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  • GUEST BLOG - A DAY AT THE RACES

    A day at the races – a personal view

    by Will Reilly, broadcaster/journalist, studio manager Boylesports.com, Ireland

    In writing this piece I am reminded that, whether it is in the area of film, theatre, newspapers, politics or sport, the more you include your audience in what is going on, the more likely you are to engage them; the more you engage them, the more they are likely to enjoy the experience; the more they enjoy the experience, the more they are likely to want to do it again.

    A day at the races is a unique experience. Humans and horses in union, bedecked in colour, finely tuned as athletes, ready to have their athleticism and ability tested, cheered on by enthusiastic, hopeful crowds.

    Add in the excitement of the natural build-up to each race and the prospect of winning money through having a bet, or simply having your judgement vindicated, there is the added sense of occasion, purpose and fun.

    But you do not have to bet to enjoy a day at the races. The spectacle alone, fuelled by a love of the horse, can be enough.

    And, much as an individual race can stand alone as an event, it also forms part of the narrative of the season, fitting into the whole via the form book and an official ratings system. There is a pattern and a structure to the racing season.

    As such, each race can be like a piece in a jigsaw, within which the picture eventually becomes clearer and the potential stars appear, ones that can capture the imagination of the racing public and beyond. Think Arkle, think Desert Orchid, think Frankel, think Derby, think Grand National.

    Racing lends itself neatly to a steady build up to a climax. The horses are in the paddock; they are heading for the start; they are going into the stalls; they are almost set; they are racing, with the commentary then accentuating and bringing the process to fruition.

    Everyone is in the same boat at the races, and have the same aims: to find a winner; to take a break from the world of everyday life; to feel excitement; to laugh and shout and roar home their choice; to have fun – and racing is fun.

    At the heart of a day at the races is the horse: a finely-tuned athlete, a creature that has been captured in art by such greats as Manet, Degas, Munnings, Toulouse-Lautrec and Stubbs, and many excellent modern-day artists and photographers.

    Actually being able to see the horses is a hugely important element to a day at the racecourse; it may be the one opportunity that most people get to see horses in the flesh, to get so close to them, ones to which they may have already formed an attachment.

    Yet, sadly, horses are so frequently covered in the parade-ring these days by long sheets or rugs, whereby you cannot see them in order to assess their physical shape and scope, level of fitness, skin/coat condition, whether or not they are sweating, or to get to savour more fully their beauty.

    As such, the race-goer is being denied an essential part of the race-day experience and the fuel of the narrative, through conversation and print, that finds its way far beyond the racecourse.

    Is this right? Is there a particularly good reason why these sheets and rugs have found their way to parade-rings, for this is only a recent development?

    Surely the race-goer has the right to see, at the very least, a horse’s withers, quarters and waistline to form a view as to its make, shape, scope, fitness and wellbeing, for these are elements that can assist in choosing which horse to back, and are the impressions and memories that will be carried with people when they leave the track.

    The racehorse is a magnificent animal, a finely-tuned athlete to boot, with its own unique blend of breeding and personality, behind which lie the stories of the skills that are required to train and get it to the racetrack in the first place.

    The more one thinks about this, the more one realises how extraordinary a sport it is, and how large a part it plays in the fabric of communities up and down the country and, indeed, across the world.

    Of course, if you do not take to a day at the races, it will be a very long three or four hours; but if you do, I would venture to suggest that it will be as enjoyable a day out as you are likely to experience in a sporting environment.

    At the centre of everything are the horses. They are, after all, the stars of the show, and lie at the heart of conversations – an essential part of the sport’s narrative - that extend and exist way beyond the track.

    Please let us see them in all their glory. Anything less means that an essential component in the process of engagement is being lost.

  • What would enhance your raceday experience?

    For the last year or so, I have been in polite communication with a very nice chap who has, in my opinion, a very reasonable observation about Parade Ring viewing.

    We've not quite got to the bottom of the matter yet (but are still trying!)

    Notwithstanding our internal efforts, I'm very happy to publish his thoughts and will do so tomorrow.

    This got me to thinking about how RfC could publish a few more views on what would improve the race-going experience - whether for regular, occasional or new visitors.

    A positive customer experience is usually the sum of many parts, so getting lots of small things right makes a real difference.

    We share the RfC blog with all the UK's racecourses and the RCA (Racecourse Association) who lead the Raceday Experience Group - which is committed to improving how racecourses look after thier customers.

    Therefore, over the coming weeks, we'll happily publish some guest blogs on this subject on the basis that they are:

    Constructive, plausible and non-abusive. Max 500 words.

    Feel free to identify good practice too - the carrot can work as well as the stick!

    If you would like to submit your blog for consideration, please send it to info@racingenterpriseslimited.co.uk - subject RfC Blog.

