Business is expected to be brisk at 9am on Friday morning when tickets go on sale for Doncaster’s St Leger Festival from 9 to 12 September – the first race meeting with paying spectators for nearly six months. In all, around 24,000 spectators are expected over the four-day festival, fewer than half of the 54,000 who attended 12 months ago, and while many fans will just be happy to get back on a track, it promises to be far removed from the familiar race day experience.
Like Goodwood, where a proposed pilot with 5,000 spectators was cancelled at the last minute earlier this month, racegoers at Doncaster next month will be allocated a zone at the track and must not stray beyond its boundaries, to reduce the opportunities for spectators to mingle.
Unlike Goodwood, which had planned to use up to seven zones for the paying public, Doncaster will have just two main areas for racegoers, in addition to hospitality areas and boxes which will be open but with reduced capacity. One zone will be on and around the ‘champagne lawn’ just past the winning post, with the other in the centre of the course.
Racegoers will be required to accept a Code of Conduct in order to buy tickets, which will be issued as e-tickets only, and they will be automatically registered for the government’s Trace and Trace scheme as they do so. Spectators in different zones will enter and exit the track at different times, but face coverings will be required only when using indoor facilities such as toilets and the track’s indoor betting hall.
On the subject of betting, bookmakers will be in attendance and while the number has yet to be finalised, the expectation at present is that they will be allowed to accept cash bets. This will come as a considerable relief to the layers, who had warned of chaos, both in accepting bets and paying out, if they were required to process all their business via contactless terminals.
No picnics will be allowed – in fact, no food or drink of any kind can be taken into the track – and under-18s will also be barred on all days, including Saturday. The normal dress code, however, will be maintained: collar-and-tie for gentlemen, “smart dress” for ladies and, of course, a face covering close at hand for everyone.
Doncaster has spent the last 24 hours since the pilot was announced contacting all customers who had already bought tickets for the meeting, establishing whether they still wanted to attend and in which zone, and offering refunds or a switch to next year’s Leger Festival for those who did not.
All remaining tickets – up to a total of 3,640 on 9 September and 6,200 on the next three days, will be available both online and over the phone from 9am. It will be surprising – and disappointing – if these do not sell out rapidly.
All four days at Doncaster will be closely watched throughout an industry that has seen many millions of pounds in race day revenue wiped out entirely since mid-March. If the government’s target of a more general return of spectators from 1 October is to be realised, the pilot days need to prove that socially-distanced racing is workable and that will place a burden of trust on all fans in attendance.
Goodwood planned to admit 5,000 of its annual members and guests on a Sussex hilltop, three miles from the nearest town. Doncaster, which is a 15-minute walk from the centre of town, will be selling tickets more generally and to a younger crowd.
Social distancing is harder to maintain with alcohol involved, so the track will have “social distancing officers” in all areas “to assist customers in meeting the requirements of the Code of Conduct”. Transgressors will be “reminded of their obligations while on site”, but “continued breaking of the Code of Conduct could unfortunately lead to expulsion from the racecourse” – an ultimate sanction that will hopefully keep everyone on their best behaviour as racing’s essential live audience returns.