UK racecourse attendances dropped to their lowest numbers since 1995 last year, as concerns over the future funding of the sport continue to grow.
There was a similar picture over in Ireland, where crowd numbers were down 9% in 2022 compared to the previous regular year of 2019.
Back in the UK, the total attendance at race meetings fell below five million for the first time in more than 25 years, and with the government’s review into the gambling sector ongoing, there’s fears that proposed affordability checks will diminish the amount of funds being pumped back into horse racing.
With many trainers and owners united in their belief that prize money in UK racing isn’t sizable enough, the sport is facing a tricky short and medium-term future.
Toughening economic conditions have impacted many niches within the leisure and recreation sector, with a trip to the races still considered an occasional hobby for many – particularly when the more prestigious meetings come around. Some families and race-goers have simply been forced to tighten their belts.
It’s clear that the appetite for big-time racing remains. The average attendance of each day at the 2022 Cheltenham Festival exceeded 70,000, while officials at Aintree and Ascot also reported encouraging numbers for their main meetings of the calendar.
But new figures released this week reveal that only 120 meetings across the entirety of 2022 attracted a crowd in excess of 8,000 punters – that figure was 158 back in 2019.
York’s Dante meeting shelled thousands of racegoers in 2022, and the head of marketing at the venue – James Brennan – admitted that ‘this is a challenge for racing, as it is for every leisure venue.’
Chester’s May Festival also saw a fall in attendances of around 35% on their 2019 numbers.
“What we have seen is lower walk-ups than in previous years, and that is common across all racecourses at the moment,” said Louise Stewart, the track’s chief executive.
“There is the cost of living crisis and the cost of fuel, there are quite a few new variables and it’s very difficult for anyone to predict how it is going to play out.”
At Market Rasen, 15 meetings held in 2022 lost 16,000 punters compared to 2019 figures, with Racecourse Association communications manager Paul Swain bemoaning economic conditions – rather than a loss of love of racing – as the main factor behind the countrywide decrease in footfall.
“We deeply empathise with the British public over how the cost of living has increased and how this must place people in difficult positions.
“It is no surprise with the backdrop that attendances to British racecourses have fallen this year, but this is a trend felt by many.”
At a time when domestic racing is desperate to balance the books in a bid to keep all stakeholders happy – the BHA has already confirmed prize money will increase in 2023, a loss of revenue from gate receipts is a tough hit for the sport to take.
And a drop in funds generated by the betting levy – should the government’s rumoured affordability checks be introduced as part of their gambling White Paper, forcing punters onto the black market – could prove catastrophic for racing’s future viability.