'It can transform kids' lives' - the charity inspiring children through horses
Senior features writer Peter Thomas marks 20 years of Racing to School
A nice, grey-haired lady who looks like everybody's granny has noticed the children of Radnage Primary School on their big day out at Kempton and she's standing on the lawn watching them watching the third race from the upper tier of the grandstand.
In fairness, it's hard not to notice 21 full-of-beans kids aged nine and ten dressed in jockeys' silks as they march in unison around a low-key Monday meeting at the Sunbury venue, and as Nico de Boinville nudges Doddiethegreat into the lead in the home straight, anybody who hasn't been paying attention receives a vocal reminder of their presence. They'd collared Nico earlier as he walked the course, he'd stopped for a five-minute chat, so now he's their hero and they don't intend to let his victory go uncelebrated.
"They sound like a bunch of excited chickens," says the nice lady, with a twinkle in her eye that suggests she has similarly enthusiastic grandchildren.
It's a reaction that's mirrored around the racecourse as this remarkably tractable bunch of kids trot from weighing room to pre-parade to paddock to stands' rail. The demographic of midweek racing being what it is, there are plenty of indulgent grandparents smiling benevolently, plenty of older parents wishing their offspring had been this well behaved when they were that age. Every now and then, a disgruntled punter who's come here for a quiet day out – probably away from the grandkids – stalks off muttering about not being able to hear himself think, but mostly people are glad for the added hubbub on what would otherwise be a routinely sedate afternoon.
"What's not to like about it?" asks John Blake, chief executive of the Racing to School programme. "It's free, it's four or five hours in the fresh air, engaging with the curriculum in a fun and exciting way, so parents are certainly going to say yes before they say no to letting their kids come."
Inspiring young minds
Racing to School was set up 20 years ago as, in its own words, "an education charity that aims to inspire young minds through the provision of free, interactive and healthy outdoor educational events for schools, staged at a variety of racing venues". Under the umbrella of Racing Together, and its offshoots the Riders Programme and the Beacon Project, part of the broader plan is to steer engaged teenagers in the direction of jobs in the industry, but today is about Years 5 and 6 having a cracking day at the races, and in headteacher Sam Browne they have a fine mentor.
Mr Browne is not the kind of headteacher I had as a boy, but what he lacks in booming gravitas he more than makes up for in being younger, cooler and not having a cane. Despite the absence of corporal punishment, however, the Radnage boys and girls, after their 43-mile journey from Bucks, seem studious and 'with the programme'.
It's not surprising the head has chosen racing as a healthy educational tool for his charges, given his history with the sport. He grew up in Ascot and was an annual member for many years, and when he taught at a school in the town, he took the Year 6s to his local track as part of the same initiative. This is, perhaps, a labour of love for Mr Browne, but he met with precious little opposition.
"Parents didn't object at all," he says. "They saw it as a great opportunity for their children, and for me there were two obvious benefits: it was a great opportunity for us to bring the curriculum to life and make it clear why it's practical, but it was also a chance to showcase racing as a really important part of our culture, especially rural culture, which children don't get much exposure to or awareness of."
For Mr Browne, racing was part of his childhood landscape, and it's clearly something he's keen to champion as a positive influence.
"My mum was a chair of a local riding club, I was part of the Pony Club and I grew up with horses as a part of my life, so you could say I'm giving a little back," he explains. "I wanted to be a jockey but I weigh about 13 and a half stone at the moment, so it wasn't really an option, but I'm very passionate about sport generally and so I do try to promote it, because in small schools particularly it's hard to get a quality understanding of it."
It's this kind of enthusiasm that Blake is trying to harness as part of the game plan of a body that brings the knowledge of seasoned professionals to a novice's environment.
"Today is all about the main primary and secondary school programme, the bread and butter of what we do, with a lot of investment by the Levy Board," he begins. "Next year, after a dip during the pandemic, we'll be back to about 380 activity days and 16,000 children in total, at least three-quarters of which will be this kind of thing, but it all costs money. With a fair wind next year we'll be a £600,000 charity, but still the smallest in racing, so it's always a bit hand to mouth, but we're lucky that the sport engages hugely with what we do.
"When I took over six years ago, we were too modest and wouldn't speak of ourselves as a charity. Racecourses didn't contribute apart from giving us space – which is much appreciated – but now in a good year we'll get £30,000 or £40,000 from them combined, and most schools do donate, although they don't have to. We never asked before but now we have money to reinvest and bring in more schools."
'What we do can make a difference'
At the sharp end of the learning, in the front line as the children advance, are programme manager Ollie McPhail – who many of you will remember as a decent jump jockey back in the day – and Amanda Pettitt. McPhail is a 15-year veteran of the mission but Pettitt is a far more recent recruit, having joined earlier this year after leaving the sport but being drawn back into it. She's perhaps the perfect example of the irresistible lure that today may help to communicate.
