Horseracing: Drink and drug fuelled violence tarnishes the Sport of Kings

By Laura Donnellan, School of Law, University of Limerick, Ireland

The last two weekends of horseracing have been marred by violent outbursts among a small section of racegoers.

A mass brawl erupted among spectators at Goodwood at its Opening Saturday during the May bank holiday, an event that is marketed as a family day out (https://www.goodwood.com/sports/horseracing/fixtures-events/opening-saturday/). Sussex Police indicated that there were over fifty people involved with ten identified from CCTV footage as being responsible for the fracas, which resulted in four people being hospitalised (Chris Cook, ‘Goodwood hopeful of arrests after handing police CCTV of 50-person brawl’, 8 May 2018, The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/may/08/goodwood-arrests-police-cctv-50-person-brawl). The disturbing scenes were broadcast on social media.

In response to the adverse publicity generated by this anti-social behaviour, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) stated that, whilst the vast majority of their six million spectators ‘enjoy a pleasant and enjoyable experience, incidents such as those at the weekend cast the sport in a poor light and will cause understandable concern to those who are considering a day at the races’ (quoted by Geoffrey Riddle, ‘BHA issue warning shot to racecourses after Ascot incident’, 13 May 2018, Racing UK, https://www.racinguk.com/news/bha-issue-warning-shot-to-racecourses-after-ascot-incident). The BHA added that it would be contacting Goodwood for its assessment of events and what steps it will be taking.

The BHA also noted that crowd control, security and alcohol policy are the preserve of the individual racecourses and the representative body, the Racecourse Association (RCA); however, it warned that, when it comes to renewing licences, the BHA takes into account ‘all relevant facts and matters’ (ibid).

On the following Saturday, 12 May, fighting broke out among racegoers at Ascot. Whilst on a smaller scale than the violence at Goodwood, parallels emerged.

At both events, the people identified were well dressed men and, in the case of Goodwood, they had access to the Goodwood Enclosure, the second most expensive of the three enclosures (Chris Cook, ‘Goodwood hopeful of arrests after handing police CCTV of 50-person brawl’). Raising the price of tickets, it was contended by Alex Eade, the course manager at Goodwood, will not exclude such individuals, nor will increasingly the price of alcohol (Chris Cook ibid).

The RCA has endeavoured to deal with the issue of excessive drinking at race events by partnering with Drinkaware (http://racecourseassociation.co.uk/experiences/responsible-drinking/). Its Pace Yourself Campaign recommends that a soft drink is consumed between every alcoholic beverage. The campaign has been running for five years at 59 racecourses (RCA Update, April 2018, ‘Pace Yourself Plus’, http://racecourseassociation.co.uk/wordpress-cms/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/April-2018-final-copy.pdf). The Pace Yourself Campaign was recently enhanced and will focus on the larger racing events. The new campaign is called Pace Yourself Plus and was recently promoted at the Randox Grand National Festival and Royal Ascot.

According to the RCA Update April 2018, the campaign includes the following:

  • A rounded training programme for racecourse staff to be accredited as ‘Pace Yourself Crew’, an adaptation of the Drinkaware Crew programme operating in bars and clubs. Training will help equip staff to counter alcohol-related harms, and support customers who may be vulnerable as a result of excessive drinking.
  • Updated coach and group booking forms allowing racecourses to better understand where their customers are coming from.
  • A new suite of supporting promotional collateral.

The Pace Yourself Plus campaign, whilst based on benevolent concerns, may not be appropriate to deal with the issue of excessive drinking. Added to this is the issue of recreational drugs.

In 2011, Drug Honesty Boxes were placed at the turnstiles and at the entrance. On the boxes the following was written: ‘Ascot racecourse is a drug free zone. Please deposit your drugs here’ (Murray Wardrop, ‘Royal Ascot: organisers install drugs amnesty boxes at racecourse’, 16 June 2011, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/uknews/crime/8578827/Royal-Ascot-organisers-install-drugs-amnesty-boxes-at-racecourse.html). Sniffer dogs were employed to detect racegoers carrying narcotics.

This weekend, 19 May, racing takes place at Newbury, where security has been increased. Greg Wood opines that ‘[s]erious disturbances at racecourses on consecutive Saturdays can be seen as a wake-up call for the sport. Three in a row could suggest that the situation is already getting out of control’ (‘Newbury on high alert with racing fearing summer of racecourse brawls’, 18 May 2018, https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2018/may/18/newbury-high-alert-horse-racing-fearing-summer-racecourse-brawls). It is hoped that personnel wearing hi-vis jackets, ‘spotters’ at the bar and extra security staff will prevent violent disturbances. Newbury has also announced a zero-drug policy and has publicised the use of sniffer dogs in advance of the event. Social media and online forums have surmised that cocaine is often ingested at race events (ibid). The long queues for the men’s toilets have been put forward as evidence of the use of cocaine among racegoers (ibid).

In the wake of the violent disorder at Goodwin and Ascot, the RCA has identified three key areas in the control of anti-social behaviour: an appropriate level of security that includes ‘the right balance’ between plain clothes and visible security personnel; bar staff that are trained to determine excessive drinking; and a zero-drugs policy (Marcus Armytage, ‘Racing confident it can halt spectator violence after fighting at Goodwood and Ascot’, 14 May 2018, The Telegraph, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/racing/2018/05/14/racing-confident-can-halt-spectator-violence-fighting-atgoodwood/).

The violent scenes at Ascot were viewed over a million times online.

As the RCA and individual racecourses attempt to market racing as a family friendly event, behaviour that can only be described as ‘hooliganism’ will no doubt undermine their efforts. Penalising racecourses may not be the answer; perhaps lifetime bans for those that are found to have engaged in violent disorder would demonstrate a commitment to eradicating such thuggery. The use of drugs honesty boxes seems to normalise the use of drugs. A zero-drug policy seems at variance with the honesty boxes.

If any disturbances are reported at Newbury, the BHA, the RCA and individual racecourses will need to reassess the entry costs; the level of security; the sale of alcohol and the possibility of introducing lifetime bans for those found to have engaged in acts of violence.

Laura Donnellan may be contacted by e-mail at ‘Laura.Donnellan@ul.ie’