Zero tolerance on drug use, ‘spotters’ patrolling bars and extra security staff in hi-viz jackets will be among the protocols in place at Newbury on Saturday afternoon, as one of the course’s most prestigious fixtures takes place with as much focus on the possibility of anti-social behaviour in the enclosures as there is on the action on the track.
High-profile brawls at Goodwood and Ascot over the last two weekends, footage of which has been widely shared on social media, will ensure that Saturday’s Lockinge Stakes meeting will be closely scrutinised for any hint of trouble. Serious disturbance at a racecourse on consecutive Saturdays can be seen as a wake-up call for the sport. Three in a row could suggest that the situation is already getting out of control.
Many of Britain’s biggest tracks, on the Flat in particular, have concentrated their marketing efforts on Saturday cards in recent years as they look to bring a fresh audience to the sport. Two of the summer’s biggest festival meetings, at York and Newmarket, have shifted from a Friday finish to conclude on Saturday – controversially so in the case of Newmarket’s July meeting, as its new slot was already occupied by big days at York, Chester and Ascot.
It has worked, with tracks seeing big surges in attendance, from organised coach parties in particular. But in the country with a deep-seated drinking culture, there are many who intend, and expect, to drink all day, and some racecourses at least have been accused of chasing the profit from alcohol sales too aggressively and turning a blind eye to the possible consequences.
Newbury is, in a sense, paying the price for events at tracks beyond their control, involving spectators who have probably never been to Newbury and never will. Yet a brief clip of brawling at Ascot last weekend was streamed more than a million times on Twitter. It falls to Newbury to convince all those who watched it that violence – drunken, drug-fuelled or both – is not a standard part of the Saturday racing experience.
The track has had a heightened awareness of the potential for trouble in a big racecourse crowd since July 2012, when a pre-planned brawl between rival football fans from Swansea and Cardiff erupted on a lawn near the main grandstand. About 50 men were involved in the fighting and four were subsequently convicted of affray.
“Newbury has done a lot over the last few years since that trouble in terms of implementing measures to try to prevent any forms of anti-social behaviour,” Harriet Collins, Newbury’s head of communications, said this week. “It is preventative measures which are really important. Things like bar-spotters are really helping and have been in place for a couple of years. They are experienced and they cover all the bars, looking for the early signs of anti-social behaviour.
“They speak to the bar staff to see if there is anyone they are uncomfortable about, they assess those situations and if they are concerned then they will contact security. We are also being very diligent in terms of assessing possible weak spots around the course, where we perhaps need more high-viz security.”
The possibility that the use of illegal drugs, and cocaine in particular, might be fuelling recent outbreaks of violence at racecourses is also being addressed. In the aftermath of the disturbances over the last two weekends, anecdotal evidence on social media and internet forums has suggested that cocaine use on courses is increasing at some tracks, with long queues for the mens’ toilets highlighted as evidence of the problem.
“We always assess the challenges of each raceday on a case-by-case basis,” Julian Thick, Newbury’s chief executive, said this week, “and give thorough consideration to any additional factors in the build-up to each raceday. As is the case across all our major fixtures, we will have sniffer dogs, drug amnesty bins and bag searches in operation across all our entrances on Saturday and an increased number of security staff wearing high-visibility clothing throughout the site.”
Collins confirms that Newbury operates a “zero tolerance” policy on illegal drugs. “We won’t accept it,” she said. “If there are signs of it, people will be asked to leave and escorted out if necessary. That’s why we have the sniffer dogs and amnesty bins and if that also means having security going in [to the toilets] then that’s what we will do.”
Racing is Britain’s second-biggest spectator sport with almost 6m paying fans annually, and effectively the biggest from the middle of May until the start of the new football season. Every Saturday from now until the beginning of August will stage at least one, and possibly two or three, meetings with a five-figure crowd, and John Smith’s Day at York in mid-July will be one of the biggest.
In the past, it has been an afternoon with a reputation for heavy drinking in a crowd that can reach 40,000, more than double the number that attended any of the three days of the course’s Dante meeting this week. John Smith’s will sponsor the card for the 59th time this year – it is the longest continuous sponsorship in the sport – and in the days when the brewer had an extensive network of ‘tied’ pubs across the north, many would organise a coach party to York for an annual day out.
The feature race is a handicap, making it a day for punters as much as purists, and coach parties still account for a substantial proportion of the crowd on what is usually York’s biggest day of the year in terms of attendance. Managing such a big crowd is always a challenge, but as William Derby, York’s chief executive, pointed out this week, “last year on John Smith’s day, we had 38,000 people here and not a single arrest”.
The course’s procedures on big summer Saturdays have developed over time, and Derby insists that York remains “vigilant and never complacent‚“ having also introduced police sniffer dogs to the security set-up in recent years.
“We employ drugs dogs as a deterrent,” Derby said, “and we’ve used social media extensively in recent years to make it very obvious that if you come to York with drugs, we will have dogs to greet you at the entrance.
“We are aware of the issue with toilets so we send police into the toilets, and as with the alcohol side, it’s not something that we’ve woken up to two weeks ago. It’s been an ongoing, detailed programme in conjunction with North Yorkshire police so every dog will have two officers with it. The main thing is that it’s a deterrent, but it sets a standard and people will be caught.”
Drunkenness and anti-social behaviour on racecourses is hardly a new phenomenon. When Sandown Park, near Esher in Surrey, opened in 1875, it was the first track in Britain to charge a fee for admission. It did so as a reaction to events like the annual free-for-all at Epsom on Derby day, where contemporary reports and paintings such as Frith’s Derby Day from the mid-1850s depict wholesale debauchery at an event that drew hundreds of thousands to the Surrey Downs.
Derby Day on 2 June will again draw a huge crowd to Epsom in a fortnight’s time, but this weekend the focus will be squarely on Newbury as racing hopes to show that the scenes at Goodwood and Ascot were an aberration and not a trend.
“You’ve got to be diligent and careful, but you’ve got to be positive about it as well,” Collins said. “We assess the potential issues at every raceday well in advance, and we decided many weeks ago, for instance, that we would not be showing the FA Cup Final on Saturday [which starts 10 minutes before Newbury’s last race.]
“We want everyone to come and have a really enjoyable day and so we’re doing all we can. We’re looking forward to it. It’s going to be a really good day.”