The now-traditional start-stop opening to the Flat season on turf is upon us once again, with six blank days on the grass between Doncaster’s Lincoln card and Musselburgh on Saturday, but the equally familiar debate about whether it would be better to “start with a bang” seems a little pointless after 12 months with no crowds at the races.
What is important is that it is happening at all and that, all being well, the bulk of the summer season will have at least some paying spectators in the stands. The scheduled return of limited crowds on 17 May will come too late for the spring festivals at Chester and York but by the time the spotlight returns to the Knavesmire in mid-August, there could, in theory, be a full house in attendance.
So this will be the Flat season when British racing gets its first real indication of how many of the people who bought 5.5m tickets in 2019 are still up for a day at the track. The late 1940s saw a huge rise in attendance as fans flocked back to racecourses after six years of wartime restrictions, but the likelihood of a similar boom 75 years later seems remote.
There is, of course, a lot of pent-up demand in the leisure and entertainment sectors after a year or more of semi-permanent lockdown, but there are also so many more alternatives, competing for a slice of it.
The fact that a significant proportion of the annual attendance at British racecourses are once-a-year racegoers also suggests that for many, it is an annual habit, and one that has now been broken. Racing’s continuing status as the second-most popular spectator sport in Britain may well depend on how many of those once-a-year racegoers can be tempted back over the summer and autumn.
It is not just the big Festival meetings at Newmarket, Goodwood and York that matter here. In fact, the day-to-day attendance at smaller tracks, the families and friends who always go to a particular meeting at their local course, are just as important. Millions of people will need to be reminded that there is a racecourse just down the road where they used to have some great days out – or, perhaps, that they always meant to go to the races but never got around to it and now might be a good time to start.
The demands, both in terms of money and effort, will be immense as the racing industry starts its recovery from the pandemic and so a little good luck, in terms of positive stories that capture the imagination and attention of the wider sporting public, would certainly not go amiss.
Rachael Blackmore winning the Grand National on Saturday week is probably too much to hope for, but one very live possibility is that 2021 will see a nip-and-tuck race for the Flat jockeys’ championship that goes all the way to the wire.
It could prove to be a historic title race too, with Hollie Doyle – perhaps Britain’s second-most familiar rider at the moment having finished third in last year’s Sports Personality of the Year awards – attempting to become the first female champion jockey. Oh, and her partner and fiance Tom Marquand could be in the thick of it as well. It is hard to imagine a story with more positive “crossover” potential.
Doyle and Marquand are currently 5-1 and 6-1 respectively for the title and it would still require a big dollop of racing luck for the pair of them to be in with a shot at the title in the autumn.
But there are sometimes ways to make a little of your own luck too – so why is this year’s title race sticking to the May-to-mid-October format that was introduced in 2015?
The old format, covering the turf season from March to early November, regularly produced close-fought contests that took the title race to the nation at tracks large and small from one day to the next. It tended to reward ambitious, up-and-coming riders – freelancers, for the most part – willing to clock up the miles in pursuit of the championship and not subject to the demands of a big retainer. Riders, in other words, like Doyle.
The 2021 title race still seems set to begin on 1 May, six weeks after the start of turf racing, and end on 16 October, three weeks before the turf campaign concludes. With the sport’s trying to climb out of its biggest hole for 75 years, though, and desperate to reconnect with the British sporting public, is it really too late to change?
Monday’s best tips
Owners are back on track from Monday and it would be no great surprise if the syndicate which owns Our Rockstar has had the meeting at Stratford, and the handicap hurdle at 4.25 in particular, circled on the calendar for several months.
The seven-year-old won the same race two years ago off 94 and is just 2lb higher today. She was below her best in her last race at Plumpton in October but was in cheekpieces for the first time there and the headgear has been left off today, while Alastair Ralph is also in better form with three wins from his last eight starters.
Kauto The King (2.30) and Prince Llywelyn (1.30) should both go well at Wincanton, while Bashful Boy (3.10) and Celtic Joy (3.40) make most appeal on Monday’s other jumps card at Fontwell Park.