I'll tell you who they are. They are a rare breed of people; people who encountered harness racing one day. And then kept coming back. Time and time again. Just to watch. Not to take part, but just to watch. In a sport which is forced to admit that it caters primarily for those who compete, what made Melanie and David Dandridge decide to come back, when time allows, to watch? What do we need to do as a sport to get more people like this through the gates at tracks?
Well, I asked them.
Tell us a bit about you both.
Right OK here goes...David has worked on farms and previously ran his own contracting business, he has driven lorries and now drives buses. I grew up on a farm in a rented cottage, my parents weren't farmers but I was hooked on the lifestyle. I worked with horses doing stud work and in hand showing and I now work in a school.
We trundle around the country at every chance we get from Musselburgh to Allensmore; Tregaron, Lampeter, Boughrood, Almeley,York, Presteigne and Aberwystwyth; the two of us in our car which we call 'Doonbeg' with a little harness racing sticker on the back!
How did you first come across harness racing?
We first came across the sport whilst visiting relations in Kinmel Bay. We saw Tir Prince and my eyes lit up; I was intrigued but sadly it was the wrong time of year and the racing wasn't on. A year later in 1998 we moved to North Wales from Buckinghamshire with our (then) two young sons and I kept badgering David to take us to Tir Prince.
We went to the odd meeting and enjoyed it and then in 2002 we went to Tregaron and we were hooked!
What is it about the sport that attracts you to keep coming back?
The racing is fantastic; it's interesting, we like the people and the different tracks. We like looking at the breeding although we are no experts but find this interesting. We don't bet just purely enjoy the racing.
As you are not connected directly to anyone involved in the sport, what do you think could be done to make it more 'user-friendly'?
I think the grass tracks are more of a niche market so only people connected in the sport in some way seem to go, whereas at the cinder tracks [Tir Prince, York etc.] it seems to be more public-enticing. Tir Prince for example attracts the holiday makers because its location helps. I think most people want the race package of betting, drinking, making it a social event, and harness racing is a little low key for them and perhaps not glamorous enough. People want more for the children to do also.
What do you think is the main thing holding the sport back from attracting new spectators, like yourselves, who do not wish to compete?
We think what holds the sport back is a lack of marketing. The sport is not on TV and people don't know what it is. I tell someone we're going to watch the harness racing and they ask 'what's that?' or 'is that what the gypsies do on the roads?'. The lack of advertising is a major thing, even getting it out there by taking the sport to agricultural shows, or even getting it on TV in some way.
What have been the biggest challenges you have encountered in following the sport?
The weather is the probably the biggest challenge, as it results in meetings being cancelled. We work so our days off and holidays are based around the sport, cancellations obviously affect this. Also finding some tracks can be difficult as the signposting is not always good or directions are unclear so we play 'follow that lorry'!
If you could change one thing about the sport, what would it be?
I wouldn't change anything about the sport, we are hooked and love it the way it is!
That said, it would be good to have the paddock easier to look at the horses so that the general public can look before the races at the horses parading up close. The current impression given is it's a poor man's sport.
What do you think promoters/the governing body need to do to attract more people like yourselves?
A magazine would be good or a page in Horse & Hound, this might change the image the majority of people have about the sport. Get it in the media with some articles about owners, trainers, tracks, horses etc.
Why not incorporate a harness race at more Thoroughbred racing venues?
Also maybe an app which has the horses, trainers and drivers on it?
How easy do you find the promotional material to access in order to find out more about upcoming fixtures?
We find it easy finding out about upcoming fixtures etc. as we go on various websites so it's no problem for us but before we had Facebook a year ago it was not easy to know if a meeting was cancelled or changed so we had to rely on what was announced at meetings or just turn up and hope for the best.
Do you think that negativity on social media has a damaging effect on the sport? Or is fair to allow participants to voice their concerns on a public forum?
Everyone has a right to their opinions, I don't think it puts people off the sport, we read them and find it interesting. We are also rally fans and you get positives and negatives on their sites in exactly the same way. I don't think it matters or affects the sport at all.
If you've been Thoroughbred or greyhound racing, what are the differences and similarities?
We have never been greyhound racing, it doesn't appeal to us and even though Chester Racecourse is not far from us it's too busy and we don't fancy it at all. We've been to point to points but for us you can't top harness racing.
Do you find the cost of going harness racing reasonable/value for money/too expensive?
The cost of racing is good; children go free and 10+ races for £10 works out at a pound a race or less so it's good value on that front.
Would you consider purchasing a horse and becoming owners?
We really would love a horse and would take great pleasure in that.
As you are new into the sport, would a syndicate or shares in a purposely-created Owners Club be the best way in?
That is a brilliant idea because on a budget you know there are no scary extras which are associated with horses.
What is harness racing in the UK's unique selling point? How do you think it can promote itself in the open market for family attractions?
The unique selling point would be the drivers on sulkies and the excitement and closeness of the horses to the start car. Also the speed the horses pass the crowd at. The only way to draw in Joe Public is by having stuff for children to do.
As members of the general public, what elements would you change to make the experience of the spectator better? Pre-race interviews with drivers/trainers perhaps?
The interview thing is good but sometimes the PA systems aren't so good and you can't hear very well. Tir Prince is bad for that. But a lot of my friends go to Chester Racecourse and really they go for the drinking, dressing up, socialising and betting; they pick horses by their names and are not really into the horse side of it or knowing who the jockeys are.
That said, it would be great to meet horses and learn more about the trainers, drivers etc. and a demonstration on tacking a horse up, more interaction with the people and horses in the sport. My work colleagues wouldn't be impressed going to watch in a field for example as they like the whole package associated with racing. I have spoken to people who have come to watch for the first time and they don't seem to stay for the whole event but leave quite early so I think more variety and interaction may keep people there.
Thank you Melanie and David for taking the time to answer more than a few questions, and for putting so much thought and effort into your answers.
I think they have raised some interesting topics for further discussion between those within the sport who have the ability to make changes. I urge anybody in a position to bring about positive change to consider what part the general public has to play in the furtherance of our beloved sport - the time has come for us to recognise that they are our target audience and not a forgotten byproduct.
Over and out,