Indulge in some people-watching on any of the late trains out of Cheltenham during festival week and you’ll soon begin to codify your fellow travellers into one of three general types.
Firstly, there’s the ‘ardent few’ sitting quietly and staring intently at a mobile device, oblivious to all that is going on around them. Like a serious golfer, they know that the only shot to matter is the next one and they are already waist deep into tomorrow’s card.
Among them are the “merry day trippers” returning home from an infrequent racetrack visit. Only moderately interested in horses, the objectives of their excursion are conviviality and fun and they cheerily pass the journey with embellished tales of derring-do in the betting ring or of some hilariously tipsy escapade in the Guinness enclosure.
Type three are the “menacing chanters”. Well suited young men, travelling in packs, congregating at the carriage doors, drinking unwisely, joking lewdly, vomiting intermittently, slagging incessantly and often chanting menacingly.
Horseracing as a sport is unimportant to most of them but it conveniently provides a sparsely policed sporting arena which is for unregulated mischief and mayhem.
This “type three” racegoer is quickly becoming an uncomfortably prominent and increasingly serious threat to the wellbeing of the British horse racing brand.
Beyond the narrow confines of the thoroughbred industry, the recurring narrative of the 2018 flat racing season has been an epidemic of hooliganism at racecourses.
Filmed fights are immediately amplified by wide social media circulation and the inevitable second wave frenzy of tabloid outrage.
This week’s threat of violence moves to leafy Berkshire, into the very heart of the finest fashion and social extravaganzas of the year at Royal Ascot, the most prestigious race meeting in Britain. Concerns have been growing that the carefully nurtured reputation of the meeting could be badly damaged by an outbreak of thuggery at the track.
Three hundred thousand souls will turn up at Ascot this week and, as usual, the three types of racegoer will be well represented. But this week they will be joined by a fourth who won’t be travelling on trains or buses with boxes of strong lager and buckets of cheap wine under the seats.
Type four will be driven up the centre of the track before racing in gleaming coaches drawn by shining horses. The presence of The Royal Family, including the glamorous new addition, guarantee that the eyes if the world are on Ascot and there is a profound sense of anxiety among the course executives, the police and the British Horseracing Authority that the most emblematic flat meeting of the season could be infected by the anarchy that has emerged in recent months. Their foreboding is understandable.
The most notorious incident so far this season came at a Goodwood in May. Under blue Sussex skies on manicured lawns amid a throng of Panama hats and stripey blazers, 50 men fought a pitched battle with fearsome levels of unrestrained aggression.
One heroic warrior was filmed mercilessly kicking a prone, unconscious victim in the head with force and accuracy. Employing legendary British under-statement, a BHA spokesperson later remarked that “incidents such as those at the weekend cast the sport in a poor light and will cause understandable concern to those who are considering a day at the races.”
There have been similar ugly incidents at many other courses. At remote and picturesque Hexham, normally one of the most tranquil courses in England, racegoers have been ejected for brawling. A drug pusher was apprehended recently at Musselburgh for attempting to smuggle three grams of cocaine into the track, this just a day after a racegoer had been arrested at another Scottish track, Kelso, in possession of eleven packages of the same class A substance.
Musselburgh CEO Bill Farnsworth told the Racing Post: “The guy was caught trying to bring in the drugs under his arm. There were a lot of sniffer dogs at the track and a big police presence as we need to try to control this problem. It’s bad enough that people try to bring in drugs for personal use, but more worrying is the danger that dealers will try to get in to sell the stuff. We must do everything we can to try to stop that.
Farnsworth is articulating the underlying terror in the sport that significant amounts of cocaine are now being blended with the usual over-indulgence in alcohol at race meetings and this is eliminating normal behavioural boundaries. For instance, nine people were arrested on Derby day at Epsom and several of these arrest were for drug possession. A British newspaper recently swabbed common areas at York and Newbury and found residues of cocaine at both locations.
The Ascot authorities know they haven’t got a hope of either finding or fixing the root cause of the societal problem that is causing young men to go nuts at race meetings, so this week their strategy is one of containment. While everybody admires the graceful royal swans gliding over the lush Ascot surface, beneath the water hundreds of security personnel will be paddling furiously to prevent things getting out of hand, especially as the unpleasantness could easily occur in the royal family’s line of sight.
Speaking last week, the Ascot chief executive, Guy Henderson, was oddly matter-of-fact when outlining a stringent crowd control policy.
Every year as part of our preparations for Royal Ascot,” he said, “we review our security measures alongside our expert partners. We want all guests to feel comforted and reassured and we believe that the combination of armed police, patrol dogs and high-level security will provide this.
What this means at ground level is that there will be 20 sniffer dogs on duty in all sections of the track, including the elite Royal enclosure. Racegoers who give any indication that they have overindulged on the journey to Ascot will be breathalysed at the turnstiles and refused admission if found to be over the limit. The ‘behavioural management’ plan also includes a high-visibility response team of more than 100 stewards, supported by a large undercover team of specialist ‘incident spotters’.
Their specific job is to mingle unobtrusively among the ‘type-three’ attendees and direct the security forces to where the chanting is beginning to become menacing and where there is a likelihood of imminent trouble.
This all paints a bleak and incongruous landscape for a week that should only be about horses and, love it or hate it, the accompanying fashion, celebrity and royal circus. There is bound to be a host of great racing stories to be told, maybe even starting today with the Ken Condon small stable tilt at glory with Romanised at the St James Palace Stakes.
But all this sporting goodness will be lost to the front pages as soon as some young man in suit throws a punch and a jug of Pimms goes flying. Her Majesty would certainly not be amused.