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David Ashforth: Ten tips for first-time racegoers

Racegoers cheer at the start of the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham in March 2017
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First published on April 26, 2010


This week, from Monday to Saturday, nine racecourses, from Goodwood in the south to Sedgefield in the north, are offering free admission. There is a rich variety to choose from – on the Flat and over jumps, at big, prestigious racecourses like Ascot and smaller, more modest ones, like Huntingdon; racing on Kempton’s and Wolverhampton’s allweather tracks as well as on traditional turf. There is something for everyone to sample, but all have the appeal of horses and the excitement of races at their heart. If this will be your first visit to a racecourse, whichever one you choose, here are ten tips to help make the experience more enjoyable

1. Debate the umbrella. Then leave it in the car. If you do, it will, of course, rain, leading to recriminations and a further debate about whether or not to get wet going back to the car. Fortunately, most activities can be undertaken from the shelter of the grandstand and carrying an umbrella is more of a hindrance than a help. With big screens and multiple televisions now commonplace, binoculars are also non-essential. However, some racecourses do have dress codes. Better check on their websites.

2. Set off in good time. This reduces the chance of adding three penalty points to your driving licence. Also, it’s nice to arrive in time to a) eat and drink without rushing; b) see the horses; c) back the winner. With experience you will find that, if you get there in time for the first race, you will back a loser and that, if you miss the first race, the winner is the one you would have backed. That’s the way life is. On balance, it’s better not to miss the first.

3. Get a Racing Post. I would say that, wouldn’t I, but if you are going to experience the experience properly, you need to have the sport’s daily newspaper. It is full of information, a good way of getting into the day’s racing and might make you feel as if you know what you are doing, even if you don’t. It’s worth having a go at studying the form of the horses even though many students will set off home poorer than when they arrived demonstrating that, contrary to what your teachers told you, study is not always rewarded.

4. Watch the horses in the parade ring. Horses are magnificent-looking creatures and this is a fantastic opportunity to see them close-up. To look professional, lean on the parade ring rail and follow each horse with as knowing a look as you can muster. Make illegible notes in your racecard. You could also try expressing an opinion, such as, “he’s a bit straight in front”, or “what a fetlock!” Clues can be gained from watching horses before they go to the start. Bad signs include heavy sweating, being very fat and refusing to allow the jockey to get on. Good signs include walking alertly and flaunting a wellmuscled body.

5. Watch the horses go down to the start. They are attractive athletes and look good cantering down the track. Some move better than others. Check that the horse you fancy arrives safely, travelling neither too quickly (galloping out of control), nor too slowly (standing still). Ideally, a horse should be relaxed, amenable and easy moving. Then, if it is a Flat race, it is time to watch them being loaded into the starting stalls. Hopefully yours isn’t the one that won’t go in.

Having a bet at the races is part of the fun
6. Have a bet. This is part of the fun. Place a bet with one of the bookmakers in the betting ring, whose prices are displayed on a board or with the Tote, at one of their kiosks. The Tote Placepot is well worth trying. You have to pick a horse that finishes placed (usually, but not always, meaning in the first three) in each of the first six races. You will soon thrill to the experience of having a horse placed in each of the first five races – but not in the sixth. Sometimes, your selection in the first race will not be placed but all your selections in the other five races will be. What fun!

7. Stand by the running rail during a race. If it is a Flat fixture walk down the track a little and watch. At a jump meeting, stand near a fence or hurdle. You will get a sense of the horses’ physical power, of the speed and energy, of the noise as horses jump the obstacle and of the jockeys’ urgency and competitiveness. It is an experience you can get only by being close-up.

8. Study the racecourse characters. Familiarising yourself with the jockeys, trainers, racehorse owners and stable staff, as well as the horses, is part of the pleasure. Every social class and personality type is represented – millionaires and paupers, reserved and flamboyant, stoical and hysterical, at work and play. Don’t forget to watch the characters in the betting ring, the bookmakers and punters. There are some interesting sights there, too.

9. Celebrate a win (hope springs eternal). Losing is commonplace, winning is rare and therefore worth celebrating. This may mean leaping up and down and yelling or tapping your neighbour on the shoulder and quietly saying: “I’ve just won £500. Have you?” Buy people drinks. They like that. Try to avoid the conviction that it is easy and the first thing you are going to do when you get home is resign from work.

10. Leave. Hopefully in a good mood. Going racing is almost always an enjoyable experience. It it also a very varied one so, if you have enjoyed your debut, consider trying other racecourses as well as returning to the one you have just visited.


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Horses are magnificent-looking creatures and this is a fantastic opportunity to see them close-up
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