  • Keep Calm and Carry On

    When Racing for Change undertook an omnibus survey last spring – just after the 2011 Grand National – we established that 39% of the public surveyed said ‘they were not interested in racing at all’.

    Of that 39%, a quarter of them said they found racing ‘cruel’ (a third of that 39% associated racing negatively with gambling, incidentally)

    What can we learn from those two raw statistics?

    Firstly, almost 40% of the population is not interested racing in the slightest. Not a shock there then. In common with all other pursuits and pastimes, some markets will remain ever closed to us. Such is life.

    Secondly, the vast majority of those that perceive racing to be cruel are in the ‘not interested’ camp. And we can assume those two stats are not mutually exclusive.

    Ergo – the majority of people who perceive racing to be cruel do not, as a consequence, participate in the sport.

    Therefore the sport needs to tread very carefully in its relationship with a segment of society which is deeply unlikely to ever attend or view a racemeeting.

    Times change, of course, and the sport’s regulator has a responsibility to ensure racing is one step ahead in equine welfare. And it is generally better to implement change than have it imposed.

    But the sport, equally, needs to have the confidence in itself not to pander to minorities or false perception.

    Not for a moment are we trivialising an important subject. Neither, as an organisation that promotes positive change, should we preclude changes to the Grand National or any other racing event.

    But any change should be on the basis of horseracing being very clear about its own identity, its participants and its real customers. We should also be mindful that any ground we give up in relation to the nation's most iconic event will never be regained.

    So, having stated our case, reassured the general public about how integral safety is to our sport and presented the facts about racehorse welfare, it might mean drawing a line and saying to those that object to us, “We’re sorry you feel the way you do, but this is what WE do.

    Following this weekend’s Grand National, when two horses were sadly lost to us, the debate will intensify once more but we should remind ourselves that it’s largely a debate between two extremes – the aficionados and antis. And they will never agree.

    But what of the people who fill the middle ground?

    My view is that they may debate this briefly and some are likely to have concerns with welfare. But they will quickly return to their everyday lives, to which racing is not a central part. But next April, they’ll be back, having a bet on the Grand National and watching it.

    That’s not meant flippantly. It’s just that what people say and how they then behave are often different. The person that remarks how sad it was that horse was lost in the race, doesn’t necessarily follow through with non-participation in the future. The next time the office sweepstake comes around, they’re in. The next time the race is run, they’re making their each-way selections and viewing it again. And this is less about hypocrisy and far more about people's general indifference.

    Neither should we forget that inherent in the public appeal of the Grand National is the spectacle it provides - warts and all.

    I’m sure I read in many places last year that the events in 2011 were the ‘death knell’ for the race and yet a year on there seemed to be the same, if not greater, level of media coverage for the race and I’m sure I heard a few comments about record betting turnover! This is clearly at odds with the claims of the doom mongers.

    At the centre of this issue is the animal and, again, we need to show greater collective confidence here. At the very heart of our sport are people who love the horse, (sometimes to the exclusion of all other things). When I hear those opposed to racing making unqualified assertions about horse welfare, I’m saddened that a greater voice is not given to both those who know their stuff and those that care deeply. Although we do have to face up to the fact that reasoned argument will never make as good copy or airtime as melodramatic assertions.

    Who was more deeply affected by the loss of two horses yesterday? The once-removed haters or the teams driving back to their yard with an empty horse box? Who better understands the level of care provide to racehorses? The annual radio phone-in guest or those who work in the sport seven days a week?

    Post the 2012 Grand National people have asked us how Racing for Change is affected and what it plans to do in PR terms.

    First up, it’s the role of the sport’s regulator, the BHA to deal with the welfare issues, which it does and is doing so in a thoughtful and measured way.

    In promotional terms and returning to the raw numbers once more, our reading of 39% of the population being closed to racing is that 61% is open to it. That’s plenty for RfC to go at. About 36 million people in fact! And that’s where we’ll focus our efforts.

    Spending our time trying to persuade a sector of the market that will never go racing would be a dreadful waste of energy after all.....

  • Something for the weekend....

    In January 2010 an industry group - consisting of BHA, Horsemen, Racecourses and the Levy - met to discuss fixture strategy. It was agreed that the principle of making Saturdays as strong as possible was a sound one. This included moving Group One races to Saturdays where possible.

    There were three main reasons:

    Saturday is, by a New York mile, the stongest betting day of the week.

    Saturday enables customers to attend or watch racing.

    Saturday is the preferred broadcast day for racing as broadcaster interest in midweek and Sunday racing beyond the established Festivals has diminished.

    As it happened, there was not a lot of engineering required with the Saturday programme because, funnily enough, it was 95% all right in any case but one or two courses did take the opportunity to shift meetings into a Saturday slot in line with the strategy.

