The Racing Tribe
A summary of the publication, The Social Behaviour of Horsewatchers
SIRC Director Kate Fox was invited, by chance, to go racing. After just one hour at a local racecourse, this compulsive peoplewatcher became fascinated by some intriguing abnormalities in the body-language and behaviour of the racing crowds.
She noticed that racegoers did not practice the gaze-avoidance tactics characteristic of normal crowds: at the races, complete strangers not only frequently made eye-contact but also smiled at each other for no apparent reason, and even initiated conversation.
As positive aspects of social behaviour are among SIRC's main research interests, Kate was determined to find out more about this unusually sociable crowd. The British Horseracing Board and the Tote agreed to provide funds for a ground-breaking research project: the first scientific study of the culture, customs and social dynamics of the racecourse.
The project involved 12 months of fieldwork, using research methods normally employed by anthropologists studying remote tribal societies.
The field research included observation studies, participant-observation and extensive interviews with racegoers at 24 race-meetings in both the flat and jumping seasons, ranging from prestigious events such as Royal Ascot to ordinary bread-and-butter race-days at small rural and suburban courses.
On- and off-course interviews were also conducted with owners, trainers, jockeys, stable lads, officials, journalists, bookmakers and racecourse staff. Bibliographic research provided background information on the history, economics, mythology and politics of horseracing.
Towards the end of the project, the IRA bomb-scare at the 1997 Grand National conveniently provided a 'natural experiment', which could have been designed to test the reactions and behaviour of racegoers under highly stressful conditions.
The research found that racing crowds do not behave like people in other public settings. The racecourse creates its own 'social micro-climate', characterised by a highly unusual combination of relaxed inhibitions and exceptional good manners:
- In most public contexts, strangers actively avoid making eye contact. At the races, complete strangers frequently make eye contact and smile at each other for no apparent reason.
- At the races, hordes of young males congregate, drink large quantities of alcohol and gamble in an exciting context with plenty of opportunities for aggression. Yet there is no violence or vandalism: in fact, they rarely cause any trouble at all.
- Racing is the last bastion of old-fashioned chivalry: female racegoers indulge in highly exhibitionist dressing, yet they are invariably treated as 'ladies', with courtesy and respect.
- At the races, the British shed their customary reserve and inhibitions to the extent that initiating friendly conversation with total strangers becomes socially acceptable.
- The Cheltenham Festival is an England vs. Ireland match. Yet after a day without an Irish winner in 1997, the English contingent started to fret, hoping that their rivals would soon 'score', so that everyone could celebrate.
- The bomb-scare evacuation at the 1997 Grand National provided the ultimate demonstration of the exceptional good humour and good manners of racegoers: this 'natural experiment' proved that the cheerfulness, sociability and solidarity of the racing tribe are unshakeable even in the most testing conditions.
The abnormal sociability, goodwill and good behaviour of racing crowds is due to a combination of factors:
- First, racing is unlike any other spectator sport in that all of the sporting 'action' takes place in just a few minutes, interspersed with half-hour intervals with no activity at all on the track, allowing far more opportunities for social interaction than any other spectator sport.
- Because of its ambiguous moral status in a somewhat puritanical culture, racing performs an important social function as an 'alternative reality' a separate world, defined as 'non-serious', offering an escape from the norms and restrictions of ordinary life.
- Like carnivals and festivals, the marginal world of the race-meeting is governed by what anthropologists call 'cultural remission' a conventionalised relaxation of normal social rules and constraints. This 'time-out' factor is combined with strict adherence to racing's own distinctive traditions and customs, resulting in a unique form of 'controlled disinhibition'.
- Another key factor is the 'bonding' effect of risk-taking. Everyone at the races is involved in some degree of risk-taking, from the jockeys who risk life and limb to the ordinary racegoers with a £2 bet on the favourite. All experience a collective rush of adrenaline, which contributes to their sense of cohesion and solidarity.
- The exceptional sociability of racing crowds is also an effect of what social psychologists call 'behavioural contagion' a process by which emotions and behaviour patterns spread rapidly through a crowd, resulting in increased similarity in mood and conduct. Smiling is infectious.
- Although the world of horseracing is a village-like, tribal society a distinctive sub-culture with its own traditional rituals, customs, etiquette and dialect the sociability of the 'natives' makes it easy to become a member of this society.
These factors combine to produce the unique 'social micro-climate' of the racecourse, which provides ideal conditions for positive social interaction among racegoers.
The research showed that, contrary to popular assumptions, racecourses are not dominated by 'toffs'. In fact, racing may have more right to be called the 'National Sport' than football, as it appeals to all ages, all social classes and a much higher proportion of women attracting a more representative sample of the British population than almost any other spectator sport.
While racing crowds can be divided into distinctive types and groups, these cut across socio-economic boundaries. Two broad categories of racegoer were identified: 'Enthusiasts' (including Fans, Addicts, Horseys and Anoraks) and 'Socials' (including Suits, Girls' and Lads' Day-Outers, Pair-bonders, Family Day Outers and Be-seens).
