Chester racecourse is the oldest in the country, with racing being introduced in 1539, replacing a violent and out of control football match that used to take place on the Roodee. The races bring thousands of visitors to the city across the season, but are often criticised by locals for the influx of drunk race goers and an increase in anti social behaviour. The racecourse has been in the news lately following the ban on race patrons taking their own alcohol onto the open course. This has led to a massive stream of largely negative comments across social media and even a “boycott Chester races” facebook group
We met with the owner of the Watergate St gallery and Art at 41 (Hoole), Alex Sharp and chatted about his survey of Watergate st traders following further damage to his property and also a shop front on the rows at the weekend. Alex is chair of the Watergate st traders association.
“I set up an association to have a voice with the police and the council, and the racecourse basically. The whole street is .. 65 traders, 60-65 depending on whose gone out of business that week… that’s retailers, bars the full cross-section, and they all have, what we thought, differing opinions on race days.. The thing that comes back to the bars is that they turn over a lot more on race day, but there’s a cost of doing it, the cost of security, the extra bouncers, the hassle etc…” Alex has sent out surveys to the traders and received over 60% back in a short time.
Richard Thomas, chief executive of the racecourse claims hairdressers “do well” out of races…see http://www.chesterchronicle.co.uk/news/chester-cheshire-news/chester-races-boss-defends-racing-9474651 however Alex’s survey suggests otherwise. One of the hairdressers reported someone snorting cocaine off the rows, and the responses on the surveys we viewed were largely negative “coarse and rude crowd who use expletives also profanity in every sentence…” “positive it may be, but it comes with many challenges.. people having sex down alleys, urinating and being sick everywhere”. Common themes reported by traders include low footfall leading to early closure, abusive patrons and criminal behaviour. However one trader did observe that , the races “put Chester on the map for those that come to the races and come back”
Alex says “for independent retailers “ your week can be the Saturday.. the Saturday is where you make your money. I turn over between 2 and 6 thousand pounds on average on a Saturday, I do under a 1000 pounds on a race day.
“Nobody in their right mind whose local goes into Chester to shop on race day” he states. “a great time to shop is when everyone’s on the racecourse, its like a ghost town” . Alex says that he has spoken to the council in the past about generating local interest in this but wasnt seen through. He has also campaigned for free park and ride for race days between 1 and 5 to no avail.
He accepts that “Race days are here to stay… there’s 15 now and to get any more they need to go to the Secretary of State. Yeah the races are good for the city, if you bring in a horseracing crowd that likes a drink, rather than a drinking crowd who don’t care if there’s a horse there or not ..”
Where do you think the racecourse duty of care ends? I think they’re very quick to take people to the racecourse but they don’t want a shuttle bus back. The bars might think “lets keep people there” as long as its managed. The problem is the state people are in…
He also is scathing of the new booze ban and sees it as a way of “Cutting out the independent retailers..”what is wrong on family day with taking booze on the course? Are they “after-shocking” all afternoon… you’re allowed to have your shots in the picnic area… they’ve got you for 4-5 hours where they are taking money off you for alcohol.. when people leave the racecourse and they’ve had a skinful” The racecourse have previously stated that the change simply brings them into line with other leisure and sporting venues.
Alex mused on what else the racecourse and the traders could do in partnership to put something back into the city, from charity collections, a folk festival or an independent retail fair on the course “One of the things negotiated was that they opened up Linenhall car park, to drive people up Watergate st and into the city” An agreement was made to open it up on Sundays as well, but this arrangement recently ended , without explanation. claims Alex (The recent racecourse press release states that Linenhall car park remains free 2 from 2pm mon-sat and all day Sunday)
He says of the reported £100 quoted as being brought into the the city’s economy by each racegoer.. “£50 goes on a race ticket and the rest on alcohol.. It’s not boosting Chester’s economy, its boosting the racecourse economy” He says that no one will stand up to the racecourse because “they pay the council a million quid a year”
“The races should be brilliant for Chester.. I am not anti races, it’s about better collaboration, honesty and transparency. I want to meet Richard Thomas and go through the responses.. I offered to walk him through the city on the race day and introduce him to the retailers, he’s not responded”
The races are going nowhere and no doubt make a big contribution to Chester’s status, employing local people and boosting tourism. Freelance sports journalist Rob Jefferies told me that ” This year’s Royal Ascot Gold Cup winner, Trip To Paris, claimed victory in the Chester Cup at this year’s May Festival, so it’s all part of the process of horse racing in Britain and is an established part of the calendar both for the sport – and socially for the city.. If you take into consideration that horse racing is the largest spectator sport in Chester, then yes I do think it is essential for the city (and) it is essential for horse racing in general with it being the oldest racecourse in the country” But has the drinking culture gone too far? Are the races a necessary evil for Chester? The debate will run and run, unless its silenced by the increasingly common twitter block.
Chester racecourse could not be reached for comment
Thanks to @campaignkate @Watergatestreet and @journoRob