Johnston derides the 'dross' of Sunday

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It is not only jockeys and horses who must find a fine balance in racing. The very sport itself may be in danger of toppling because an innovation hailed as the great hope for the future has failed to come up to expectations for a significant proportion of those who keep the show on the road. Sunday racing, launched in this country five years ago, has led not to a carousel, but a treadmill.

It is not only jockeys and horses who must find a fine balance in racing. The very sport itself may be in danger of toppling because an innovation hailed as the great hope for the future has failed to come up to expectations for a significant proportion of those who keep the show on the road. Sunday racing, launched in this country five years ago, has led not to a carousel, but a treadmill.

A survey conducted by the industry's trade paper, the Racing Post, has revealed growing disquiet and even alarm over the size and intensity of the racing programme. Sabbaths per se are not the problem but this summer, the slotting in of 14 consecutive racing Sundays has meant an unrelenting 104 days' sport, with more of the same planned for next year.

The industry's governing authority, the British Horseracing Board, was the prime mover in the establishment and promotion of Sunday fixtures, regarding them as an essential investment in the future, a way to tout for the leisure pound and introduce a new generation to racing. The Racecourse Association, though at loggerheads with the BHB over media rights, is also committed to Sunday racing.

But the industry professionals - trainers, jockeys and stable staff - are beginning to throw up their heads over the issues of quantity and quality, the level of prize-money and the class of racing on Sundays. The Middleham-based trainer Mark Johnston, one of the most articulate among his ranks (perhaps ironically, the BHB chairman, Peter Savill, has horses in his yard), is becoming increasingly frustrated by the pressures of slogging non-stop for mediocre reward.

"No one minds working, even for the greater good, if there is some point to it," he said. "At the beginning, Sunday racing was going to be the great showcase for the sport. All of us trainers remember being assured that Sunday races would have a minimum value of £8,000. But now at some meetings we're lucky if it's half that.

"None of my lads mind working Sundays if it's a decent meeting. But we, like racegoers, don't like going racing to see dross, and that is what it is all becoming.

"We understand that we work in a leisure industry and so Sundays are not sacrosanct. But it would have seemed logical to have a blank day, Monday, to compensate. Only businesses with as much money as Tescos can afford to keep it rolling seven days round the clock. In this case, racing seems to be trying to run before it can walk and in some areas betrayal is not too big a word."

By its nature, any vox pop will throw up polarised views. To some of Britain's 59 tracks, Sunday racing is a boon. Chester attracts racegoers in droves - 27,000, holidaymakers and families, crammed into the Roodeye three days ago - and the rural courses tend to do better than those drawing on an urban population. But generally, crowds have fallen.

The bouncy-castle brigades are less discriminating about the quality of what they are watching than other racegoing sectors and may be a double-edged sword. Their presence ups the gate money but reduces other sectors of a course's income, the take from betting turnover and catering. Several tracks are incensed at the loss of lucrative Saturday night fixtures to the Sunday market.

Sandown Park, in Surrey, one of three United Racecourse tracks within the M25 boundary, has committed to three Sundays next year despite disappointing attendances this year. Their general manager, Steve Brice, acknowledges that the quality of the fare is all-important. "Everything starts with the level of racing," he said, "that is the core product. I can see the logic of Sunday racing - we are a leisure industry and weekends are when people have leisure time - but it is good racing that will attract people and perhaps give new racegoers the bug. At the moment, we are having to invest in extraneous activities to get the Sunday crowds in."

The BHB are due to look at the success or otherwise of this year's programme in October, but the outcome of discussions will not be revealed until early next year and no clues are at this stage forthcoming about any changes to be made to the 2002 fixtures in the face of criticism and concerns.

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