Enthusiasts are dedicated racegoers, but the research found that they are not necessarily, or even predominantly, serious gamblers. 'Addicts' are addicted to racing, not gambling, and the majority just bet 'for fun' in fivers or tenners. Many 'Horseys' do not bet at all.
The research revealed that over a third of regular racegoers are 'Socials' racegoers with little interest in or understanding of horseracing, who attend race meetings for purely social reasons. The social attractions of racing are such that many of these racegoers are among the sport's most regular and loyal supporters.
Contrary to popular opinion, Social racegoers are not primarily upper-class or wealthy. Researchers found as many Socials in the cheaper Silver Ring enclosures as in the Members' enclosures. For both groups, the horses and races merely provide a colourful backdrop to an afternoon's social bonding. In particular, the research revealed the important role of racing in the mate-selection and courtship processes, and in improving business relationships.
Both Socials and Enthusiasts take their children to the races, and parents commented that racing is the most child-friendly spectator sport, as it is easy to understand, and could have been designed for a 5-year-old's attention-span.
Other key members of the racing tribe include jockeys, whose social position can be compared to that of tribal warriors – trainers, who have the prestige and mystery of shamans or witch-doctors – stewards and officials, the tribal elders; bookmakers, a marginalised caste performing a scapegoat function not unlike that of medieval 'sin-eaters' – journalists, the scribes and oracles of the racing tribe and owners, many of whom are no longer from the privileged classes, but who enjoy vestiges of traditional deference at the races because of their connection with the 'totem animal'.
The traditional customs and rituals of the racecourse are designed to promote social interaction and bonding between members of the racing tribe:
- The Circuit Ritual provides a reassuring, predictable pattern to the half-hour interval between races, as racegoers move from the parade ring, to the betting ring, to the stands, to the 'patting enclosure', to the bars, then back to the parade ring.
- The racecard is much more than just a source of information about the day's programme of races. It is a vital social tool, used in a variety of Racecard Rituals – as a passport to conversation with strangers, a 'prop' in social interaction among acquaintances, a chat-up device, a 'displacement activity' and a badge showing affiliation to the racing tribe
- Ritual conversations standard verbal exchanges that take place at every race-meeting are also designed to facilitate group solidarity and social integration. These include the What's Your Tip for the Next? – all-purpose initiator the Chances and Choices debate - Whining Rituals such as The Derby Has Lost Its Atmosphere – the What Does She Think She Looks Like? female-bonding ritual – Gossip Rituals Ancestor-worship Rituals and Paddock-side and Post-Mortem Rituals before and after every race.
- Celebration Rituals include the Triumphal Dance and the Songs of Praise, while the flamboyant Be-seens use the half-hour between races to parade up and down in the Catwalk Ritual, usually practised by pairs and trios, dressed in the most revealing of current fashions.
The social behaviour of the racing tribe is governed by a complex set of unwritten rules. This unofficial code of conduct affects every aspect of social interaction at the races, although racegoers obey the laws of racecourse etiquette instinctively, without being conscious of observing regulations or feeling restricted by them. Important rules of racecourse etiquette include:
- The Modesty Rule: Even if you are very good at picking winners, it is not done to say so self-effacing modesty is prescribed by racecourse etiquette, and self-deprecating jokes about one's lack of skill are appreciated.
- The Collective Amnesia Rule: the law of racecourse etiquette states that "after each race, thou shalt conveniently forget all erroneous predictions, prophecies and comments made before the race regarding the relative abilities and chances of the horses involved." This rule is absolutely essential to the maintenance of good relations between racegoers.
- The Code of Chivalry: Behaviour towards women, in all enclosures, follows an unwritten code of old-fashioned chivalry. At the races, all women are treated as 'ladies'. This code does not prevent racegoers from engaging in mate-selection, courtship and seduction rituals, but it does ensure that females feel safe, protected and respected
- Betting etiquette: In the unwritten laws of racecourse etiquette, £2 is a 'lady's bet' and anything below a fiver casts serious doubt on the masculinity of the punter. The rule for males is: "either don't bet on a race at all, or bet at least a fiver." There is no social status to be gained, however, by betting any more than a fiver or tenner. Although it is customary for males to participate in the ritual scanning of the bookies' boards in the Ring, it is also perfectly acceptable for even the most macho to bet with the Tote.
In addition to obeying these basic laws, owners, trainers, jockeys, lads, scribes and officials each have their own rules of etiquette to follow, their own ritual practices, and their own variations on the racing dialect enough material to keep teams of social scientists busy for many years.
The Racing Tribe report concludes that while the puritanical or envious will inevitably find much to condemn in the world of racing, observers of human behaviour cannot fail to be intrigued by this culture and that, being human, most such observers will be affected by the sunny social micro-climate of the racecourse, and will find themselves smiling.