Donn's Articles » Kids go racing

Kids go racing

Last Tuesday, over 200 kids from the local St Corban’s school descended on Naas racecourse. It may not have been that much fun for their supervisors (put the hurdle back Tommy), but it was fun for the kids, a couple of hours away from Peter and Jane and long division, and afforded the run of the local racecourse to boot.

There was just one horse there, but that didn’t matter too much. The horse was Battlefront, winner of the Ernst and Young Handicap Chase at the Punchestown Festival last April, loaned out for the day by Ted Walsh. Also there was flat jockey Davy Moran, and National Hunt trainer Martin Brassil, trainer of Numbersixvalverde, who won the Irish Grand National in 2005 and the Aintree Grand National in 2006, and Slippers Madden, who rode Numbersixvalverde at Aintree, but who also, more pertinently, attended St Corban’s, probably sporadically.

It was a day of fun and of learning for the kids. They got to tread on the hallowed racing turf, check out the stalls, study the fences, they got to stroke Battlefront’s nose and some of them got to have a go on the RACE equisisor, the racehorse simulator, which, remarkably, seemed to have plenty of energy left after Moran was finished with it.

They were given an insight into the lot of the trainer by Brassil, feeding, training, looking after a horse, preparing for race day, saddling and then watching helplessly from the stands. They got to stroll through the inner sanctum that is the weigh room, out of bounds to most, they got to touch the saddle, feel the silks, inspect the safety equipment and hear first hand from Madden about the intricacies of race-riding.

It was all good stuff. As HRI initiatives go, this one is up there with the best of them. Perhaps it doesn’t generate the column inches that a 10 grand best-hat competition does, or the intrigue that Status Quo after racing does, but in terms of looking after the long-term future of racing – which is, after all, its custodian’s role – this one is right on the money.

The benefits are not immediately realisable, and therein lies the difficulty. As with any long-term project in an era in which instant gratification is king, any innovation that places fresh demands on resources, scarce as they are, can meet with resistance. But this one seems to have the wind in its sails, aided by the full support of some of the top trainers and riders in the country.

A ladies’ day promotion or a champagne reception or a best-dressed-couple competition or a band after racing can put numbers on the gate, and those initiatives are not to be lightly dismissed as such, but they should be recognised for what they are, largely short-term strategies. People who go to Leopardstown because The Chapters are playing after racing have, at least, gone to Leopardstown. But how great is the long-term gain? How many go back the following week when Cape Blanco and Rip Van Winkle and Twice Over are racing?

The key to the health of any sport, or indeed to any activity, lies in the depth and width of the interest that is vested in it. Eighty thousand people don’t pile into Croke Park to hear the Artane Band play the National Anthem. The ancillary stuff is good, it is nice to have window dressing, especially on the big days, but racing’s imperative should be that people go racing for racing’s sake. We don’t need to dumb it down, we don’t need to invent a new ‘narrative’, we don’t need to make apologies for the sport that racing is, we just need to explain it properly to its target and prospective audience, and allow them appreciate it for what it is, as it stands. You don’t see FIFA changing the off-side rule just because half its prospective audience doesn’t fully understand it.

To that end, kids are key. It is not going to happen today or tomorrow, but the kids of St Corban’s are the racegoers of the future as long as the great sport that this is can be presented to them properly. And the time is right for them – you can be sure that the vast majority of current-day racegoers have been enthusiasts from their formative years, either born into it or smuggled into it by an unwitting parent or relative.

We didn’t have Go Racing Kids a generation ago. We didn’t have some of the top trainers and jockeys in the country give up their time to help us explore racing’s deep crevices. Back then, for a starry-eyed kid with even a peripheral interest, it would have been quite unimaginable to stand there and listen to Tommy Carberry or Dan Moore or Vincent O’Brien or Lester Piggott talk about their respective professions. Kids occupy a different space these days, these are busier times, but it would be astonishing if these ‘schools’ education’ days did not have a significant impact on the attendees attitude to, and enthusiasm for, racing.

As well as Naas, there have already been kids days at Dundalk, Navan and Limerick. There is one at Cork today and there will be another at Gowran Park next month. As part of the initiative, the kids are invited to come back to the races the following weekend after their tour, and to bring their parents and teachers.

Hopefully they will continue to come back.

© The Racing Post, 19th October 2010