    The 'overcrowded' weekend currently under discussion was foreseen and debated pretty robustly by the participants in an attempt to dilute it but, ultimately, with none of the courses willing to move, this weekend ended up as overly strong - with the surrounding weekends a little weaker. But it's an EXCEPTION, rather than the rule – the result of a small group of financially independent racecourses being able to hold their ground on this occasion.

    Racing’s fixture programme has its issues (what sport's fixture list doesn't) but is generally balanced and offers horsemen, the broadcaster, the racegoer, the betting shop punter and the viewer very good opportunities to participate.

    Saturday's maximise income for the industry - period. And, despite protestations to the contrary, the vital income is very much recycled into prize money and racecourse investment.

    Racing's established midweek festivals are fantastic and Sundays could be better if the industry had the money to invest in them, but any views that better racemeetings being shifted back into midweek would be good for the sport are rose-tinted. There are less people able to attend, less people around to bet and the broadcasters are unlikely to screen it.

    That's not to say we can't shift the emphasis - racing, collectively, can choose to do what it pleases - but there would be consequences and a beautifully balanced programme of racing that pleases the eye of the racing and punting purist means racing regressing overall - deliverable only for those with the will to stage it or the wealth to participate.

    We have a wonderful habit in life (not just racing!) of reacting to one ‘thing’ and that ‘thing’ without analysis, becomes the example of everything that is wrong. It rarely turns out to be the case.

    Yes, this Saturday isn't ideal and needs to be looked at again, but it doesn't mean the system is broken or that the over-arching strategy is wrong.

  • No Reason to Fear the Filly Factor

    Dear Paul

    In response to your open letter.

    Thank you for taking the time to share your views on the female commentator competition – which are valid and well made.

    What perhaps they don’t take into consideration is that the participating racecourses are fully behind the competition and have made it clear to the public in advance publicity and on the day that something different and special is happening.

    Moreover, the great British public have an enormous sense of fun and whilst a racing die-hard may be unforgiving of the technical aspects of a commentary, the majority will see it for what it is and be supportive.

    We also think there is room in a 1300 strong fixture list to do something different over a couple of days.

    Yes, the commentators do lack experience (which is rather the point of the exercise) and may be raw at present but there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have a live platform.

    We know that they are all up for it and they have worked and researched incredibly hard.

    If the worst that happens is that a racecourse commentary is sub-par, the world won’t end! Betting shops and ATR will get the standard commentary. The race results will not be affected. No-one will suffer materially.

    But you make no reference to the upside in your letter – that we may hear some cracking commentaries – ones that would have otherwise never been heard. Or that racegoers will enjoy being part of a unique occasion.

    The competition has had staggering UK-wide coverage and created a great deal of interest, much of which will be followed-up by the wider media over the weekend. I think many will approach it with an open mind and sense of fun.

    Two professional commentators - the excellent Richard Hoiles and John Hunt - have been involved in the process, including the judging and are very supportive of the initiative.

    We had over 40 contestants at the outset and we believe we’ve found a terrific set of semi-finalists who are completely up for it and we wish them the very best of luck at both Bath and Doncaster over the weekend.

    The eventual winner, of course, has a chance to break new ground and we are committed to helping them develop a meaningful career in broadcasting, beyond the close of the competition.

    Paul’s original blog can be found here http://osterbeast.blogspot.com/2011/06/open-letter-to-rod-street.html

  • GUEST BLOG: Follow the Mother Country’s example - an Antipodean approach to Racing For Change:

    I am delighted to welcome Shane Anderson from Racing Ahead – Radio Sport National – Australia, as guest blogger

    An undefeated champion that has captured the imagination of more than just the traditional racing fan, an industry caught up in internal bickering over what is the best wagering model for racing’s financial security, constant discussion over the value of broadcast rights, a brewing negative public perception of jumps racing, confusion as to whether the industry can still be viewed as a spectator sport rather than a wagering opportunity, a disjointed approach to attracting a youthful audience, and differing opinions over the use of the whip.

    Yes, I am referring to the Australian racing industry. Although, it is easy to see that many of racing’s issues are global. Similar headline grabbing themes have appeared through the UK racing press in recent times. For an industry that is based on opinion, it certainly resents others than its own.

    I’m in a privileged position in that I am able to make a living out of something that I would (and do) willingly spend money to be involved in. I love racing. Always have, and always will. It is a passion that has grown stronger each year and it has allowed me to travel the world, speaking regularly with people from all walks of life, from divergent backgrounds and cultural beliefs.

    It has offered me the opportunity of buying into relatively slow horses, despite their looks and pedigree indicating that they should be a touch quicker. Yet I still live in hope that, one day, it will all fall into place, allowing my home to transfer itself into a shrine to the shiniest of racing trophies.

