Aintree using power of the Grand National to help the community

All eyes will be on Aintree and the Crabbie’s Grand National next week, but then again, all roads have been leading to Liverpool’s famous racecourse for children for the past year, thanks to an initiative created by Racing Together, the sport’s community outreach co-ordinator.

Aintree is Britain’s first Beacon Racecourse, and in the first 12 months of a two-year pilot run by Racing To School, the charity responsible for delivering education programmes through the sport, around 1,500 children have had access to the world-famous venue, of whom at least 30 per cent had never previously visited a racecourse.

The people of Liverpool are very proud of the Grand National

Almost all the youngsters, whose ages range from nine to 16, will have another year’s experience of a programme that Aintree chairman Rose Paterson describes as “fundamental to our link with the community,” and to which John Baker, north-west regional director for Jockey Club Racecourses, adds: “This is our way of giving something back to local people, encouraging them to become part of the racecourse, to see what we do.”

Baker is in no doubt about what Beacon status means for Aintree. “It’s huge,” he says. “We had already started our own community programme when this came along, because the Grand National is the People’s Race and we believe Aintree should be the People’s Racecourse, so it was all about engaging with the community. Becoming the first Beacon Racecourse took that idea a step further.

“The people of Liverpool are very proud of the Grand National and they appreciate that it’s on a world stage and transcends beyond the city, but realistically only a small minority will actually come racing, especially outside the National festival.”

While Aintree’s community purpose is balanced with a spirit of commercial realism, the general Beacon concept concentrates on educational elements, with Racing To School working in collaboration with the racecourse, the BHA through Racing Together, the Racecourse Association and Careers In Racing.

Racing To School Executive Director Judith Allen explains: “We are averaging 10,000 children a year on our general educational days, but while most schools are keen to book with us year on year, we tend to see a different group of children each time.

“The idea of the Beacon programme is to build a series of activities that are woven into the school curriculum, so that from Year 5, for nine- and ten-year-olds, through every year until they leave school, pupils will have a racing-related experience.

“The programme of activities for each school is tailored to the particular needs identified by the teachers and varies between the years, but it can include taking part in a pony education day at the racecourse, getting involved in an activity based on a racing theme, or having a racing ambassador – someone from the racecourse or a local trainer – help them with careers’ education lessons.
“The whole idea is primarily to support young people’s learning and development, but also to open their eyes to racing as a potential leisure activity and to show them the opportunities the sport can offer for work experience, training or a potential future career.”

Costs for the two-year pilot are budgeted at £140,000, of which £85,000 has been committed by the Racing Foundation. Aintree itself is contributing in kind by dedicating a number of staff hours per month to the project, of which the majority are taken up by Grant Rowley, Communications and PR Manager for Jockey Club Racecourses’ North-West region, who draws on valuable experience in a similar previous role with Liverpool FC.

Rowley explains: “We’re working closely with Racing Together, the Racing to School team, the RCA, Racing to School and the BHA to make this a fantastic case study for all racecourses, and already the feedback we’ve had is that for some of the children the experience has been really inspirational.

“Working with enthusiastic partners is absolutely key, and Maricourt High School in Maghull has been a perfect example. I can’t speak highly enough about the support we have had from there, from such as Julie Bennett, the deputy head, and Ian Daly.

“One of the most rewarding exercises we carried out with them was last autumn, when a team from Aintree, including John Baker and myself, set groups of Year 10 pupils the task of developing a strategy to market the Becher Chase meeting. These were 14- and 15-year-olds, so attentive and interested, and what they came up with was outstanding for people of their age.

“The next step is that we will have two people from the school coming to Aintree on two weeks’ work experience in June.”

Running parallel with the Beacon project is Aintree’s community programme, which has five themes: best for health and well-being; best for community engagement; best for mental health; best for riding in the community, and best for disability.

Stand-out occasions in 2015 ranged from 70 local schoolchildren singing the National Anthem on Grand National day to four events carried out in partnership with Everton FC and Riding for the Disabled, with former jockey Carrie Ford, who works for the Racing Together team, extending her Beacon project involvement to share the experience of finishing fifth on Forest Gunner in the Grand National.

Rowley adds: “Taking another cue from Everton, we have done dementia tours, where a group of people come to the course, have a look round and a bite of lunch, and listen to a talk from our Grand National historian Jane Clark.

“Nothing strenuous, but it gives the carers some respite and is wonderful for the people taking part. A lot of them haven’t been to Aintree, but some of those that have are able to reminisce about past experiences, which is an enormous help, and I’m told it brings back other memories when they go back to their families.”

Looking back over the past 12 months, Rowley says: “A lot has happened. Our first year was superb, and we were delighted when we won the Racing Together Community and Social Responsibility category at the RCA Showcase Awards, as well as a special Jockey Club award.”

Looking ahead, he says: “Health and well-being will be the next big project, identifying the best way to partner with Liverpool FC, which has a fantastic men’s health programme. We’re also looking to do more with Alder Hay hospital, because they’ve got a brand new facility.

“This year is all about getting the right focus. I don’t think Aintree has gone out to the community as much as it might have done in the past. That’s not a criticism, just the way it’s been, but with another 12 months of the Beacon pilot and our community programme, and a lot of enthusiasm, we can get things done, using the power of one of the biggest sporting events in the world to enthuse local children and adults alike.”