Alcohol is hurting horse racing on many levels. Bad behaviour among racegoers in Britain is in the news at the moment, but heavy drinking also takes a toll on many participants and can damage the image of the sport itself. Geir Stabell, who wrote this article before the recent spate of racecourse brawling, examines the evidence, and suggests some solutions.
In Britain, having a drink at the races has been part of the enjoyment for racegoers since day one – but genuine enthusiasts are expressing increasing dismay at how many days are spoilt by people who have had too much to drink, are way too loud, and way more interested in the bar than the races.
Avoiding disturbances like these can be difficult for committed racegoers trying thread their way around the racecourse trying to make the most of a day at the track.
Not all UK racecourses allow the public to carry drinks in front of the stands, but many do, and the bigger the day, the bigger the crowd and the bigger the problem.
The Minnesota option
Yet racetracks have become much more alcohol-tolerant than most sports. At Wembley Stadium, home of the England football team, for example, alcoholic drinks are banned in the stands. And strict limits are in force on the quantity fans are allowed to have with them when they’re watching the action at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships.
Yes, a social bar is a part of our culture, racing is an entertainment business, and the paying public should be able to have a good time, but maybe British racecourses should be taking a leaf out of the book of the U.S. Bank Stadium, home to the Minnesota Vikings and host to this year’s Super Bowl. There, a cut-off time is in operation for sales of alcohol after the third quarter. Fans are not allowed to bring alcohol into the stadium and they may not purchase or possess more than two alcoholic beverages at a time.
The relationship between alcohol and racing has long been widely accepted.
I remember watching a video on Mill Reef’s career as a teenager living in Norway, with nothing but admiration for the entire team around this champion – until Ian Balding mentioned how professional his jockey, Geoff Lewis, had been leading up to the Arc - because he had not touched a drink the last few weeks before the big event in Paris.
That comment made many of us laugh in Norway, where we grew up believing any athlete - be it a skier, a runner or a footballer - who was drinking alcohol was a fool and would not be taken seriously. Alcohol is a society problem in Scandinavia too, but quite a few Scandinavian footballers successful in the Premier League, like Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Erik Thorstvedt and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, have talked of being shocked when they witnessed the consumption of alcohol among their colleagues when they went to play in England.
Improving your chances of success
Every big-race winner is a result of good teamwork, from the stable staff, to the work rider, to the trainer, to the jockey. Surely then it makes sense that the stronger you can make every link in the chain, the better your chances of success.
Talking openly about his problems with alcohol, jockey Kent Desormeaux went public during the weeks of the 2016 U.S. Triple Crown series, when he partnered Exaggerator to success in the Preakness Stakes after having ridden the colt to a fine second in the Kentucky Derby.
Desormeaux told the world he had sought professional help, admitting the one thing he had been negatively exaggerating the most over the years was consumption of alcohol.
Young riders should take notice, and there’s no doubt many do, but it can’t be easy, as ‘booze’ is so prominent in racing circles. If alcohol can get the better of a man like Desormeaux, one of the strongest riders in North America, it can get the better of us all.
It doesn’t necessarily need many drinks to bring on trouble. British jump jockey Tom Bellamy, who failed a breath test at Cheltenham on New Year’s Day, explained that he had enjoyed a couple of drinks on an empty stomach the night before. A month later, he told the Racing Post, “The reality is I’ve learned from my mistake. I shouldn’t have had a drink at all, and it won’t be happening again. I hope it doesn’t affect my career in the future. I haven’t had a drink since and won't be any time soon.”
The link to aggression
Most of the negative effects from alcohol are well known, like lack of concentration, reaction and balance, memory loss, and low energy the following day. To a sportsman, it should be obvious that a life without alcohol can only help improve skills, fitness and judgement, not to mention longevity. Yet there are bigger dangers still. A recent study conducted at the University of New South Wales reveals that as little as two glasses of spirit can trigger changes in the brain that are connected to aggression.
Led by professor Thomas F. Denson, whose main fields are anger-driven aggression, inter-group conflict, social neuroscience and psycho-neuro-endocrinology, this study was made with observations of 50 healthy young men, undergoing MRI scanning after having been given alcohol or non-alcoholic placebo drinks. They were asked to perform tasks that have been well and truly tested for decades in observing aggression as a result of provocation.
Difficult to detect errors
Using ‘functional magnetic resonance imaging’ (fMRI), the researchers could map which areas of the brain were triggered, and also compare differences between participants who had been given alcohol and those who had been given placebos.
For those who had consumed alcohol, aggression triggered a dip in activity in the medial frontal cortex (MFC) of the brain. Such a dampening effect was also observed in areas of the brain connected to reward. The MFC is an area that becomes active following errors, and alcohol has been found to reduce its efficiency, making errors more difficult to detect.
It’s not so hard to see that keeping this part of an athlete’s - or a horseplayer’s - brain in the best possible shape at all times has considerable advantages.
Denson's study has been published in the journal Cognitive, Affective and Behavioral Neuroscience.