Tracks change their attitude to child's play

Corporate visitors are still given priority, but racing is increasingly a family day out

The weekend is approaching, the weather forecast is encouraging. A good time to plan a day out for the family, but where to go? There's that new interactive museum just down the road, or the county show. But you haven't been racing for years and the children are old enough to enjoy it now. They will love the spectacle of the horses and there will be plenty of space to run about. But hang on, will there be anything for them to do, or will they trail round after you complaining they are bored, tired, hungry, or all three?

The weekend is approaching, the weather forecast is encouraging. A good time to plan a day out for the family, but where to go? There's that new interactive museum just down the road, or the county show. But you haven't been racing for years and the children are old enough to enjoy it now. They will love the spectacle of the horses and there will be plenty of space to run about. But hang on, will there be anything for them to do, or will they trail round after you complaining they are bored, tired, hungry, or all three?

It is certainly true that 20 or 30 years ago a race meeting offered little in the way of entertainment for anyone other than the true enthusiast. There wouldn't be anywhere comfortable to sit down, let alone facilities for the family, and children were viewed with great suspicion. As a small child I had to be lifted over the turnstiles at Kempton, and I amused myself by sending my mother to the Tote window to invest my pocket money.

So does racing today provide a good day out for the family? A quick trawl through a random sample of racecourse websites shows that the authorities know they have to compete to attract visitors in an expanding entertainment market, but the emphasis is more on corporate customers. There are plenty of references to quails' eggs and champagne, very little on the availability of chicken nuggets and orange squash.

However, the answer, provided you choose your date and venue with care, still has to be a resounding yes. Although there are many high-profile, busy racedays when the children would be best left at home, there is also increasingly a trend for meetings which are marketed specifically for the family.

The bank holiday bouncy castle is almost as much a feature of the race track as the betting ring. And Sundays are not sacred anymore, at least not according to the British Horse-racing Board, who have appointed a Sunday Racing Promotion Group (SRPG), with the aim of getting families out of their churches and straight onto the racecourse.

Although Sunday racing was vigorously opposed in some quarters when it was first introduced, growing attendances (a third of a million adults and children last year, according to BHB figures) mean it is here to stay. A huge expansion is planned this year, with 62 Sunday fixtures at 43 courses. As BHB marketing executive Ginny Lemarie put it: "Sunday racing this year will really prove itself as the day out for the whole family.''

So what have racecourse authorities done to make racing family-friendly in recent years? A look at what was on offer on the busiest raceday of the year, Easter Monday, provides the answer. Ten of the 12 meetings featured family attractions. There were Punch and Judy shows (Wetherby and Newcastle), a "Big Top" (Towcester) and parades of hounds (Plumpton). Racegoers at Market Rasen presumably had to fight their way to the parade ring through the throng of face-painters, children having pony rides, clowns, jazz bands and a craft fair.

The extra activities were not confined to the small country meetings. Kempton Park, which provided the day's main meeting and was assured of a big crowd, expanded their usual activities with many other attractions, including an Easter egg hunt. The day was energetically marketed beforehand, with adverts in the local press and extensive leafleting. Earlier in the month Ayr racecourse ran a full programme of family events on the first day of their Scottish National meeting, and, along with many other major courses on big race days, provided a crÿche.

Other entertainments laid on by enterprising courses in recent weeks include celebrity show jumping, pig racing, clay pigeon shooting and a "hot air balloon spectacular". Not to be outdone, the evening racing season which is just getting underway will be luring punters in with, amongst other attractions, ABBA theme nights.

But have all these extra activities actually made a difference to the enjoyment of going racing? To find out I took my four-year-old daughter on a return visit to Kempton Park.

At first glance little seemed to have changed, and there was a sense of déjà vu when I was asked to lift her over the turnstiles when we upgraded to the paddock area. The aroma of racecourse food was the same as ever, but as children love burgers and chips they are well catered for. However, once the mists of nostalgia and swirl of betting tickets had cleared, the differences became apparent.

In the old days the clipped tones of the racecourse announcer would never have asked, "will the father of Gary Collins please report to the crÿche". There would not have been half a dozen football games taking place in the centre of the course, and the pushchairs would not have outnumbered the horses.

The place was full of children of all ages, apparently enjoying themselves and not interfering in the business of the serious racegoer. As for my daughter, she liked looking at the horses in the paddock but did not, along with most of the children there, show great interest in the racing.

She was however, kept amused with pony rides, stuffing ice cream and generally bombing around the play area. This meant of course that for a large part of the time I was watching her instead of the racing, but we spent a very pleasant afternoon together and even managed to make a little money through her suggested policy of backing horses with orange colours.

And if we had really become fed up with each other I could have parked her for a spell in the crÿche. Staffed by four qualified child carers, the crÿche (which also operates at Sandown), takes under-fives for up to an hour, and is always in demand. Apart from keeping very young children occupied, it is a comfortable place for parents to change and feed babies without feeling thoroughly self-conscious.

As to cost, going racing is one occasion when you can't blame the children if it turns out to be an expensive day. To take my daughter to nearby Chessington World of Adventures would have set us back an extra £15.50. We would have been charged £10 for her to see a mediocre QPR draw 0-0 with West Brom in a First Division football game. She came racing for free.

We have since been to Lingfield Park, accompanied by my son, and had a picnic on the grass. There was a crÿche there too, and a bouncy slide and a very good clown on stilts making balloon horses. But what really made it enjoyable was just being out in the countryside on a sunny day with the family. Oh, and watching a pretty good day's racing.

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