Britain's booziest sport? My money's on horseracing

Andrew Misell, Director of Alcohol Change UK in Wales | September 2018 | 7 minutes

As we approach the St Leger, last Classic of the flat season, racing fan Andrew discusses an element of horseracing that's almost as distinctive as the horses: the drinking.

You may recall me mentioning that I love beer. I also love horses. All sorts of horses, but mostly massive, impressive thoroughbreds – half a tonne of muscle, running at 40 miles an hour while thousands of overexcited people shout their lungs out.

I’m far from alone in this passion. After football, horseracing is Britain’s second most popular spectator sport. There are all sorts of reasons people love it. Some love the numbers: the odds, the stats, the form. Others love all things equestrian. And then there’s a big bunch of people who love the whole thing – the atmosphere, the camaraderie, the chance to cut loose.

That last point – the chance to break free from the usual rules of life – is a big one. Although racing as a sport is tightly regulated (with laws about betting, doping, pushing a horse too hard, not trying hard enough, and so on) there’s a natural anarchy about it too. Racegoers love and respect big characters – owners, trainers and jockeys who do their own thing, mouth off a bit, shake things up. Likewise, being a race fan isn’t exactly a licence to misbehave, but it is a chance to be a bit louder, a bit bolder, a bit less like your 9-to-5 self.

"Trackside, you’ll see the polar opposite of every well-intentioned public health message you’ve ever heard."

Trackside, you’ll see the polar opposite of every well-intentioned public health message you’ve ever heard. There’s plenty of gambling (obviously); quite a bit of smoking (you’re outside, so you can do that); generous helpings of chips and fried meat; and copious streams of alcohol, all the way from the lager in the paddock bar to the champagne in the hospitality suites. And since racing, like cricket, goes on all afternoon, there’s plenty of time to get sloshed.

Is it a problem? Hard to say. This year, there’s been a big focus on the most extreme manifestations of drunkenness at the races – specifically, two violent altercations at Ascot and Goodwood in May. But this really was missing the point. Big, bloody fights are rare. What does happen week-in, week-out is that lots of racegoers drink too much. If all that means is that they end up head-in-hands, feeling nauseous, that probably no one’s business but their own. But there’s no two ways about it – alcohol changes the atmosphere at an event, and not always in a good way. It’s means that what could be a great day out sometimes becomes somewhere you can’t wait to get out of. Everyone agrees that the fighting at Ascot and Goodwood was unacceptable. That’s kind of a given. What very few people want to do is see the trouble in the broader context of drinking at the races.

Various studies have suggested, unsurprisingly, that the greater the density of licensed outlets in any one place, the more alcohol-related harm occurs. This needs examining in more detail, but alcohol-related incidents seem to occur more often at major flat-racing courses, where the lawns are dotted with bars. There’s rarely much bother at, say, Bangor-on-Dee or Ludlow, where you have to queue patiently at the only bar if you fancy a pint. The other thing that’s different about these smaller courses is that (just like in some pubs), despite the presence of alcohol, you somehow get the feeling that drunkenness isn’t welcome. That’s not the message everywhere. It is true that the Racecourse Association and Drinkaware have run alcohol awareness campaigns at almost all courses, but (as with many other such campaigns by the drinks industry) all the responsibility is placed on consumers to #paceyourself, with little regard to the way alcohol is being sold and promoted on-site.

Is it time, perhaps, for racecourses to become more like the kind of old-fashioned publican who tells you when you’ve had enough? Like many sports, racing depends heavily on ‘wet sales’ as an income stream. So, if punters start sinking fewer pints, it could be a major blow to racing’s coffers. But on the other hand, as some work in Australia already suggests, this could be a route to attracting new supporters who might love horses but don’t love being in an environment that’s sometimes dominated by alcohol.