WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE HALCYON DAYS OF BIG RACE CROWDS?

SPECIAL occasions aside - like the MELBOURNE CUP - whatever happened to the good old days when racing played the Pied Piper and like the rats of Hamelin thousands of punters would religiously flock to racetracks across the land most Saturdays of the year?

It wasn’t as though the masses gave up chasing their weekly fix on the punt. All that has changed is the venue. I was one of those who deserted the track preferring to join my mates at the local club or pub and sometimes just as content to watch the races in the comfort of my own home.

Live coverage on Sky Channel and Racing.com has taken us into a new age of horse racing and has, in the process, produced a new breed of punter, many of whom prefer to bet with the cashed-up predative corporate than the traditional on course-bookie.It could not have happened at a worse time for race clubs that were already struggling to compete in the lucrative leisure and entertainment market.

From my perspective much had changed during the few years that I had spent working overseas, largely in Hong Kong. On returning to home soil I tried resurrecting the good times enjoyed with my close group of friends for so long at the local track but the majority had moved on and the scene was by no means the same.

I was immediately astonished by the dwindling crowds that now attended what you would call a run-of-the-mill Saturday metropolitan meeting. In fact, on many occasions, you could arguably have fired a canon in the betting ring and not risked hitting anyone.

Another thing I noticed was that the new breed of punter was content to crowd around big screens to watch the action rather than take up vantage points in the grandstand. The irony of this being that most of the time they couldn’t hear a thing.

My mates urged me to get with the times and join them at the local. I tried it and grew to like it – with a few exceptions that I will deal with later. But I was determined to venture back to the track on  a ‘big day’ to see if things were different then.

It was different alright – the crowd was a lot younger than I had expected but seemed more intent on ‘winning on’ than ‘backing winners.’ It was all a bit much for me. This wasn't about celebrating special occasion race meetings like the Cup - it was more about getting drunk and spoiling a Day at the Races that had become a tradition for the older generation. 

As I battled my way out of the track through a parade of young men and women struggling to stay on their feet after enjoying a few dozen too many, I was saddened to think whatever had happened to this wonderful place that had provided me with so many great memories.

What if I had been the dad of that pretty young thing, unable to stand, her dress hoisted up around her neck as a young beau carried her off the track over his shoulder? Not likely, I thought with a wry smile, if it was my Chelsea she would probably be carrying him out.

Back then she was going through the ‘ring and stud’ faze. Every week a new one seemed to appear – out of the nose, the side of the lip and then on the tongue. I remember asking her brother, Oscar, where she was going to put one next. ‘Don’t ask Dad?’ came the reply. “Chel’s got them in places you don’t want to know about!’

All of a sudden the reality hit home. I was getting old – perhaps a little boring – but had racing left me so far behind that I should retire to the local or even fear to venture from my living room for a punt each Saturday?

It had me worried and I put my friends through the second degree on why they didn’t go to the track any more. Their reasoning made sense. Let’s face it the races have to be the only place where you pay for the privilege of going through the gate to lose your money. And add to that the exorbitant prices charged for food and drink, along with the cost of getting a cab home, if you want to enjoy a good time. It’s something that doesn’t happen at your local club where you can dress less formally, enjoy cheaper food and booze and they will even provide you with a free bus home after the last.

But the local club can have its drawbacks as well. Unless it has a dedicated TAB area there is always the over-lapping problem of trying to be too many things to too many people. Is there anything worse than the din of patrons in one area trying to watch the rugby league, Aussie Rules and racing on three big screens all in close proximity? End result – nobody hears anything.

Segregation is needed for a Saturday afternoon success story and perhaps that is the answer to the problem of older patrons refusing to go to the races because they feel their space is being invaded by the younger brigade. Why not provide separate areas for like-minded people – surely the racecourses and grandstands are big enough to achieve this. Melbourne Cup Day, Exhibition Day, Young Members' Days - all those meetings that attract the younger generation on rare occasions to the track need to survive but not at a cost of driving the regulars away.

The bottom line is that racing can ill-afford to lose another generation of young racegoers, even if it means some ‘oldies’ refuse to return to the track. Perhaps it depends on their circumstances.

I remember the time when my then wife Sheila and I were living in Brisbane. We took her parents, Harry and Hilda, to the races. They were bush royalty back home and rarely ventured to the city but had travelled their prize bull, Black Pete, to compete at the Exhibition.

