Mass brawls at British racecourses put Irish horse racing chiefs on their guard

Irish racing chiefs are wary of the type of unruly behaviour which has marred high profile meetings in the UK in recent years including at Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood
Mass brawls at British racecourses put Irish horse racing chiefs on their guard

A drug dog waits for the gates to open on the first day of Glorious Goodwood. Picture: Edward Whitaker

“Otherwise, nearly 7000 spectators enjoyed a fantastic day at Newmarket without incident,” said the spokesperson after racing at Newmarket last weekend.

The ‘incident’ was a 20-minute mass brawl that began in the betting ring after the Cambridgeshire last Saturday and reached a bloody conclusion in a grandstand bar.

Unfortunately for English racing, these occurrences are becoming as regular as petrol queues on garage forecourts.

For instance, The Ebor Handicap, the most lucrative Flat handicap in Europe, was the Saturday afternoon highlight of York’s recent autumn racing festival and it felt like another important milestone on the road back to normality.

The crowd was large, horses of the calibre of Snowfall, Winter Power, Mishriff and Stradivarius made magic on the track.

The sun even shone and all seemed well again on the covid-clobbered sunny uplands of British Flat racing.

Then, during the lead up to the Ebor, there was a peculiar timeout during the television coverage.

ITV inserted one of those illuminating ‘behind the scenes segments’ that tends to infiltrate their racing product these days. Presenter Oli Bell was reporting from the entrance gates as people streamed into the course. Next to him was a structure that looked like a cross between a refuse bin and a post box which, he explained, was in fact a ‘drugs amnesty box.’

Beyond it prowled an array of police constables restraining their enthusiastic sniffer dogs. This was the point of no return.

A last chance for racegoers to rid themselves of any illegal substances that might turn a spirited Saturday afternoon canter to the races into a long slow gallop through the criminal justice system.

There were eight of these highly trained and expensive dogs working at the racecourse that day, reported Bell. Reinforcement for the 44 police officers and the 150 specialist stewards brought in for the occasion, all supported remotely by 40 closed-circuit cameras. The considerable supplemental costs were borne by the racecourse, anxious to dampen down the growing tendency towards mischief and mayhem at high-profile British race meetings.

Bell concluded his piece in an upbeat tone. Like all this highly visible and invasive policing was a good thing, something to be proud of, security at its finest, enhancing the customer experience of a day at the races. In truth - it sounded surreal.

 

These measures are not being confined to horse racing. While abdicating any culpability for the high-summer lawlessness at Euro 2020 Wembley final, the FA were adamant to point out that the drunkenness, drugs and violence were societal, not sporting, problems and certainly not unique to soccer. Their explanation mirrored those offered by the BHA to explain mass brawls at Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood in recent years.

There is some truth in their claim. Almost 10% of people in Wales and England between ages 16 and 59 admitted to taking illegal drugs in 2019. Cannabis was the most popular substance followed next by cocaine.

In the 16-24 age group one in five were drug users. For horse racing this younger age group is a prime target market, vital to the replenishment of an ageing demographic of established racegoers. It is an awkward promotional conundrum for the sport.

The drive to attract younger, primarily urban based racegoers is causing disquiet among more traditional racegoers who frown on the noisy intrusion into their cherished pastime.

One experienced racegoer, who asked not to be named, had driven 250 miles to be at York on Ebor Saturday, but left the course after only the third race. He described his experience to The Irish Examiner.

“Having gone to every major Flat event in the UK it was by far the worst I have experienced in 25 years,” he said.

I highlighted to security that they were losing control of the situation at the bars inside, but it was the same outside so we just decided after the third race that we’d get out of there and get back into York.

“It wasn’t a pleasurable experience. It was an uncomfortable atmosphere.

“I didn’t personally witness anybody taking drugs to be honest,” he continued, “but I left before it had an opportunity to kick off.

“Gone are the days when people who took drugs are alienated within their social circle. Because the sport is trying to attract a younger clientele it’s natural that this is going to happen.”

This is the nub of the ‘tweed versus speed’ problem and things will not be easily resolved. The ‘old-schoolers’ believe the ubiquitous post-race summer pop concerts designed to attract the younger attendee are at the heart of the problem. Concert fans over-indulging through a long and boring opening show involving horses while they wait for the main event to begin.

The recent Champions Weekend was a significant milestone for Irish Flat racing and for our very own return to normality.

Lovely weather, sublime horseracing and the return of crowds, limited in number but plenty enough to raise much-missed cheers at Leopardstown and The Curragh.

Thankfully, there were no sniffer dogs at either venue and the security was low key and hardly noticeable. Like a good referee at a match. You’d be halfway home before you’d remember there’d been a man with a whistle in the middle.

But Ireland is not protected from the same shifts in British societal norms by some imaginary Irish Sea border. In the seven years to 2020 the number of people in Ireland seeking medical treatment for cocaine abuse has tripled and the median age of those seeking treatment is 30.

Pat Keogh, the former CEO at Leopardstown and who has recently stepped down from the same role at The Curragh, insists that he and his peers in the industry are awake to the challenges.

“I’m not stupid enough to think that you can cut it out altogether because drugs are endemic in society. All you can do is monitor and control it, try to stay on top of it,” says Keogh. 

Historically we have had few incidences, but we were reading that there were issues with cocaine so we asked Gardai from the drug squad to give us the benefit of their experience. To attend a meeting, look at the venue, give us advice on what we should be looking out for and what we should be doing.”

He describes how they use a key metric, the ratio of food to alcohol consumption, particularly during youth-centric promotions such as student days. Trying to ensure a balanced consumption. “If younger people enjoy their first experience of horse racing, then they are very likely to return. We need to get younger people coming racing,” says Keogh.

“For years the average age was getting older, but that’s changing now. HRI has a deliberate policy to encourage younger people.” 

Keogh doesn’t derive too much comfort from the theory that Ireland, with a more intimate relationship with the land and the horse will be fully insulated from a creeping decline in standards.

“I don’t think it is a huge factor and it would be a mistake to rest on that, to say we are not going to have a problem because of that,” he says. The best solution he thinks, may be much simpler and readily available.

“Your biggest defence on a racecourse are the people that are attending.

“You can have any number of security guards, but if you have members of the public who aren’t going to tolerate any messing it’s a great asset.”

Complacency would be a devious enemy to the relaxed experience of an Irish meeting. It would be a shame to look the other away for a while and then discover that there’s a yellow-vested dog sniffing you where the sun doesn’t shine.

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