Racing: All and sundry putting on their Sunday best

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The British are eager to visit a racecourse on Sunday, but not their local betting shop. Greg Wood reports on the growing numbers spending their day of rest at the track.

One of the strongest arguments in favour of Sunday racing was always the obvious one, that it made sense for a leisure industry to hold meetings on the day when most people would be able to attend. However, even those who fought long and hard for a change in the law may be surprised to discover just how right they were.

Figures released yesterday by the marketing division of the British Horseracing Board show that Sunday is now even more popular than Saturday when it comes to a day at the races. Since its introduction in 1995, 860,000 people have been to a Sunday meeting, an average of 7,731 per card, against an equivalent figure of 5,914 for Saturdays and 3,718 for midweek meetings. What is more encouraging still is that a significant number of these have been first-time racegoers, often young people and families, some of whom have gone on to become regular spectators.

BHB figures indicate that Sundays attract 10 per cent more women, and over half of the crowd are aged 44 years or under, while racegoers are three times more likely to take their children. Polls showed that 91 per cent believe that a day at the races offers value for money.

Out in the betting shops, however, the story is rather different. Many bookies are in high-street locations and fail miserably to tempt punters in from the suburbs on Sunday afternoons, and there has been little sign of the situation improving. Trainers and owners, meanwhile, complain about the poor prize-money on offer.

Here, in fact, lies one of the puzzles of Sunday racing, since the actual quality of the cards is often far inferior to those held the previous day. The public, it seems, is oblivious to the ability of the racehorses, so long as they look pretty and there is somewhere to place a pounds 2 bet.

The BHB, though, can hardly be blamed for its "never mind the quality, look at the figures" approach, and the marketing department is rightly proud of its record over the past few years. There are still those who are suspicious of the very idea of marketing the sport, but while its employees have an irritating habit of using phrases like "lifetime value", they cover their salaries several times over in terms of the extra investment they encourage.

"We've asked real-life customers what they think and the response has been extremely good," Lee Richardson, the Board's marketing director, said. "We are particularly encouraged that this has been achieved without significant price-discounting. We've also been able to track back to first- time racegoers a year later and have found that some have become regulars, going more than five times in six months. For the courses, these revenue streams are vital. They must get people to come back again and again and again. Customer lifetime value is incredibly important."

The air of satisfaction extended to the Racecourse Association, where Morag Gray, its racing director, predicted that many more Sundays may be added to the programme. "We've had two sources of opposition, the off- course betting industry and owners and trainers," she said (that is, of course, three, but you know what she means). "They have valid concerns and we've got to make it work for them as well. If we can prove this year that it works for everybody then I'd like to think that by the year 2000, we'd be racing nearly every Sunday. We've taken steps to boost the programme, and I think 1998 will be a turning point, when we build on the success we've had on course."