    However, by having such a passion, it consistently makes me question the strategy that is in place to give the sport a fighting chance of survival in a world that consistently offers up cheaper and, dare I say it, sexier forms of entertainment and wagering opportunities.
    In February, after months of feeling uneasy about the direction of the Australian racing industry, I contacted Rod Street, who I had yet to meet or even speak to. I had been following the development of Racing For Change from afar, and have been impressed by the verve that the initiative possesses, especially through his passion to bring racing into the modern way of thinking.

    My key question to Rod was could this be translated to the Australian racing industry?

    I interviewed Rod for my radio program, Racing Ahead, and was able to speak with him extensively, on a variety of issues that the racing industry faces, and he was able to assure me that I was on the right path. Racing needs to be challenged.

    From that discussion, I held a two day broadcast on my program – titled the Racing Ahead Summit – whereby I gathered the leaders of the Victorian racing industry, the strongest in Australia, to discuss a sampling of key issues that are cause for concern.
    It was not to say that I thought that the Australian racing industry was failing, for it is not. I truly believe that Australian racing is world’s best practice.

    But it was to actually ask racing’s administrators, with input from my audience – made up by punters, trainers, owners, jockeys, breeders, club members & general fans - if they were taking a visionary approach for the sport’s future and security, rather than just managing expectations for the here and now.

    Racing in Australia is, in many ways, intrinsic to what it means to be Australian. Our racing is based on egalitarian beliefs. It is why our most important race (and national institution), the Melbourne Cup, is a handicap. It is why so many of our elite level races are handicaps. It is why racehorse syndication has become the most popular way of getting involved in ownership. Everyone should have an equal chance of success and be available to all. Well, in theory at least.

    Similarly to what is happening in the UK, Australian racing has significant issues to address if it is to maintain relevance into the future. Thankfully, we are in a stronger position and can use what has happened in the UK, especially in terms of funding, as examples that Australian racing need not experience.

    Firstly, Australian racing needs to determine and address the value of ‘the horse’, which is the central and most important point of the thoroughbred industry. Does the industry do enough to engage the audience with the horse? What is the overall perception of the thoroughbred industry? Is it easy and cost effective to get involved?

    For example, issues such as the perceived wider community concerns that jumps racing is a barbaric sport or that whips are not required in racing need to be debated, and celebrated that so much passion can be ignited. These debates cannot be treated with the usual disdain by racing participants, treating negative comments solely as uneducated outsider’s views of the sport. In the modern era, perception is critical in the development of a sport in a vastly more diversified community than ever before. Tradition cannot, and must not, dictate.

    Issues such as these can pose the question of do we do enough to place a ‘true value’ on a racehorse, outside of just what the racetrack and breeding opportunities provide. What happens post racing to the slow gelding who couldn’t win on the all-weather should matter as much as the multiple group one winning colt, yet it doesn’t. How do we make all horses valuable?

    This leads us to communication. Is the message of the racing industry communicated appropriately? How much control does racing have of communicating its message? Is enough being done to keep racing mainstream across all elements of communication and broadcasting (television, radio, internet, and print)? Has the industry been proactive in embracing social media services, such as facebook and twitter? What needs to be improved? For the uninitiated, is it easy to understand form and place a bet?

    All successful sporting industries have a strong working relationship with the media. In Australia, we are generally lucky in that the majority of racing’s celebrities, principally the trainers and jockeys, make themselves readily available for interviews.

    But to grow, the sport needs to be attractive enough to move to the front pages of the newspapers, or be elevated to segments on the evening news. The sport needs stars. The participants need to understand that they have an obligation to be available, similarly to what other mainstream sports do.

    It has become a somewhat major news item here in that, with the transferring of our champion galloper So You Think to Ballydoyle after his purchase by Coolmore, so little information can now be gained from Aidan O’Brien and his team regarding his progress. When trained by our industry’s living legend, Bart Cummings, a journalist would be only a phone call away from gaining the greatest of insights.

    For racing to prosper, our participants need to be available. The more information provided to the general public, the greater the opportunity for wagering to grow.

    Racing also needs to determine the most appropriate television broadcasting option. Currently, the two players in Australia are Sky Racing, which is owed by wagering giant Tabcorp (and which I appear on), and TVN, which has stakeholders made up of the Victorian and New South Wales’ industries. This has led to four racing only television channels, and wall to wall racing coverage, which appears to be cannibalising itself.

    From a commercial, free-to-air perspective, the only coverage of interest is Melbourne Cup day, despite the broadcaster, Seven Network, being contracted to cover the other three days of the Flemington carnival. All other carnivals require the clubs to pay for the broadcast on free-to-air. It was famously said during my recent summit that, “repeat episodes of Gilligan’s Island rate higher than racing”.