"I worked for a couple of racing yards and then left to run my own nail bar from home, but ended up hating it and came back to the sport," she says. "Racing's a bug and once it gets you it's hard to stay away, and it can transform kids' lives.
"There was one lad we saw at Chepstow who was autistic and had bad grades at school, but he ended up in racing and now he's winning best-turned-out awards, so we know what we do can make a difference."
As she moulds an excited line of children into 'jockey shape' on the mechanical horse brought along as one of the stars of the show, we ponder which of the group may end up as either lifelong fans of the sport or part of the working fabric. Will it be one of the few who already have a background in ponies, perhaps the one who's proud to have already been bitten by a horse, or maybe somebody who is just getting the bug?
"Normally very few have been racing before," says McPhail, "but the feedback is always that they love seeing the horses, because it's not something they're exposed to. The teacher feedback usually starts out either positive or neutral, and after the day 90 per cent will say we've improved their understanding of horseracing, and when they know more about it they seem to like it more."
Diversity, equality and feminism
Today's group of 21 is small by normal standards – the next lot will number around 60 – but their enthusiasm is impressive, as they trot around the racecourse, peering through the doors of the weighing room (still off limits as part of Covid restrictions), visiting the pre-parade ring and the racecourse stables, where microchips are being checked and the vet is more than happy to explain the process.
On the track the interactive maths begins, with McPhail doing his best to elucidate on racing's use of the imperial system of weights and measures, which becomes more unfathomable the more he delves into it. To their credit, the kids don't glaze over as we get to one chain being the length of a cricket pitch and ten chains being a furlong, of which there are eight in a mile. Sadly for them, it makes the arithmetic more difficult, but they resist the temptation to campaign for a conversion to metric.
Today's curriculum doesn't involve a betting angle, so nobody has the chance to work out the winnings from an all-correct 10p win Yankee, but the sports element is about to get underway, once we've stood up close to the fences to demonstrate just what kind of equine athletes we're dealing with.
McPhail starts to assemble the Radnage runners on the start line for a foot race from the half-furlong pole, explaining handicapping, weight for age and the sex allowance along the way, but blotting his copybook by lining up the ten-year-olds in front of the nine-year-olds, until some bright spark points out the flaw in his system. The current BHA handicappers would seem to be safe in their jobs.
To any serious paddock watcher, Emilie (long legs, starting on the front row of the grid) looks the standout, and although poor old Max (marooned at the back) makes a bold bid to claw back the deficit, he runs out of time and distance. Sadly, no bookmakers had priced up the event, which goes down as another opportunity missed.
In charge of the group is Miss [Hayley] Clark – a native of Manitoba, more attuned to ice fishing and ice hockey than racing, but looking set to become one of McPhail's converts – ably assisted by Miss [Carina] Murray, who seems more surprised than some of the children as the action unfolds on the track but is learning all the time.
Alan King's Midnights Legacy is beaten at odds-on in the opening novice hurdle, but it turns out to be a perfect result to demonstrate racing's commitment to diversity and equality, with Bridget Andrews romping home by nine lengths on Jay Jay Reilly, riding on level terms with the men. When she comes out to sign autographs, she is in line to become the sport's newest feminist icon, although the kids don't seem all that concerned about such agendas.
Miss Murray is intrigued to see Fearless Fracas galloping a circuit and a half of his own volition after unseating Tom Scudamore at the first fence in the 2m4f novice chase (albeit missing out the fences), and the excited chickens give him a little cheer as he passes the post some way behind Brief Ambition and Connor Brace. The loudest clucking, though, is reserved for Doddiethegreat and De Boinville, another who gives freely of his time to sign racecards afterwards.
Sadly, school pick-up time dictates that the visitors have to be back on their minibus before Andrews completes her double on Rockstar Ronnie, but lessons have been learned and fun has been had, so everybody leaves satisfied with a good day's work and racing's reputation seems to have been burnished in the eyes of the uninitiated.
'We feel we ticked all the boxes'
As the school minibus is pointed in the direction of Radnage, the average age of the Kempton crowd shoots skyward and the volume plummets to standard Monday afternoon levels. Year 5 and Year 6 have done themselves proud and livened up the day no end, for all but the incurable curmudgeons, and Blake has another positive note to strike for racing's future.
"Covid slowed us down," he admits, "but we hope to reach our 200,000th child in February or March – sadly we ran out of meetings to make it coincide with our 20th anniversary. We did National Racehorse Week, to get kids off the racecourse and into racing yards, and they loved it. We showed them how much the horses were loved, they had a whale of a time and were learning all the way, so the schools were happy, too, and we feel we ticked all the boxes.
"We're not here to solve racing's recruitment problem, though, no matter how sympathetic we are to it, so our first responsibility is to give them an authentic, curriculum-aligned education day that they enjoy and the teachers endorse and want to do again.
"Anything that comes after that is a bonus, but of course we do want other things to come after that, we do want to get them to come racing again. We're like matchmakers, telling the racecourses that they can speak to these youngsters and their families and get them coming back."
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