It was the start of a new race season at Ripon Racecourse on Thursday, April 18. Gazette reporter Laura Connor, who has never been to the races before, went along to sample the excitement and find out what developments are taking place at Yorkshire’s Garden Racecourse.
I am hopeless when it comes to sport. Playing sport, watching sport and, in all honesty, writing about sport.
So when I was invited along to Ripon Racecourse’s first meeting of the season to try out their new RiponBET tote (the new onsite betting operator, my sports reporter colleagues kindly informed me; to me a tote is a type of handbag), my initial curiosity was quickly replaced by an overwhelming sense of dread.
How do I place a bet? Which horses do I bet on? And what on earth is a parade ring?
I even had to be told a race meeting was not, as I originally assumed, a chat with racecourse staff around a table with tea and biscuits, but an actual day of horse racing.
Red-faced moments of sport ignorance aside, once I arrived at the bustling racecourse for Thursday’s (April 18) very windy race day, I realised visiting the races is rarely ever about winnings, horse athleticism and strategic bet placing. It is just a fun day out.
And there is no better place to experience horse racing for the first time than at “Yorkshire’s Garden Racecourse” in Ripon, with its wealth of facilities, including a fully refurbished Jim Joel bar and a brand new Theakston’s terrace bar, serving cask ale to punters for the first time.
I even managed to win a modest £3.60 from my speculative bet on gelding St Moritz (very tactfully chosen for its jockey’s pink and purple diamond encrusted jacket), which – I admit – gave me a transitory moment of glee.
But Ripon Racecourse’s managing director tells me a day at the races is about so much more than gambling – it is about the whole experience.
“It is not just about watching the horse,” says James Hutchinson, who has worked at the racecourse since 1990 and became managing director five years ago.
“It’s an entire social occasion. It is not just about putting on a bet, but obviously it is a prime reason for some of our punters to visit. But for a lot of people it is purely a social event and the fact they can put on a bet and win some money is an added bonus in some respects.
“Gambling is part of horse racing, but it’s not the be all and end all.”
And by appealing to both racing fanatics who populate the course nervously clutching Thursday’s Racing Post, and the families and couples casually supping coffee in the bar, the Boroughbdrige Road racecourse is able to pull people in from just around the corner, and across the country.
“People come from all walks of life and we don’t just appeal to the people who come racing often.
“We want to appeal to someone who has never been racing before and may be coming for the first time perhaps with their parents and grandparents.
“We’re trying to break down the barriers of entry, and the best thing to do on the race day if you have never been before is buy a racecard.”
I went one step further to ensure I did not get entirely lost in the hustle and bustle of enthusiastic Sky Sports reporters, anxious punters and the rallying calls of bookmakers.
I arrived at the racecourse armed with an official programme and the Ripon Gazette’s very informative sports reporter Ed White in tow.
And James is right that racecards and the programmes are “the easiest vehicles to put information out there”, especially with the programme’s handy map which helps newcomers like me navigate their way around the gardens.
It is clear to see just from strolling across the grounds that the racecourse is able to attract people from “all walks of life”, as James says, including Ripon locals and visitors from further afield – but what does the racecourse mean for tourism in Ripon?
“We are worth something like £5m per annum across the local economy,” James tells me.
He adds that the RiponBET not only offers racegoers a wider range of betting options but has created 60 full- and part-time job in Ripon.
And marketing assistant Erin Boswell tells me how new bars and initiatives such as the RiponBET are ways of “trying to make everybody happy by giving them what they want”.
“We have an appeal for local businesses and people because the racecourse is literally on their doorsteps. And people who travel to visit us see it as a day out,” she says.
But Erin admits the racecourse can do more to attract people in Ripon.
“Having incentives for local businesses and working with them is something we need to have a bit of a think about to get more local people coming here,” she tells me.
Despite the unpredictable weather and my initial panic as a deeply inexperienced gambler, I can clearly see how the racecourse works to appeal to a variety of people and is a crucial asset to Ripon’s economy.
I learnt how to place a bet and what a parade ring is (a place where horses literally parade before a race for punters to examine their physiques) and I even made a profit.
But a word of warning: placing a bet on a filly with an eye-catching name such as “Classy Lassy” is not quite as sensible as checking a horse’s odds.
Ed managed to pocket ten times more winnings than me by taking a slightly more discerning approach.
I will know better for next time.
- The next Ripon Racecourse race meeting will take place tomorrow (Saturday 27).