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