A family day out at Exeter Racecourse

Exeter Racecourse is well known for the quality of its meetings

Exeter Racecourse is well known for the quality of its meetings - Credit: Phil Mingo/Pinnacle

Family day at Exeter Racecourse is more than just your average day out for youngsters at the races, as Lucy Johnson explains

The start of the children's running race down the home straight

The start of the children's running race down the home straight - Credit: Phil Mingo/Pinnacle

Kids love the races is a phrase that would be music to the ears of most racecourse managers up and down the country. But engaging the interest of the next generation of racegoers is a puzzling conundrum and while a variety of themed racedays are staged throughout the year to encourage parents to bring their children to their local racetrack, many of the activities on offer will probably do little to make the actual sport of horse racing appealing and inspiring.

At Exeter Racecourse a combination of a behind the scenes tour and meet and greet sessions with jockeys, together with activities that have a more general appeal, have meant children have been coming in their droves to its annual family day, sponsored by Finlake Holiday Park and held for the past eight years during the Easter holidays. This year Exeter will hold this day on Tuesday, 31 March.

The racecourse’s Daniel Thompson says: “We’ve always stayed true to our rural jump racing roots, and had the racehorse at the heart of all our themed activities.

“Now it is an established day in the calendar, and given it is free to children aged 17 and under, it’s always incredibly popular. If just a handful of children ask their parents if they can go racing again, we have achieved something.”

Ollie McPhail interviews a jockey at a previous Family Day

Ollie McPhail interviews a jockey at a previous Family Day - Credit: Phil Mingo/Pinnacle

Key to the day from the start has been former professional jockey Ollie McPhail, who works for the British Horseracing Education and Standards Trust. In his role as lead education officer, Ollie overseas the organisation of around 250 events run at racecourses, studs and other industry venues every year linking national curriculum subjects with horseracing. This year St Peter’s Church of England School, Blundells and Exmouth College will all be heading to the racecourse for out of classroom activities.

Ollie jumped on board at Exeter’s first ever children’s day and with back-up from the racecourse’s announcer Luke Harvey, another former jockey who has carved a successful career as a TV pundit, conducts an entertaining behind the scenes tour which includes question and answer sessions with famous jockeys, a running race down the home straight, the chance to stand up close to the huge chase fences jumped by the horses and have photographs taken with their favourite jockeys.

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Ollie says: “Family day at Exeter is always tremendous fun and it’s a fantastic way of really getting kids inspired about horse racing. The racecourse even has prizes for the children who ask the jockeys the best questions, invariably one involving how many bones have they broken!

“It’s a really great way for us to get the work of BHEST and our Racing To School initiative out there to the public.”

Leonard Coombe Master Saddlers and Country Life at Newton Abbot has also been involved from the start sponsoring the running races and various quizzes which take place throughout the day.

Manager Jo Ligthelm explains: “We love being involved and if the initiative encourages children to fall in love with horse racing, particularly horses, it has to be a good thing.”

New this year will be miniature Shetlands from Party Ponies which provides pony owning experiences for children, taking them to children’s parties.

Gill Vincent, who is based near South Brent on the southern edge of Dartmoor, says: “We’ll be bringing along a couple of ponies and it will be a fantastic opportunity for kids to meet and pet them. Actually touching and getting to know a pony is one the best way of engaging interest and we always find the children fall in love with them.”

With education at the core of its day, the racecourse will also be providing every single child who takes part in the running race with a £3 voucher plus free postage and packing to spend with Forelock books (forelock-books.co.uk) which specializes in children’s books with an equine theme.

Daniel explains: “This is a new initiative, and one that we are very excited about as we are taking our responsibility to children a step further by not only educating them about racing, but encouraging them to read as well.

“Reading can really fuel the imagination and Forelock Books has some brilliant titles including a new book called Pony Racer which is specifically about racing.”

Michelle Charman, who owns Forelock Books, added: “This is an absolutely wonderful initiative and we are delighted to support Exeter’s family day. We have some superb titles to suit every child’s interest.”

Finlake Holiday Park Family Day takes place on Tuesday, 31 March. A special two for one offer is available on pre-booked Grandstand and Paddock tickets (quote FAMILY15) and children aged 17 and under race free. The first of six races come under starters’ orders at 2pm, with two pony races taking place prior to that, and the gates open for pre-race activities at noon.

For latest information and fixtures at Exeter Racecourse, visit exeter.thejockeyclub.co.uk