Raceline turf blog: Was the Newmarket crowd sub-par?

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SO, is 8,510 an acceptable attendance for a day’s racing of the calibre that Newmarket hosted last Saturday?

Yes, says the course, who point to a 16 per cent increase on last year’s figure, which any track would be delighted with.

No, say the scribes at the ‘Racing Post’ where Lee Mottershead reckons the figure shows that Newmarket has “a serious problem” and Alastair Down suggests the track is declining “in terms of public esteem and affection”.

In recent years, Down has never wasted a chance to ridicule Newmarket for its attendances. So given the glaring absence of constructive ideas for improvement, his views are easily disregarded.

But the debate over the appeal of Newmarket’s Cambridgeshire meeting is one worth having. As is that over crowd figures for racing in general at HQ’s two courses.

Uneniable was the quality of racing offered last Saturday and, indeed, over all three days of the meeting. The programme was bristling with fascinating Pattern contests, competitive handicaps and informative maidens.

Yet it is equally undeniable that an attendance of 8.510 is small fry compared to those at other Grade One tracks, like Ascot and York, where such fare would tempt crowds in excess of 25,000. What’s more, Newmarket has proved itself capable of attracting in the region of 15,000 for 2,000 Guineas Day in May.

However, are there not genuine reasons for this disparity? Are we expecting too much of the Rowley Mile course, given the size of the town, its geographical location and the sheer volume of racing rammed down the throats of its tiny population?

Unlike most Grade One tracks, Newmarket sits in an area of the country not blessed with urban sprawl. In the middle of nowhere, it could be said. And that makes it an unattractive destination for racegoers, whether by car or by public transport.

Drive and you are likely to face a lengthy journey before encountering traffic travails on a road network not built to handle congestion. Travel by public transport and the complications multiply.

The nearest city is Cambridge. Yet transport links between there and Newmarket leave much to be desired. To travel to Newmarket from London by train necessitates a change at Cambridge, followed by an unreliable, irregular service to a station still so far away from the course that another bus or taxi journey is required. And all that’s before you’ve thought about how to get home.

Staying over might be a better, if more expensive, option., But the number, and quality, of many of the hotels both in Newmarket and Cambridge leave much to be desired. If they’re not fully booked, they’ve bumped up the prices to unrealistic levels.

All this means Newmarket, not unlike many rural racetracks, must rely mostly on its locals for support. But when a course stages no fewer than 38 racedays, crammed into six months, is it any wonder that those locals choose to spread their support thinly?

Furthermore is it not asking too much of locals, many of whom are employed within the racing industry, to spend their leisure time at events that have the sight and sound of busman’s holidays?

Considering all these factors, perhaps a crowd of 8,510 for last Saturday’s card, in the middle of an economic downturn, was not too bad. After all, it represents about half the size of the town’s population and at a track that is also racing this coming Saturday, the following one and twice more before this Flat season is out.

It needs to be asked too whether criticism of Newmarket’s attendances is particularly timely. For tracks such as Ascot, Cheltenham and Goodwood are introducing policies to REDUCE their capacities at major meetings to prevent overcrowding and to recognise spectator comfort. The aforementioned Down is right when he says the Rowley Mile “feels seriously empty” when not many turn up. But equally, the interior of its stands can feel decidedly ill-equipped when packed, especially on the upper level of the Premier Enclosure.

Overcrowding at Doncaster’s St Leger Day last month was uncomfortable enough to put off newcomers to the sport going racing for the rest of their lives. Yet there remains this media-led notion that unless a fixture has attracted a big crowd, it cannot be fun or the racing must be rubbish.

The reality, as Newmarket proved last weekend, is quite the opposite. The three days were both enjoyable and satisfied the need to provide the best of UK Flat racing.

The task for the course’s executive now is to get that message across to a few more people. Which, I suspect, will mean a radical overhaul of their marketing and promotional strategy, particularly in the local area.

The presence of wonderhorse FRANKEL, who worked on the track ahead of his farewell appearance at Ascot later this month, superseded such a strategy last Saturday. But given that anyone interested has already seen Sir Henry Cecil’s unbeaten colt in the flesh and that workouts are, to the layman, as dull as they are meaningless, his appearance was never likely to boost the crowd too much. Certainly not by the “thousands” that the misguided Alistair Whitehouse-Jones told readers of the ‘Racing Post Weekender’ on the eve of the meeting.

I have every faith in Newmarket getting things right. Both the Rowley Mile and the July Course are expertly managed.

I just hope and pray that in an artificial attempt at inflating attendances, they don’t go down the route of staging music concerts or gimmicky sideshows at their major meetings, such as the Cambridgeshire and also the July Meeting, where crowds are also smaller than ideal.

Concerts are established as a way of filling the coffers of racetracks to subsidise the cost of facilities and prize-money. But they should not be used, as as happened at Newbury this year, to upstage or undermine days of quality racing. On such days, the racing should sing for itself as a product that the tracks should be capable of selling to the public.

TURFBLOG IS SUPPLIED BY SCOOP RACING (RICHARD SILVERWOOD).