    I broadcast for Radio Sport National, which is owned in full by members of the Victorian racing industry (thoroughbred, harness racing and greyhounds), with our charter being to broadcast racing and wagering options from all parts of the world. I am proud to say that our network provides world’s best practice and is unique in the coverage that we provide. Our foundation radio station is, in fact, the oldest commercial radio station in Australia (3UZ). It gives racing a much needed 24 hour a day voice across radio, all year round.

    Of great significance is industry funding. Is racing being funded appropriately? Is it in safe hands? Is a wagering turnover tax a better funding model than one based on gross profits? Do corporate bookmakers and exchanges pay the industry appropriately? Do wagering providers service their clients appropriately? Does Australian racing require a national approach to funding rather than the traditional state by state determinant?

    The advantage that Australian racing has had over many other jurisdictions is that it has been built around the totalisator, which has given it financial security and funding. The TAB, as out pari-mutuel system is nationally referred to, has been the backbone of the industry since its introduction in the 1960s.

    The industry, through its state by state management (and not an overriding national body or government department), has thrived off having a wagering system that has been developed to consistently fund it, with the funding model based on a turnover tax.

    With the growth of corporate bookmakers in the Australian wagering scene, and also the introduction of Betfair in the past decade, the determination of the most appropriate funding model is critical. For the bookmakers to strengthen, they argue for a gross profit model. But while a strong corporate bookmaker assists the punter and challenges the pari-mutuel, in creating a variety of betting options, it does not necessarily translate to being good for the industry. If a bookmaker is not successful, who funds racing?

    In Australia, we lack a national approach to many racing issues, none more so than that of funding. For example, the New South Wales racing industry is involved in a long standing legal battle with corporate bookmaker Sportsbet and Betfair regarding its right to charge the wagering providers a fixed taxed based on turnover. New South Wales’ stance differs to that of Victoria, who have argued for corporate bookmaker and the exchange to be charged on a gross profit taxation model (although, after considerable industry comment, this is currently being reviewed by an independent panel which will likely suggest a hybrid taxation model. Additionally, with the announcement of the post 2012 wagering operator for Victoria expected soon, this will have a massive impact on the overall wagering landscape throughout Australia).

    It highlights that our two biggest states are not in sync regarding the most critical issue of industry funding, which then ripples through to the other states, often holding up development opportunities and strategy, including the all important programming of races.

    Racing has long been referred to as a spectator sport. But is this necessarily the case for the future? How important is the on-course experience for racing’s survival? Does the patron gain appropriate value by attending on-course? Is the on-course experience too time consuming for the modern era?

    In Australia, outside of the world famous spring carnival, attendance figures are in trouble. While we may get approximately 400,000 to attend the four days of the Flemington Melbourne Cup carnival in November, we struggle to get 70,000 across the six weeks of the Melbourne Festival of Racing in February/March, which often produces a better standard of racing.

    When Black Caviar made her triumphant return to racing in 2011 with a stunning win in the Global Sprint Challenge’s opening leg, the Lightning Stakes, only 13,000 people attended. This was despite her billing as the second coming of Phar Lap, our greatest racing icon, in a race that has proven to be the starting point for some of our modern era globetrotting champions such as Choisir, Takeover Target and Miss Andretti.

    The apparent concern is that the industry seems to have succumbed to the belief that crowds will only come once a year, with the focus needing to be on wagering rather than gate receipts. But how will this impact on the next generation of race fan?

    Racing also struggles to recognise price point sensitivity and is reluctant, primarily through concerns regarding brand image, to introduce discounted or free race days. This is despite positive response from other sports which have introduced similar strategies. Racing is also reluctant to shorten the program, which all other sports seem to be rushing to, meaning that a day at the races often greatly exceeds the time available for most people.

    Finally, racing is viewed as having a middle-aged, predominately Caucasian male following. What can be done to invigorate the interest of the ‘missing generations’? Is racing an attractive enough entertainment option to entice 18-35 year old demographic? Is it attractive enough to increase female patronage? Can the industry survive without accessing these key demographics?

    This is probably the toughest issue for racing to determine an outcome to. While sports wagering continues to grow in Australia, betting on racing is struggling for growth. And it struggles to gain traction with younger punters.

    Part of the problem is that racing, in so many ways, has its own unique language. This makes it harder to attract the uninitiated. It is much easier to pick your favourite team, which you have had a lifelong emotional linkage, to win a football match over trying to determine the appropriate form reference for a racehorse. How does racing make it easier to understand the machinations of placing a bet?

    Also, racing needs to open itself up to partnerships with other sport and entertainment options, especially in chasing a younger audience. Power to choose currently sits firmly with the consumer, and membership offerings and entitlements need to be more malleable to these needs.
    Australian racing is well placed to learn of the mistakes that have been made in the UK, especially in terms of funding, rather than going down the path of suffering the pain.

