It is difficult to miss the man in charge at the race night in Towcester. Lord Hesketh is very tall and built proportionately. Like most people who attend race night events, he wears Ray-Bans and a spectacular tweed jacket, and is shod in smart loafers and shocking lime-green socks. When he walks through the concourses the crowd parts in front of him and racegoers nudge each other and point. All the glances in his direction are friendly, and well they might be. More than 6000 spectators attended the most recent meeting, at the race night in Northamptonshire, and not one of them paid a penny in admission charges.
Towcester’s free entry campaign will be maintained throughout the National Hunt season, but it must not be misconstrued as aristocratic largesse. Nor is it, as other racecourse owners have suggested, a gimmick. It is part of a plan to revolutionise the way that this racecourse treats race night customers. Watching the teeming crowds from the balcony of his splendid private box, Lord Hesketh believes that other race night venues throughout the country are going to have to take notice of what he is doing. Free entry means that he needs fewer staff. He doesn’t have people tearing race night tickets, and doesn’t have to have security men for the gate receipts. It certainly makes it easier to run a race night. Before a policy of free admission was implemented, it was quite common for spectators to hop over the fence without paying. But surely it is costing the racecourse money? On the contrary, the reduction in expenditure means that last year Towcester made a profit, this year it’s already on course to make a bigger one, and next year it is projected there will be an additional 30% increase.
People arrive at Towcester, enter for free, park their cars for free, and march into the racecourse feeling they’ve already got something for nothing, a particularly popular notion with race night enthusiasts. Thus buoyed, they can start to enjoy the new facilities, which are only likely to add to their good humour. Towcester has always been a charming racecourse, and one where the seemingly interminable uphill finish provides one of the sternest tests anywhere of a National Hunt horse. But until Hesketh started his race night programme, the facilities were inferior to those you might find at a number of point-to-point courses. Quaint, but tatty. However, all that has now changed. Towcester now boasts two grandstands and a stable block that may be the finest in the country. There is a style about the place. The buildings are not flamboyant, but more dramatic than most punters might expect. Even so, the basics have not been ignored. Toilets are a test of any sporting venue, and Towcester’s are big and clean and plentiful. When punters are drinking beer all day, these things count. Within the grandstand buildings, spectators can choose the kind of race night they want. On the ground floor, spacious bars and hog roasts. One level up, table-service restaurants, and on top the private boxes. You can arrive at the race night with a Thermos flask and a folding chair and spend nothing at all, you can bring beer money, get a table in a restaurant for £20 a head or get the Lordly treatment (fine wines and a particularly good steak and kidney pie) for £100.
Towcester is not the first racecourse to offer such a wide variety of optoions, but it is the first – how can we put it? – modest venue to do so. What Hesketh has realised is that the quality of the competitors is not the only factor that influences people to spend a day at the races. It may not even be the most important factor. On a day when only one of the races at Towcester was worth more than £5000 to the winner (and only just), another fixture, at Wincanton, featured a high-class race worth more than £18,000. But the Tote’s turnover at Towcester was higher.
Hesketh believes that the kind of developments he has been able to make at Towcester Racecourse are the only way forward for the sport. He cites Ascot as an example of of a larger racecourse that has been making similar changes. Indeed, there has been frequent contact between the two courses while they have been undergoing transformations. But managers of other racecourses with shabby facilities and little money for investment will look at Towcester and shudder. This is what the future of racing looks like, but it costs money to get there. On the way down to the rails for a photograph, Lord Hesketh scanned the horizon. ‘Full car parks,’ he noted. ‘Good sign, that. And that is another good sign.’ He indicated a young father pushing two infants in a double buggy. ‘What do you see there?’ Hesketh asked. Two babies? ‘No, no, no. Two future racegoers.’