegoers’ Club might argue that its role is not that of a pressure group or lobby organisation. But if that’s the case, then who does steer the racegoers’ ship on racing’s rough sea of change?
When tracks erect music-concert stages that block the view of racing, who sings the complaints of racegoers?
When courses charge £5 for racecards, as Sandown did on Tingle Creek day two weeks ago, who publishes the gripes of racegoers?
When tracks omit fences or hurdles because of low sun, reducing to farce races they have studied, paid to watch and paid to bet on, who jumps up and down on behalf of racegoers?
When courses offer late discounts for meetings after loyal regulars have already bought their tickets at full price, who balances the books for racegoers?
When tracks insist on telling us how to dress when we attend meetings, who wears the trousers for racegoers?
To most of the stakeholders in the sport, namely the BHA and RCA officials, the owners, the trainers, the jockeys, the bookmakers, the media, these might seem trivial grievances barely worth entertaining.
But they are the grievances of an army of enthusiasts without whom racing would quickly pull up lame. Whether they be supporters of their small, local track or dedicated purists who trek the length and breadth of the country following the sport they love.
Let’s just consider Grand National Day 2016 for the train traveller in a little more detail. They have chosen rail to avoid the traffic chaos and so they can have a drink or two. By the time the last race has run, they must wend and weave their way out of the course and cross the road to join the enormous queues for trains from Aintree station back to the city. After a 20-minute journey to Liverpool Central, they face a ten-minute walk to the main rail hub at Lime Street.
I would estimate that even if things go to plan, it will be around 7.30 before they get there. The last train from Lime Street to London on a Saturday night is 7.48 pm. Miss that and you don’t get home until the next morning. And that’s to the country’s capital city. Imagine how inflated such problems are if your destination is a more obscure city or town.
The Tea-Time Grand National threatens to force racegoers to leave after the big race and miss the last, or stay overnight on Merseyside. In other words, refrain from getting your money’s worth (a decent ticket costs £99) or fork out the extortionate prices charged by hotels on such a big day.
The tea-time experiment may well achieve its laudable aims. It may well multiply Channel 4 viewing figures, bump up bookmakers’ turnover and send interest in the race soaring through the roof.
However, it is also symptomatic of a disconcerting trend that ignores the views of racegoers and takes their support for granted. There should be a body, a structure or a formula that enables racegoers to contribute. Now that really would be nice.