A DAY AT THE RACES
Photography and text by Peter Bartlett
West Yorkshire photographer Peter Bartlett has a long standing interest in documentary photography dating back to the 1970s. This has evolved into a portfolio that documents everyday life against a backdrop of the ordinary urban landscapes of northern England. In October 2020 Peter’s 2019 project 'A Day at the Races' was published by the Worcestershire-based photo book imprint ADM Publications. Peter shared his story about racing culture in Great Britain with the Pictorial Mag.
Horse racing is so popular in the UK that it is only surpassed by football in terms of spectator numbers, with over six million attendees passing through the turnstiles at racecourses around the country every year. The British horseracing industry is a world-leader, generating more than £3.7 billion for the country’s economy (in 2017) thanks in part to iconic events like The Grand National and the Cheltenham Festival, which are watched by millions around the world.
Race goers are an eclectic group. At one extreme there is the serious punter, and at the other the casual race goer simply enjoying a day out. There are those that go to be seen as well as to see, the high-rollers, the young, the old and those in between, the wealthy and those less so, the country set and the townies that just go to party. The mix of attendees is endless, creating a colourful atmosphere within the spectator enclosures as people circulate between the stands, the betting ring, the bars, and the parade ring, interacting and engaging with one another.
I spent much of 2019 visiting race meetings in the north of England to capture a fly on the wall document of attendees enjoying a day out. Studying the odds, enjoying a drink, having a laugh, and soaking up the drama, my candid photos showcase the frivolity of pre-pandemic race days. From my own observations at racecourses around the North of England where the images were taken (and where I live), it is fair to say that although it is an elite sport, it is also seen very much as a social event, especially at the major race meetings at high profile tracks.
I started A Day at the Races as a long term project, intending to shoot throughout 2019 through this year and into 2021. However, the project was brought to an abrupt halt in March 2020 by the Covid-19 lockdown, when all elite sport was suspended. What I didn’t realise when I was shooting the images in the series during 2019, was that I was creating a historical document of social behaviour that is unlikely to be repeated for possibly several years.
Horse racing returned in the UK, behind closed doors, from 1 June 2020. Two attempts were made to allow spectators to return. The first try, in August, was aborted a few days beforehand, and the second at the 2020 St. Leger Festival was abandoned after one day, although the racing at that meeting and others did continue behind closed doors. Furthermore, the one day’s racing at Doncaster (St Leger Festival) took place under strict conditions. Spectator numbers were heavily limited and strict social distancing provisions were in place. For example, a news report of the event showed signs announcing “No Shouting” and “No Cheering”.
If, or when, spectators do return to race tracks, it is fairly clear that the atmosphere for the spectators will be very different indeed. As things stand at present there seems little chance of spectators returning to race tracks until well into 2021.
Most elite sports will continue to take place behind closed doors in the immediate future. Even when spectators do return, numbers are likely to be substantially reduced, with the spectator experience significantly altered by social distancing and other Covid-safe protocols.
What you are seeing here is my documentary of the carefree dynamics of pre-pandemic days that we are unlikely to witness again in the foreseeable future, or indeed, perhaps for several years.
All photos © Peter Bartlett