13 SEPTEMBER 1997, Page 55

The turf

Enthusiasts and Socials

Robin Oakley

Iam lucky enough to have a job which never, ever bores. Lacking one or other of the vital qualifications for being an Eng- land wing three-quarter, chief taster for Gevrey-Chambertin or Michelle Pfeiffer's dresser, I rarely fantasise over what else I might have done in life. Certainly I would never have considered being an anthropol- ogist, assuming that that involved only end- less mud huts, monsoons and malaria in unpronounceable parts of the world. But Kate Fox may have changed my mind. An esteemed social scientist, she managed to persuade the British Horseracing Board and the Tote to fund her instead in a year's observation of the people who go racing. That lady in the pink hat who was watching us while we were watching Shaamit storm home in the Derby was her. And her report `The Racing Tribe — the Social Behaviour of Horsewatchers' makes witty and fasci- nating reading. From people-watching research into the rituals, etiquette and body language at Britain's racecourses, she concludes that they provide a sunny social micro-climate of obliging, friendly natives — an anthro- pologist's dream. Racecourses are places of relaxed inhibitions and exceptional good manners in which people take on a differ- ent personality. Inhibited types like the BBC's political editor can be heard yelling home the favourite. Habitual mortgage- worriers and penny-pinchers bet with aban- don and buy generous rounds of drinks with their winnings. Strangers armed with the essential social tool, the racecard, make eye contact and smile at each other more than in any other comparable social con- text. Young males congregate and drink without starting fights. Respectable, bour- geois women dress up as seductive glamour girls, acting out their exhibitionist fantasies in the certainty that racing's traditional chivalry will keep them safe and unmolested. Racing, says Kate Fox, may have more right than football to be called the national sport. Not only does it attract more women, but the traditional view that race crowds are divided into champagne-swilling toffs and shirtless lager louts is totally erro- neous. Demographic surveys showed that the proportion of ABs, Cls, C2s and DEs among race crowds is an almost perfect match with the population. And there is, she says, a taboo on being glum for more than a few minutes. (True for most, although some of our dourer senior jock- eys, who might as well be driving hearses as booting home winners for all the excite- ment they communicate, may have escaped her attention.) Racing is even discovered to be disconcertingly child-friendly as she quotes one father: 'The beauty of racing is that any five-year-old can understand it. It's so simple: they race from here to there and the first one to get there is the winner. And it's all over in a few minutes so you can go and have some chips.'

Kate Fox's report divides racegoers into two broad categories. There are Enthusi- asts, who can be subdivided into Fans, Addicts, Horseys and Anoraks. Then there are Socials, who include Suits, Girls and Lads' Day-outers, Pair-bonders, Family Day-outers and Be-seens. I certainly know some of the Anoraks she mentions, the sort who can recite the pedigree of every runner in the 3.30, where its maternal grandsire is standing at stud and what price its half- brother fetched at last year's Newmarket Sales. I find I am classed as an Addict, the sort who needs a weekly racing 'fix', who reads the racing papers every day and gets up early on Saturdays for The Morning Line.

Analysing the tribe, Kate Fox depicts jockeys as Warriors, trainers as Shamans or Witch Doctors, stewards as Elders and bookmakers as a kind of marginalised sect of scapegoats or 'sin-eaters'. Owners have a special status because of their connection with the centrepiece of the whole ritual, the Totem Animal. As for the rituals, I take comfort from her recognition of the collective amnesia of the Scribes: 'After each race thou shalt conveniently forget all erroneous predictions, prophecies and comments made before the race.' And I acknowledge that etiquette has established `Two pounds is a ladies bet and anything below a fiver casts doubt on the masculinity of the male punter.' With some bookies, if they have recognised your face from televi- sion, there is a recognisable sniff if you proffer anything less than a tenner.

But what is it then which makes racing crowds the amiable bunch which Kate Fox has identified? Principally, it seems, the intervals between races which provide more time than other sports for social con- tact, the 'ambiguous moral context' of a betting-centred sport which takes people into a non-serious world in which they can behave differently, and the 'bonding effect' of risk-taking, from the jockeys who put life and limb on the line to the punters who are risking a fiver each way If any non-racegoers reading this column are tempted to experiment with creating an alternative personality and would like to know more about the racing world, the British Horseracing Board will send them a Come Racing guide plus a fixtures list on receipt of a call to 0845 603 9082.

Robin Oakley is political editor of the BBC.