Pontefract is bucking the trend and showing the way ahead for racecourses

Racecourse crowds in the UK are down up to 30 per cent, compared to 2019. The cost of living is to blame and the proliferation of other distractions.

By Tony Harber
Saturday, 2nd July 2022, 8:00 am

During the various lockdowns, it is said, many people found new ways of entertaining themselves, writes Paul St John

These arguments shouldn’t be dismissed, although they are a fraction glib. They do ignore a somewhat touching human trait: when we have less we are more generous with our money.

They also ignore the meeting at Pontefract on Sunday, June 19. The attendance was up.

Pontefract Racecourse is bucking the trend for attendances in 2022.

The weather was extremely good, explained chief operating officer Richard Hammill. He acknowledged, however, that the website is exceptionally customer-friendly, and deliberately so.

It begins with a celebration of the return of liberty. Naturally, the freedom to wear a face-covering, for example, is extended to all, although few do. This is significantly different to other racecourse sites, which, while they note that no legal restrictions now exist, nudge us to maintain them.

In a beautiful English early summer, there remains the suspicion that some officials, dressed in a little brief authority, rather regret the loss of their licence to treat us like children.

We have learned not to complain, but perhaps patrons at Pontefract secretly appreciate being addressed as adults.

In a relaxed and direct way, the site makes clear that the customer - within sensible limits - is in charge.

‘The more expensive the enclosure, the better the facilities’, it explains, reasonably, then adds that all the enclosures have good facilities.

‘The more you spend, the closer you are to the winning post’, it clarifies. But if a punter wants to upgrade, once on the premises - that’s fine.

Accompanied under 18s are free, it is stressed, at every meeting and in every part of the course.

The picnic enclosure costs £7, or £4 if you’re drawing a pension. Mum, dad, two kids and an oldie, that’s £18. You can bring your own food and, within generous limits, your own drink. There is a cafe, a bar, tote terminals and a bookies’ ring.

The dress code must be the most liberal in England. It applies only to the Premier Enclosure. Jackets and ties are not required, but it suggests that football shirts are not really appropriate. Don’t be too scruffy is the message.

Another thing that’s stressed is cash. One pays at the gate with cash (or card). All bars take cash. What about the restaurant and the shops? The catering company prefers card payments, Hammill told us, but they take cash, and all the retail outlets take cash. A few take only cash.

Hammill is puzzled that other courses don’t emulate Pontefract. Why would a track do anything or impose restrictions that might put someone off attending, especially now?

At his place, it is possible to leave all the credit cards at home, put the cash in your pocket that you are willing to spend (or lose) and set off (alone, with a date, with family or with friends) and enjoy a day out that is and always has been unique.

If the citizens of Pontefract have troubles like the rest of us they have somewhere to go where they can forget them, courtesy of the enlightened approach of Richard Hammill. He would probably be embarrassed to be described as a pioneer, but he is proof that progress is often made by going back to things that have always worked.

The next meeting is on Tuesday (July 5), gates open at noon. If you are anywhere in the vicinity, please go. Give Pontefract racecourse the best attendance stats in the country. Hammill can then boast (or suggest, he doesn’t seem the boastful sort) that treating customers like grown-ups, charging them as little as possible and letting them use cash for everything, actually works.

Then Epsom, Ascot, Goodwood, Sandown, and the others, might pay attention.

This article was first published in Racing Weekly, the newsletter of Old Gold Racing, a company which syndicates racehorses. Visit www.oldgoldracing.com or call 01242 650630.