Racing's dip in attendances is not a symptom of spiralling decline

Cheltenham Festival crowd - Eddie Mulholland
Cheltenham Festival crowd - Eddie Mulholland

The expectation is that last year racecourse attendances fell below five million for the first time since the Racecourse Association started publishing the numbers in 1995.

To put that in context, at its peak 6.13 million went racing in 2015. The drop-off, ignoring the Covid years of 2020 and 2021, has led to apocalyptic assumptions that racing is no longer part of the national consciousness and in a downward spiral of decline. But, to misquote Mark Twain, reports of its death appear greatly exaggerated.

Within the figures are contradictions, although no one is claiming racing is immune from having to face what has been a double whammy for most sports; the cost-of-living crisis and overcoming the post-Covid blues of people having got out of the habit of going.

Other factors which might have tipped racing under five million in 2022 were the three days put aside to mark Queen Elizabeth II’s death, which included the two biggest days of Doncaster’s St Leger Festival, and December’s cold snap, which ruled out meetings at Cheltenham and Ascot.

Royal Ascot also reduced its capacity last year to improve the customer experience (Cheltenham follows suit in March), which resulted in a 20,000 drop in the aggregate attendance for its five days as compared with 2019.

One trend, though, is that the really big meetings are thriving, sales for tickets and hospitality are through the roof for both the Cheltenham Festival, Aintree and Royal Ascot this year. Ladies’ days are still popular and the year ended on a high with a record 199,903 people going racing over the Christmas period, up 38 per cent on 2021 and 6.4 percent on 2019.

Cheltenham’s New Year’s Day meeting attracted a record 38,000, while trainers at Wincanton on Boxing Day found themselves having to abandon their cars and walk to get there in time to saddle their horses, such was the traffic. Fakenham boasted its biggest ever New Year’s Day crowd.

The main meetings to suffer last year were the higher mid-tier; King George day, the Shergar Cup and Champions Day crowds were all down at Ascot. A racecourse’s bottom line does not, however, entirely depend on crowd figures.

There are essentially two business models; those such as Ascot, Aintree, Cheltenham, Goodwood and York, which do rely on attendances and, typically smaller courses, whose main income stream is from media rights and for whom crowds are less important.

Latin Lover ridden by Hayley Turner wins The Palace Of Holyroodhouse Stakeson day four of Royal Ascot - Alex Livesey/Getty Images
Latin Lover ridden by Hayley Turner wins The Palace Of Holyroodhouse Stakeson day four of Royal Ascot - Alex Livesey/Getty Images

“The cost-of-living crisis has had a significant impact, but we had a good Christmas period and we have good advanced sales for 2023,” says David Armstrong, chief executive of the Racecourse Association. “I don’t think it’s a long-term problem, there are plenty of green shoots and we’re working hard to make racing relevant for a wider customer group.

“The impact of the economic crisis will gradually wear off, although it will take time for people to recover discretionary income. For the last three or four months we’ve been in the eye of the storm. I’m not worried nor surprised that last year’s figure fell below five million.

“Our costs are up; energy by 400 per cent, the food and bar by 30 per cent. Even shavings [bedding] for the stables are up 35 per cent,” says Martin Cruddace, CEO of ARC, which runs 16 racecourses. “We’re not a necessity, we can’t pass on those costs, so we’ve got offer value.”

One ARC initiative was to offer a three-day pass for its Winter Million meeting at Lingfield Park – high-class jumping on Friday and Sunday with all-weather flat on Saturday – for £20 in advance.

“Yes, there are major challenges,” he adds. “But I don’t see it as a symptom of terminal decline. It’s actually an opportunity for racecourses to look afresh at product and value. We were slightly fooled immediately post-Covid. You could do nothing and get a full house because people wanted to get out and spend money. Now it’s the opposite. I don’t think it’s because people suddenly don’t want to go.”

Nick Smith, director of communications at Ascot, says 2023 will be an interesting year. “The summer will be the test, but the big meetings appear to be getting bigger and bigger,” he says. Nevin Truesdale, chief executive of the Jockey Club, said: “Last year our major events were watched by fantastic crowds. But while there are plenty of reasons to remain positive about racecourse attendances, we also know that the economic climate is in some cases determining whether racegoers are able to continue to go racing as often as they have in the past, which is why continuing to provide value for money and a great experience remains our highest priority.”