    UK initiatives such as Racing For Change and Student Racing have been received with interest in Australia, although the belief is that we can copy certain elements rather than create our own entities.

    Australian racing is, overall, in a remarkably strong place as we edge towards the middle of 2011. But excellence can still be improved upon.

    We delight in having, currently, the world’s highest rated thoroughbred in Black Caviar. She truly is the most magnificent talent, with an ability to cruise along at her leisure whilst others are flat out keeping in touch, let alone challenging – a similar trait to that of your emerging superstar, Frankel.

    When rival connections mention that they are just proud enough to have a horse entered in the same race as her, you get an insight into her greatness.

    She has yet to be tested. And I doubt that she will be, not in the near future anyhow. On Saturday, Black Caviar will attempt to stretch her unbeaten sequence to 13 when she lines up in the Group One BTC Cup over 1200m at Doomben, in Queensland.

    It is an important race for her trainer, Peter Moody, as it is his home state. He wants her to win there, in front of his own people, probably more than anywhere else.

    For a country that is recognised as producing the best sprinting stock of any region in the world, the significance of Black Caviar being ranked as arguably our greatest ever in that category says it all.

    Equally, we are looking forward to what So You Think can produce in Europe this year, despite now being trained in Ireland by Aidan O’Brien. He is a perfect example of the best of the Australian industry, being a breathtakingly beautiful animal, with an imposing presence, able to produce some of the most electrifying racetrack acceleration that you are ever likely to witness.

    Both horses have strong claims to being the two best in the world (ok, I’ll be flexible in where Frankel gets ranked, he is a gem), which is fantastic for the Australian industry. But we still have to work at many issues for continued security and growth.

    Shane Anderson
    Host – Racing Ahead & The Thoroughbred, Radio Sport National www.radiosportnat.com.au

  • Frankel – A golden opportunity and a small caveat

    Ok, let’s get the housekeeping out of the way first: Racing must not be fooled into believing it only has one vehicle by which to promote itself. It has many. Only a matter of months ago we were heralding AP McCoy’s SPOTY win as a ‘breakthrough moment’ (which it was) and we now have the Frankel factor and some people are saying ‘here’s our big chance’ (which it is).

    But beyond the cacophony of praise and adulation from Frankel’s enormous fan club, of which I am a fully paid-up member, I’m mindful that this sport has to be more than a one-trick pony and needs to utilise all its assets, all the time, to broaden its appeal. If, heaven forbid, Frankel didn’t live up to Saturday’s performance for the rest of the season, racing would be in a truly sorry state if we felt we didn’t have any other stories to tell.

    Ok, caveat dealt with and back to the main story.

    WHAT A FANTASTIC OPPORTUINITY RACING HAS BEEN HANDED! I was there on Saturday and it really was an ‘I was there’ moment. Frankel’s performance transcended horseracing; it was a sporting moment. Explain to any sports fan that, lining-up in front of them, is the best in a particular class and they’’ quickly recognise what a demolition is. This was Usain Bolt cruising to a world record, shoelace undone, in Beijing. This was Cassius Clay dismantling Sonny Liston at Miami Beach.

    Going back to October 2009, I won’t forget the feeling of disappointment on watching the biggest piece of TV news coverage about Sea the Stars being that of his retirement. It was an opportunity missed. I said then and have said many times since that racing should never let this happen again.

    It was only to be expected then, that immediately after the race on Saturday afternoon, the British Champion Series team was on to all the news desks and broadcasters, selling the story in and it was encouraging that, the following day, a few major publications carried the headline at the front of their sports sections.

    But it wasn’t enough and we have to go much further. Phone calls and press releases will not, overnight, change the thinking of sports editors – who’ve had plenty of time to develop their perceptions of horseracing. Racing must exploit the symbiotic relationship between the reader and the press, the viewer and the broadcaster, as news coverage reflects public interest.

    So before Frankel runs again – wherever that may be – we need to be ingenious, aggressive, creative and remorseless in galvanising public interest.

    We had an excuse with Sea the Stars last time – there was no central function to promote the sport. There is now (no pressure then team!) We’ve got to harness everyone’s support and go beyond the parochialism that so often undoes us. We need an official video on You Tube, not an unofficial one. We need quotes about the horse from celebrities, not racing pundits. We need to articulate the context of Saturday’s win in sporting terms, not racing terms.

    We have a star. Let it sparkle.

  • Still more ladders than snakes for racing

    It is generally better to make decisions of one’s own volition than have them imposed.

    There’s a great Billy Connolly routine where he describes the scared, hollowed-eyed fifty year-old who doesn’t drink, smoke or eat nice food anymore because “The doctor says I can’t!”

