Sunday 15 December 2013

Nonsense at Newbury – A Self-Inflicted PR Disaster and “The Denim Conspiracy”, Part 1

Newbury was one of the first racecourses that my wife and I visited together, back in 1978. We had just started our careers up in Liverpool and escaped the pressures of the city (this was a couple of years before the infamous Toxteth Riots – and we lived near Toxteth at the time, in Sefton Park) for a weekend in the Cotswolds and a trip to the Hennessy. We saw Bob Champion win on Approaching. Ever since then, it had probably been our favourite racecourse. We had been visiting it regularly for 35 years, and indeed lived only a few miles north on the Woolley Estate for seven years, alongside the famous Woolley Down Gallops where five Derby winners, including Generous and Morston, did their final preparations. Last year we had an Owners for Owners box at the course, and were planning another in 2014.

Notice the use of the past tense. Amazingly, we were caught up in the fiasco of Newbury’s new dress code. I’m going to examine this in some detail over the next few blogs.

On Saturday, 30th November, we held our 7th “Meet the Trainer” morning at Jamie Snowden’s in Lambourn. Lots of owners came down, we had an excellent reviving breakfast at The Pheasant and most of us then went on to Newbury for a great day’s racing. I was aware of the new dress code and had even gone to the trouble of emailing all our owners about it. In their advance publicity they had said that “racegoers are invited to prove that Britain knows best when it comes to Autumnal fashion, with fabulous hats and coats”. I put on my best tweedy outfit and my wife Jack wore a recently purchased coat of blue cotton with leather flashings (ironically bought at Cheltenham Racecourse) and a matching blue trilby (bought at Haydock Park the previous weekend when one of our horses, Quick Decisson, ran there). She was also wearing black trousers, bought specially during the week to ensure that she met the course requirements of “smart trousers, no denim”.

We had both purchased premier badges for the meeting and were admitted to the course in the normal manner. We met up with Philip and Sarah Hobbs in the main grandstand to watch on a TV monitor another of our Owners for Owners horses, Lady Charisma, winning the opening race at Towcester with a typically brave and resolute performance. She is an immaculately bred filly – by Presenting, out of a top-class Cadoudal mare – so to have a first win with her was particularly important, in view of her future breeding potential. All of us were absolutely thrilled and very excited – she got up on the line, to win by a flared nostril!

Not surprisingly, I was then in need of sustenance. I went off to the Champagne Bar in the Wine Cellar in one of the Premier stands to meet up and celebrate with another of Lady Charisma’s owners. Jack went to the paddock to look at the horses for the next race, and then tried to join me. What happened next was spectacularly embarrassing – she was not allowed back into the Premier enclosure. One of the stewards refused her entry because she was deemed to be wearing denim. When Jack protested that she took the prohibition to refer to jeans, he reiterated the refusal by stating that “it’s the rule and you can’t come in”. Unbelievable.

As far as I am concerned, this is the antithesis of everything we are all trying to do in racing. I’m very supportive of any initiatives designed to improve the racegoer experience, encourage more people to come racing and build continuous loyalty and support for our great racing festivals. For the life of me, though, I cannot understand any initiative that results in a mature woman wearing brand-new, smart black trousers, a blue cotton coat (but one that was deemed to be “denim”), with a matching blue trilby, being refused admission to the Premier enclosure and publicly humiliated in this way. Especially as in Owners for Owners we are investing significant sums in racing and doing everything we can to encourage owners to buy more horses and maximise their day-to-day racing experience.

Once I found out about this fiasco, I tracked down the steward; remonstrated with him and his supervisor; then went along to the Newbury office where I was introduced to their ironically-titled “Customer Ambassador”, Alison Brown. She explained that a briefing sheet on the dress code had been sent out by email and that all staff had had a verbal briefing, apparently from the Facilities Manager, Lesley Whittaker. I asked for a copy of the briefing sheet but was not given one. Interestingly, Alison hadn’t been present at the briefing so could not comment on how well it was done, nor whether the subtleties of dress codes were properly explained. I asked to meet Stephen Higgins, the MD of Newbury, but he was unavailable due to being “on duty with the Princess Royal”.

What do you think to this incident? I’ve already had quite a lot of views expressed to me by phone and email. I’ll cover them in Part 2 on this subject. In a lighter moment, a couple of our owners talked of this as a “Denim Conspiracy” and suggested that Owners for Owners buy a horse, name it that, and run it in light blue silks with leather epaulettes. Ha, ha. It’s the only funny thing I can see in what was a really embarrassing experience, and one that I am still pursuing with Newbury.


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