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Article by – @GeeGeeBanker

Having decided to marry my beautiful American wife, naturally, you also have to inherit the American mother-in-law. On a recent visit to spend time with her new family, finding ways to keep the show on the road became the key.

Aware that Horse Racing is the be all and end all for my life, she was keen to sample the experience. A brief check off the upcoming fixture list made the last Flat meeting of the season at Sandown Park the obvious choice and so on a quite warm and sunny Wednesday in September, we set off.

The morning began with the usual routine, a strong coffee and a careful study of the cards in the paper. Each race was carefully analysed and each horse given its own personal commentary in a vein attempt to create the illusion that I had some semblance of knowledge. Each race was analysed based on the draw bias, the likely pace angle, how well handicapped they horses were, whether they were suited by the going, the stable form, etc, etc. A good 2 hours work was put into this research, much to the amusement of my wife, who indulges my passion for the sport, even if she is not entirely sure what on earth, I am talking about most of the time. By the end of this analysis, the newspaper resembled notes from a board meeting, and I left feeling very confident that a considerably profitable day was at hand.

Having collected our guest from her Hotel, we proceeded to breakfast. Racing is everything to me, my one great passion away from the wife and kids. A brief look at my iPhone records would show the amount of time spent each day on various racing apps, which must mean I lose several weeks each year to this great sport. However, in my attempt to explain the handicap system, the complexity of the feature Listed race and how a Novice race was structured, the glazed over looks that I was getting back, suggested that this level of detail would be lost on my 2 companions for the day. Never mind, I was sure they would get into it once we arrived.

After an uneventful drive through the west London traffic, a brief tour of Sandown followed. Away from Cheltenham, Sandown has to be my favourite course. Superb facilities, excellent viewing, a great parade ring that allows you to get up close and personal with the stars and hospitality to suit every taste. The wife is interested to a point, having only sampled Ascot before, but the mother-in-law is drawn more to the food and the beer. 3 Cheeseburgers and chips are covered by £20 and everyone is fed and ready for the off.

So, to race 1, a 5 furlong sprint, a race that I am sure I have sewn up. Every experience that I have tells me that your need a low draw, close to the far side rail on the sprint track. My pick, Leo Minor has trap 1, the plum draw, he’s in form, the yard is in form, Cieron Fallon Jr, the best apprentice on the circuit is up top, “here comes a banker” I declare confidently.

The mothers-in-law approach is somewhat different, picking based on names and colours, we have covered 4 off the 11 strong field in a range of win and each way combinations. Doesn’t matter, it’s her day out and not my money. Off we go, travelling like a good thing with 2 furlongs to go, Leo Minor runs into a wall of horses and finishes full of running, but with no way through. Between the 3 of us, 5 horses are covered, none finishing in the frame. To make matters worse, the places are filled by stalls 8, 9 and 11. My careful research torn to complete shreds, we move on to race 2.

Palace Pier, one of the most exciting juvenile prospects of the late season, is having his second start for John Godsden. Having demolished a Novice field several weeks earlier and at odds of 2/13 this looks a formality and a route to bigger and better things later in the year. Trying to hide my excitement, we watch the pre-parade and the paddock for any signs of weakness, but there are none. He is the real deal and when he returns from injury next year, he will be a 3 year old to reckon with. While most of this is lost on those in my company, I take it in the hope that one day I can say that I was there to see him in his formative races.

He duly bolts in, winning without ever being asked a serious question, but anyone can tip a winner at those odds. 2 races in and my guest has now backed 6 horses without troubling the scorer. However, a seat in the sun and a second pint of ale seem to be softening the blow. As each race passes, my careful research seems more and more irrelevant. The unbeatable Turgenev duly finishes second in the feature, when on my ratings he should have won by 6 lengths. An almost impossible 3-year-old handicap, where I have covered 3 of the 6, sees my 3 filling 4th, 5th and last place.

A new plan is needed, in 2019, when in doubt, back Frankie. He has had 1 winner, albeit at 2/13 on, he can get me out of jail. A quick double on my betting account to cover any losses and we should be fine. The mother-in-law is still spraying money around like one of the sprinklers in the parade ring, but to little avail. She is having a good time though, a 3rd Pint has now followed, and the afternoon is meandering on. Aided more so by the little Italian genius, who’s quick double saves the day and restores me to profit. The appearance of the master trainer John Godsden in the parade ring is a sight to behold. One of the great perks of Sandown, is that you can get so close. To be able to hear the great man entertain his owners and pass on his wisdom is something to savour. At this point, the wife looks worried by my looks of adoration for 1 of my heroes and we hurry off for a coffee, (much needed to slow down our now mellow guest).

The last we see is an amateur riders handicap, oh dear. Never a strong point of mine, as whether I follow the form and ability of the horse, or its rider, it always seems to fall apart. Sure enough, my pick is left with far too much to do up the hill and can only finish a never nearer sixth. Still, we have had a good day out, I’ve scraped a profit and it’s on to the rest of the visit.

This experience has got me thinking that evening, both about writing this article to record our day, but also about what racing needs to do to attract a bigger fan base. Sure, it was a good day, but that was more down to the experience, the sunshine and the food and drink, than it was to the horses. It is very doubtful that the feeling would be the same if it had been a wet and windy November day at Fontwell or Plumpton instead. My inherited family is from New York, where racing is a poor relation to baseball and that abomination they call “football”. Aside from the Kentucky derby, most Americans are barely aware of its existence. A Saturday at Belmont Park in east New York would see crowds smaller than those at Plumpton on a Monday afternoon in the winter. In many ways the same can be said in the UK, where aside from the annual punt on the Grand National, the general public are scarcely aware of the sport.

Racing is in my blood; my father took me racing from a young age and it stuck. My brother and I spend more time discussing racing than we do our own families if the truth be told. But that’s us, the wider public may go racing for a day out, but this won’t make them fans and they are not certain to tune in to ITVs coverage the following Saturday on the strength of 1 day at trackside. There are some great incentive schemes for sure, free entry for the kids (which I often use as an excuse to go racing on a Saturday), rewards schemes, membership discounts, etc. However, these schemes primarily appeal to those who already love and follow the sport, not those who might.

A great friend of mine once said “I wish I could like racing, but it’s just beyond me”.

I love this game, so I understand ratings, handicapping, progression, breeding and everything thing else that goes with it, but a glance over a race card can seem more like JavaScript than form to those that don’t. I’m writing this like I may have the answer, I don’t. The key to racing is not the National or the big festivals. It’s not the grandeur of a summers day out with a picnic and a jug of Pimm’s, these things will take care of themselves. It’s the grass routes stuff, the midweek cards, the small-time owners and trainers with runners in Class 6 handicaps on a freezing Wednesday night at Kempton, when there are more staff on course than spectators.

Like any Pyramid, it is those at the bottom levels that have to bare the greatest loads and more needs to be done to make the sport accessible to support them. Racing is like a bug, once you get it, you’re in for life, but the key is helping people to get it in the first place.