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A Brief History of the Mass Brawls at British Racing Events

Read certain newspapers and it would seem that violence at Ascot, Goodwood and Hexham has reached epidemic-like proportions.

by David Hillier
15 March 2019, 2:10pm

Fights at Goodwood and Ascot. Screen shots via / via

Two years ago I went to a stag-do at a British racecourse. We arrived and headed to the bar, which people were rushing away from, spilling pints and wine. A steward stopped us and said we'd have to purchase our drinks elsewhere. Why? A woman had vomited and defecated on the floor, even though it wasn't yet 2PM. That woman could have of course been suffering from a cruel bout of gastroenteritis. But you, like the men of the stag, will possibly consider it another case of the British public's inability to drink without puking, fighting or fucking.

This is the theory generally raised after a brawl kicks off at a British horse racing event; an occurrence that, if you get your news from The Sun, is approaching epidemic-like proportions. Last month saw a scrap at Haydock, originally reported as between 60 to 100 men (later scaled down to 15, the rest being spectators). Summer of 2018 saw mass brawls at Goodwood, Ascot and Hexham, with videos of men getting loudly kicked in the head circulated on social media and widely reported in the press.

This has led to soul-searching in an industry that wears its genteel past proudly, and led me to wonder: why do British people love rucking at the races?

Fighting and lawlessness aren’t novel concepts at the track. "In the 19th century, all sorts of con-men, tricksters, pickpockets and find-the-lady merchants would line the route to the racecourse from the nearest town or station, and trouble could ensue," says racing historian Jim Beavis. The 1920s saw the races become an occasional attraction for gangs, before an infamous tear-up at Lewes Races in 1936 inspired a scene in Graham Greene's Brighton Rock. "Post-WWII, my impression is that there was very little trouble on course, until the last 15 to 20 years," Beavis continues.

The key evolution has been racing's transformation into a Big British Day Out. Six million people currently attend a racetrack every year. Courses programme a range of social events and gigs – this summer you'll be able to watch the parent-pleasing likes of UB40, Jess Glynne, Judge Jules and Madness at a racecourse – designed to get punters through the turnstiles.

"The culture of racecourses is to get [punters] in relatively cheaply, and get them drinking as much as possible when they're inside," says bookmaker Barry Pinnington. "There’s a different fraternity now, compared to older days when the tweed fraternity would turn up and be there solely for the racing."

The money spent on grape and grain is obviously great for racecourses' bank balances, but concerns endure among some racing heads about cultural evolution. "One of the great joys of racing is that anyone can go and enjoy the experience," says Lee Mottershead of The Racing Post. "But when it was kicking off last summer, there was a thought among some people that racing had perhaps moved too much towards a social day out."

While Lee himself is at pains to say that "we can be a bit snobbish about fans", it’s hard to discount the notion of class friction, whether in the stands or the media's reporting of incidents. "A quick glance across the terraces reveals a sea of flesh and unsightly tattoos," reads a Daily Mail article from 2011, reporting a fight at Royal Ascot. "Of women in cheap, tawdry dresses and men who have shunned the expected top hat." In 2017, "Traveller David Eves" went bare-chested and seemingly feral in an enclosure at Ladies Day, in a fight reportedly over a chair.

"Horse racing is an environment with quite a substantial amount of gentrification," says Professor Clifford Stott from Keele University, who has devised models of policing with crowds and football across Europe. "There is a rub between owners and punters: a lot of the moral outrage that tends to attach itself around this debate is often actually a kind of class discussion about norms and appropriate behaviour."

In an inversion of football's perceived problem – that the cost of attending the beautiful game is turning grounds into airports and its heart to tapenade – the opposite concern is afoot in racing: that the sport of kings is being ruffled by the peasant class, with its boozing, brutish, brawling ways.

In an attempt to curb racegoers' thirst, the Racecourse Association has partnered with Drinkaware to create the Pace Yourself campaign, which espouses the revolutionary benefits of replacing the odd pint with water or a soft drink. Last summer, Royal Ascot went on the front foot and, among a number of measures, deployed breathalysers at the gate to test visitors who were visibly drunk at entry to the event.

Also ramped up was the presence of sniffer dogs; a response to the fact that – in a narrative that also currently aligns with football – cocaine is being attributed as a contributing factor to violence. After the battle of Haydock last month, The Guardian ran a feature titled "Bookmakers call for drugs clampdown after racecourse brawls".

"The presence of illegal substances is, worryingly, a rising trend across all major spectator events and society as a whole," say the Racecourse Association. "We have set measures in place to counter this, such as stronger communication in advance, the central provision of deterrents and detection dogs."

An interesting point among all the proselytising about booze's effect on mass brawling – something long established in British football, with supporters banned from drinking in view of the pitch since 1985 – is that research suggests this opinion is spectacularly misinformed. In his paper "On The Lash: Revisiting the Effectiveness of Alcohol Controls at Football Matches", Dr Geoffrey Pearson found that alcohol banning orders are ineffectual at stopping collective football violence and can, sometimes, increase the possibility of yet another chair-chucking. Far more important are our methods of crowd management.

"One thing, perhaps, is that we [racecourses] rely on temporary security staff," says Lee Mottershead. "They're bussed in for the day, probably not being paid a king's random. Would I want to intervene with four men kicking off if I was them? I'm not sure I would."

Clifford Stott says the burden of responsibility needs be reconsidered. "A lot of the issues here are about the safety and security industry. How it delivers responsibly sometimes with poorly paid, under-trained staff who do not have the capacity to manage crowds adequately. Our approach suggests it's about creating forms of stewarding that embed themselves into these events' crowds to understand them and help build cultures of legitimacy and self-regulation. We need to focus on the broad factors: these aren’t just about the people in the crowd, but the people in control."

Consider this: last year there were sensationalist "Royal Ruckus" headlines about police arrests at Royal Ascot for a variety of offences. How many were there? Seventeen. Out of 300,000 people across five days. It's not a direct comparison, and there are lots of variables, but Glastonbury – that bastion of classless abandon that's also five days long, with 135,000 attendees – saw 71 arrests in 2017.

Viewed through that lens, maybe Brits don't love fighting at the races after all. More can certainly be done from all sides – not least the racecourses, which need to take responsibility for their new income model – but maybe all the outrage over the fighting is just another device for an increasingly tribal British public and press to shout louder about the dark state of our proud and hilly isle.

@dhillierwrites