He was Harry’s pride and joy, winning an endless array of blue ribbons and show champion awards, apparently because he had this enormous set of balls, which sounded like a lot of bull…. to me – especially when Harry repeatedly discussed Pete’s breeding prowess at the dinner table.

Harry and Hilda loved the races and hadn’t been to the Ekka meeting for ages. Were they in for a surprise? It was now one the most popular ‘young’ race days of the year and rivaled even the Stradbroke for crowd numbers, which topped the 20,000-mark.

The downside of the day for Hilda was when she headed to the ladies only to be confronted by champagne flutes flying through the air and tipsy young things discussing the appendage of the guy they most wanted to bed down later that evening. To cap things off when she finally retreated to the safeness of her cubicle Hilda found that she had lowered her big torso onto a toilet seat covered with glad-rap. Harry at least had a few dozen scotches aboard before he re-joined us and copped Hilda’s wrath.

That might be drawing a long bow on the behavior of most youngsters having a day at the races but conservatives like Harry and Hilda will forever see this as an intrusion on their turf.

The constant argument is that the younger brigade tends to drink and party rather than punt. It happens at big meetings all over the world. But most officials will tell you that their ‘drinking’ is worth a motza to the club.

Whatever it takes this is a race for the lost generation. Racing has to do something to get young people back to the track. If this wonderful sport is to survive we have to be more understanding of their right to enjoy themselves providing they don’t get too carried away. The answer certainly does not lie in Government legislation forbidding anyone under the age of 18 from stepping onto a racetrack. We need to encourage families (and that means their kids as well) to enjoy a day at the races.

But enough of the political speeches and back to my own dilemma of whether to go to the races, join my friends at the club, or simply avoid the hassles and punt at home alone. Well I tried the latter for a few weeks and that wasn’t the answer either.

I settled back with a pie and a pot for an afternoon on the punt. I tuned into RSN on my trusty computer to get the best tips in the land from Victoria's Dean Lester (always a good place to start). Bring on the races. They did, but with it came the source of what started out as an annoyance, but eventually drove me crazy.

Trying to watch TV in the comfort of your lounge room can be as annoying as going to the races. Inundated with advertisements for corporate bookies - on Racing.com there must be over a hundred of these some Saturdays. If that isn't enough you have the Bull Pen when 'three stooges' from the corporate bookies give their intimate knowledge of the betting action. One isn't enough - they need three - largely because Racing.com, funded by the industry in Victoria, relies on these corporate parasites to survive. So not only do you have to be up with an array of ex-football stars and retired top jockeys trying to be TV personalities but there is this annoying 'sell' of incentives to make you bet with the promise of 'bonus' bets if you happen to lose. The sting in the tail of those is enough to make a hardened punter sick.

No matter what channel you flick to the talking heads drive you crazy. On one broadcaster I discovered this dapper little chap who seemed to know what he was talking about but had one unfortunate downfall. He refused to shut up and continued to treat me like the village idiot. I nick-named him MB – Mute Button – which I found was the quickest solution to his incessant chattering.

Here I was – home alone at the races – watching the action without any sound just turning it on to hear the calls and giving the telephone account a good workout. Oh for the days of Bert Bryant and Peeping Pete – now that was entertainment.

Dean’s tips on the Victorian racing were fine as usual but I kept jumping the wrong way and by the end of the day had managed to all but empty the TAB account. The main meetings were over. How could I get out of trouble – heaven forbid trying my luck at the red-hots or the dishlickers?

There was always the desperados get-out, the Toowoomba twilights but that was being dominated this day by a rising star whose runners seemed to always be odds-on. I’ll just have my last fifty bucks on the favorite in the second. It was from that stable winning everything at the moment and was well into the red before they jumped.

Alas it led to the last bound and was beaten on the line – time to curl up with a bottle of red and watch my old favorite George make me laugh on another repeat episode of Seinfeld.

But before I could get to the remote control and change the channel on came that annoying ad – ‘Do you know that 70 per cent of men suffer from erectile dysfunction?’ It was all I needed. I had just done my backside and now they were telling me I had a one in seven chance of not being able to get it up. That probably doesn’t matter as long as I can replenish supplies or rob the Piggy Bank in time to have a bet on the Cup on Tuesday.

UNTIL NEXT TIME THIS IS GODFREY SMITH SAYING GOOD LUCK, GOOD PUNTING, GOOD HEALTH AND GOD BLESS.

 

 

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