    It’s good, then, that racing is taking seriously recent events that have brought welfare to the fore. Internal debate has been intelligent and passionate but proper research is required to get a deeper understanding of the public’s perception of racing, providing us with the information with which to make the right decisions.

    What has been notable about the welfare debate in recent weeks is how we treat the ‘public’ as a single entity rather than the plural it is intended to denote. We should be careful, then, in ascribing beliefs and emotions to the UK’s diverse population.

    That’s not to say we can’t make reasonable assumptions, supported by underlying logic, about how the public might perceive us and we cannot escape how iconic events such as the Grand National, viewed by millions, will leave strong impressions with occasional or once a year watchers of the sport.

    In exactly that same way that racing’s profile benefited from AP McCoy’s magical moment 12 months ago, we have to deal with this year’s outcomes, despite the fact that they are less positive.

    But to immediately conclude that racing must do ‘this’ or ‘that’ in order to satisfy 90% of the population that currently do not frequent the sport is as dangerous as it is wrong. We simply need to do the work first.

    Of course, if we want more of that 90% of the population to try racing – which I hope we do - then we have to assess what the barriers to entry may be and that includes welfare matters.

    Personally, and like many I sense, I’m right in the middle, when it comes to the issue of whip use, for example. I understand the arguments both for and against, have been close enough to racing to understand its relative insignificance to the horse in true welfare terms but close enough to the consumer to understand how ‘striking an animal’ may look to the person on the outside.

    Instinctively, I feel the sport will have to bring about further welfare-related improvements to ensure its public profile remains as positive as possible, but that should not prevent us from having the confidence in our own sport to explain it, stand by it and then get on with running it.

    I know there are those out there who argue, with some persuasion, about ‘creep’, ‘the thin end of the wedge’ and ‘miles taken from inches given’, and as a consequence racing needs, in true Gandalf fashion, to strike its staff in the ground and declare “thou shall not pass” to anyone suggesting a change to the status quo. And I can’t help but like the idea, if only because it’s such a compelling image set against an industry that’s generally hard to lead.

    But the Gandalf card might, in reality, be just a bit dramatic. For example, the drinks industry (which is a bit bigger than ours) came under increasing pressure about the promotion of alcohol and particularly strong alcohol to a young audience. Images from numerous television programmes about drinking culture with girls lying in roads, dresses round waists, knickers flashing and male youths, bloodied and posturing, helped to fuel the campaigners’ cause.

    The drinks industry, noting that self-regulation was better than regulation imposed, introduced its responsible drinking campaign – which is now ubiquitous across all brands. What followed was that, despite the heat from pressure groups remaining to this day, the industry was seen to be taking all reasonable steps to promote sensible drinking. What followed was not prohibition. It wasn’t the end of the drinks industry – in fact it allowed the industry to continue operating effectively.

    But before suggesting improvements, we must engage with the public and shouldn’t be frightened to do so.

    Look around – there are anti’s everywhere. Teetotallers would take a dim view of the shenanigans in the Cheltenham Guinness village. Non-gamblers are unlikely to be big fans of the latest in-your-face bookmakers’ television adverts. RfC even gets letters from a puritanical audience, offended by the skimpy outfits worn on certain racedays.

    But interestingly all these types of people still attend our sport! Their particular position on one issue does not preclude their participation, overall. So, brutal as it may sound, there is a chance that someone asked if the whip looks unkind and says ‘yes’, may be asked if it will prevent them coming racing and say ‘no’. We don’t know because we haven’t done the work yet.

    “Has what’s happened at Aintree made your job harder”, a few folk have asked us recently.

    Not as hard as one might think is my honest opinion. Running RfC has always been rather like playing a game of snakes and ladders and we’ve certainly landed on a couple of snakes lately, but racing’s opportunities still far outweigh its threats.

    It’s a big public out there, after all.

  • Racing's 'real' seasons a matter for the insider..

    Further to Paul Ostermeyer’s interesting blog yesterday and a few subsequent questions about the perceived low-key start to Flat season, I thought it more expedient to write a very brief response, rather than a stream of tweets!

    If you are a racing fan, then you’ll understand racing’s seasons’ beginnings and ends and their many vagaries – the fact that the Jumps season ends 23rd April at Sandown and starts again the very next day at Plumpton, despite the fact that the Cheltenham October meeting is when aficionados once more start paying closer attention to the action. Then, of course, we have the traditional start of the Flat season at Doncaster, quickly followed by the most iconic jumps race in the world at Aintree! The Flat season finally ends November, when some of racing’s key practitioners are either at, or on their way to the Breeders Cup in America.

    But none of this should be a cause for concern, because, as fans, we understand it and in some come cases love the sport for its quirks.

