Racing’s dress code needs to loosen its ties to tradition
The Thursday column
The best sight of the week was George Baker enjoying a day at Goodwood four months after a horrific fall at St Moritz left him with a brain injury.
The widely-respected jockey has a long way to go in his rehabilitation, aided by the wonderful people and facilities at Oaksey House, but it was great to see him smiling in the company of his fellow jockeys.
Less marvellous was his mention of the fact that he was nearly denied entry to the course because he wasn’t wearing a tie on that sun-kissed summer afternoon.
Now obviously no blame can be attached to the racecourse employee who attempted to block Baker’s progress. They cannot be expected to identify all jockeys in case they spot a case for special dispensation and they were just enforcing the rules.
But the rules can absolutely be subject to scrutiny. I was at Goodwood last month and it was almost perfect. The view from the main stand, north across the Downs, was as stunning as ever, and from the back of the building you could look down on the paddock and out across verdant farmland to the shimmering sea beyond.
The weather was gorgeous and there was ample room to move. It was Goodwood at its most glorious.
But if you wanted to experience the meeting in the best enclosure, the Richmond, you had to wear a jacket and tie, and there was no relaxation of the rule even as the temperature rose from warm to hot.
I asked one senior member of the racecourse management whether there was any chance we might be able to remove our ties but was told it was not permissible. “There are two other enclosures people can go to if they don’t want to wear a tie,” was the response.
I looked towards them. People were indeed wandering around without a thin piece of material fastened tightly around their neck and, from where I was standing, they were behaving in much the same way as those of us in the dearest enclosure, with ties, were carrying on.
There was no fighting, no sound of bottles smashing, no bawdy singing. Just people strolling from paddock to grandstand, enjoying a drink and probably enjoying not having a tie on. The only thing they were unable to enjoy was the prime vantage points the Richmond area offers.
I love Goodwood, I really do. But I would love it even more if I could experience the best it has to offer without having to dress up like I’m in Downton Abbey.
Ties are out. Hardly anyone wears them in the office environment any more and you can even turn up at a wedding without one and not be left to feel you may as well be clad in a shell suit. It makes no sense to me that racecourses – leisure facilities lest we forget – should make anyone wear one.
I have heard numerous stories of people being amazed and dismayed to turn up looking perfectly smart only to be told they cannot enter the best part of the course without a tie. This is not confined to Goodwood.
Plenty, I would suggest, would find such a sartorial admonishment a major deterrent in them wanting to go racing again. And if anyone would honestly take offence at having to be in a racecourse with people who are not wearing ties they should take a good look at themselves.
Whether you are George Baker or just someone who enjoys going racing, it strikes me as frankly bizarre that in 2017 it should be necessary for men to have to wear a tie to enjoy a day at the races.
'Put up and shut up' is not the way forward
In recent days two stable staff have written excellent, insightful pieces in the Racing Post on life in their industry.
First Kate Tracey, a groom with Philip Hobbs, spelt out the positives and negatives of the job and suggested areas in which employers could act to make stable roles more appealing, not least the fundamental issue of the sheer number of hours staff are required to work.
This was followed by an eloquent letter from Laura Parker, who works for Warren Greatrex. She wrote extremely positively about her job and the happiness and satisfaction she gets from it shone through.
Laura’s joyous tone changed slightly as she concluded her upbeat piece by saying: “No-one makes you work in racing, so maybe those constantly moaning should leave to let some of the more positive vibes come through from the industry.”
Her letter caused a lot of thumbs to rise. Various leading trainers tweeted to say how much they approved of her words. All well and good, you might think.
Well, in a sense, yes. It’s obviously great to hear from someone who gets so much pleasure from their job.
But the putdown at the end did leave a slightly bitter taste. Because clearly there is an issue with recruitment, as many trainers are extremely quick to point out, and sadly not everyone is as blessed with Laura’s sunny disposition and work ethic, otherwise vacancies would all be filled and what has been described as a timebomb for the sport would not be ticking.
So refreshing though it was to read such a happy account of life working in a racing yard, we have to accept not everyone who works as a groom feels the same way or we would not have a labour shortage.
Long hours, low pay, restriction of people movement and an indigenous population who are getting too heavy to ride horses all combine to leave many trainers wondering how they are going to staff their operations.
Racing needs to work out a detailed plan to boost the workforce, and while using testimonials like Laura Parker’s is extremely useful to enable would-be grooms to see the positives of the role, a ‘shut up, stop moaning and get on with it’ attitude is not going to solve anything.
Paltry returns put punters off
One of the most heart-sinking moments I have experienced on a racecourse (and there have been many) happened when I was waiting to collect on a small exacta at Lingfield a couple of years ago.
Two women were in front of me and one was holding a winning ticket. She was quite excited and the two of them, neither obviously blessed with years of experience as hardcore punters, were discussing the possible amount they were about to be handed.
The answer, £2.20 for a profit of 20p, acted like a harpoon puncturing a balloon. Hopes of a return that would at least cover the next round of drinks even if early retirement was still not an option were shattered and the pair shuffled away mildly dejected.
Now, following the revelation on-course deductions are set to rise by two per cent, such scenes are set to become even more commonplace. I cannot pretend to be an expert in pool betting but it has always struck me as odd that tote operators do not smash the takeout down to the lowest possible level, creating a strong pool and appealing, pleasing dividends every single race.
Surely it is better to have a smaller slice of a huge cake than a large piece of a crumb.
British and Irish racing are of course not set up for tote betting to thrive due to the competition fixed-odds wagering provides, but even so it must surely be possible for more vibrant pool betting to exist.
As things stand, apart from the Placepot and Scoop6, it’s all rather pathetic and, thanks to the increased deductions announced this week, things are only going to get worse at least until new operators are allowed to launch next year.