If you’re even remotely interested in horse racing, a day at the races is hard to beat in terms of colour, drama and excitement. However, if you’ve never been racing before, you may be at a loss as to when and where to go, how to get there, what you’ll do while you’re there and so on. With this in mind, we’ve put together this brief guide to help you plan your day out.
When to go Racing
In Britain, horse racing takes place on every day of the year except Good Friday, December 23, 24 and 25, including Sundays, so when to go racing is largely a question of personal preference. If you want to attend one of the major meetings, such as the Cheltenham Festival or Royal Ascot, you’ll find that they take place at more or less the same time each year, but otherwise your choice is limited only by the spare time you have available and the type of racing you want to watch.
Traditionally, the Flat racing season runs from April to October and the National Hunt season from October to April, but Flat racing takes place on the all-weather courses, at Lingfield, Kempton, Wolverhampton and Southwell, throughout the winter and National Hunt racing takes place at selected course throughout the summer. It’s also worth remembering that in spring and summer the extra hours of daylight allow evening race meetings to be staged under both codes.
Where to go Racing
There are total of 57 racecourses throughout the length and breadth of mainland Britain so, wherever you live, you should be able to find at least one that’s within an hour or two by road or rail. Nowadays, most racecourses operate their own website, so if you have one close to home it should be easy to find a convenient date on which to visit.
If, on the other hand, you don’t know where your nearest racecourse is and/or if it offers what you’re looking for, you’ll find that websites such as those operated by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) and Love The Races provide useful tools, guides and plenty of other information to help your find the perfect day out. Nowadays, many racecourses host special events, such as live music concerts after racing, above and beyond the racing itself.
How to Choose an Enclosure
Once you’ve chosen when to go and where to go, you also need to choose which enclosure on the racecourse suits you best. Some racecourses offer just a single enclosure, in which case you have Hobson’s choice, but others offer two, three or more, so you need to make a more considered decision.
Your choice of enclosure dictates not only how much you’ll pay for admission, but how much access you have to racecourse facililities, how well you can see the horses before, during and after each race and, in some cases, what you’re permitted to wear.
If you choose the ‘Members’ enclosure, also known as the ‘Club’ or ‘Premier’ enclosure, you’re effectively granted, for a day, the same rights as annual members of the racecourse. You obviously pay for the privilege, but you have access to all areas of the racecourse, including the prime vantage points, the parade ring and the winners’ enclosure. You do need to bear in mind, however, that some racecourses, such as Ascot, require gentlemen to wear a jacket and tie and ladies to dress for a smart occasion in the Members enclosure.
Author’s Note: Personally, I’ve had the pleasure of visiting racecourses throughout Britain and I enjoy the extra ‘elbow room’ afforded by the Members enclosure, where you at least have a chance of a few minutes’ quiet contemplation away from the hustle and bustle of the betting ring.
The ‘Tattersalls’ enclosure, also known as the ‘Grandstand & Paddock’ enclosure, is home to the main betting ring on the racecourse and, by definition, often the busiest. The viewing typically isn’t quite as choice as in the Members’ Enclosure – you can’t watch the races from directly opposite the winning post, so you’re be none the wiser if there’s a close finish – but it’s still perfectly adequate and you have access to everything you need for a thoroughly enjoyable day. Racecourses typically encourage racegoers to dress smartly in the Tattersalls enclosure, but there’s often no formal dress code and denim and training shoes may be allowed.
The ‘Silver Ring’ is the cheapest and most informal enclosure. It’s usually situated some distance from the winning post, so you can’t see the business end of races, the parade ring or the winners’ enclosure. Nevertheless, if you’re on a budget, you still have access to limited selection of bookmakers, a Tote facility and places to eat and drink. Along the same lines as the Silver Ring, some racecourses offer a ‘Course’ or ‘Picnic’ enclosure, usually in the centre of the course, where admission is charged per car as well as, or instead of, per person. The idea is that you can dress as casually as you like, park your car and enjoy your own picnic.
How to Pay Admission
You can pay your racecourse admission at the turnstiles on the day, but most racecourses off substantial discounts, typically up to 20%, if you book your badge(s) in advance, online or by telephone, particularly if you’re booking for group. Bear in mind, too, that some major meetings are hugely popular, so booking in advance may be your only option if you want to avoid disappointment.
Tips from an Experienced Racegoer
If you’ve never been racing before, you’ll be amazed by the length of time you spend on your feet during the day. Even if you need to comply with a dress code, your shoes only need to be clean and presentable, so make sure they’re comfortable.
If you’re likely to go racing regularly, think about investing in a pair of high-quality 10 x 50 binoculars. You’ll surprised by how much more involved you’ll feel if you can see the horses on the far side of the course. If you do take binoculars, remove the case and leave it, out of sight, in your car, if possible; you won’t need it during the day and it’s one less thing to lug around the racecourse.
Take enough cash to cover your expenses, including betting and refreshments. Some, but not all, racecourses provide an ATM, but if budget for your day before you leave home you’ll avoid charges, queues and the temptation to chase your losses.
The other essential items you need are a pen, to make notes on your racecard, a copy of the Racing Post and, if you’re in any doubt about the vagaries of the British weather, a small, folding umbrella.
Try to arrange at your chosen racecourse at least an hour before the first race, particularly if you’re visiting the course for the first time. This will allow you to familiarise yourself with the layout of the racecourse in terms of facilities and perhaps enjoy a drink before the bars become busy, which they inevitably do.
The first thing you should do on arrival is to buy a racecard, usually available from a kiosk just inside the main entrance, which lists the colours, runners and riders for all the races on the day. Trust me, you’ll be glad of an at-a-glance guide to the races more than once during the day.