    For the occasional or new consumer, RfC’s approach has been to introduce them to racing by shining a light on some of the high quality moments the sport has to offer (putting our best products in the shop window)

    An example is the British Champions Series, which aims to pull together many of the Flat’s high-class races into a promotional framework, which will start, we hope, to provide greater context to the season and its major races. It ends in a Championship/Finale event at Ascot featuring five Group 1 races and a £100,000 plus handicap.

    The series commences with the Qipco 2,000 Guineas on 30 April, featuring the first Classic of the year – a pretty good entry point one might argue.

    By turning up the volume on the 2,000 Guineas, I don’t believe we diminish the Lincoln – every current fan knows when it is and understands its role as curtain raiser for the season (Catterick or otherwise)

    But by creating an entry point for new consumers when some of are biggest stars are on show, we’ll perhaps give people the reason to want to come again.

    And we should credit people with intelligence – if we give them reason to become further interested in our sport, they’ll start to work it out for themselves – that’s part of the fun.

    Paul’s blog can be found at http://bit.ly/fr661v

  • Green shoots…but not yet full bloom

    There’s something about putting the clocks forward that renews one’s sense of optimism; the extra light at the end of the day brings promise of the summer to come.

    Even the racing industry, which occasionally succumbs to the influence of its evil twin, pessimism, seems buoyed by a memorable Cheltenham and the impending Flat season.

    This has, in part, extended to Racing for Change. Having spent a year and half developing feet nimbler than Fred Astaire (or George Sampson if you’re in the under 25 audience we seek to win) in order to dodge the many brickbats lobbed in our direction, it has been a refreshing change for the team to receive the odd plaudit.

    It has undoubtedly been helpful to have a few metrics to share and only the most cynical of observers would refute the claim that the level of positive PR being generated for the sport is working.

    2010 attendance figures were up and viewing figures increased notably in the final quarter, a trend which continued into January 2011. There’s a sense to that we’re connecting to customers more effectively and social media is playing a leading role in providing punchy and relevant feedback to RfC. The recently launched Racing 2015 survey provided another opportunity for feedback from racing’s wide-ranging stakeholder base and we look forward to analysing the results in April.

    It’s important, then, that racing makes the most of this momentum in order to meet the considerable challenges it still faces.

    Positive as it is to bring more people through the gates and get more eyeballs on the television, we need to maintain the innovation shown by racecourses last year in making the racing experience more interesting and rewarding. Beyond free racing offers and concerts by JLS (that’s the Osmonds if you’re in the over-40 market we wish to retain) greater focus is required connecting the new racegoer to the racehorse. Loads of ideas were trialled in 2010 to good effect and it would be encouraging to see those brought to life more widely this summer. Moreover, delivering a memorable experience to all our customers must stay front of mind. Times are hard and the consumer increasingly wants more bang for his or her buck.

    A very public brawl with bookmakers over the Levy last year meant the environment was hardly right for the promotional partnerships we sought with the betting industry in 2010. Our problems haven’t gone away here – in fact they may have got worse – so converting the sport’s coverage into betting opportunities for new punters is paramount.

    On the subject of betting, whilst we’ll wait for the detailed review of our recent survey, I do sense that racing does not maximise what should be a symbiotic relationship with existing punters who have telling and knowledgeable contributions to make. Again, social media provides the platform for feedback from punters who often feel at the wrong end of the queue when it comes to representation in the industry and regularly cite a lack of transparency over the industry’s workings. This is a challenge racing must meet. We need to find a means through which those punters know that their constructive viewpoints can make a difference

    And even though the recent Cheltenham Festival was special, we must remember the less than satisfactory build-up, with so many good horses not seen post Christmas or raced apart when they were. A recent blog covered this complex subject in detail but the point is we can’t rest on our laurels and should seek ways of ensuring the overall excellent health of NH racing stays that way.

    The impending Flat season will feature the new Qipco British Champions Series (BCS), which links 30 of the nation’s best races, leading to a showcase meeting at Ascot in October. The underlying objectives of the Series is to shine a bigger light on the Flat season and with broadcast and sponsorship deals in place, the focus will now turn to how the series is promoted and presented.

    An early start to watch Sunday’s first F1 Grand Prix of the season reminded me how slickly motor-racing is presented and how the mixture of engaging narrative and hard-core data appeals to dilettantes and petrol-heads alike. We can learn some lessons from this and I’m encouraged by the work of the new BCS team who are focussed on these aspects for our sport right now. Not all initiatives will be in place by the 2,000 Guineas (just five weeks away!) but will build-up over the summer and hopefully pull more occasional racegoers a little deeper into our pool.

    So welcome to spring everyone! Lots to be optimistic about but no slacking from RfC - we’ll reap what we’ll sow….

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