Don’t Lose The Essence

To use the old teaching rubric that if they don’t understand at first, just repeat it louder and slower until they do, I am going to once again take issue with horse racing’s leaders, managers and key influencers.

Devotees to this blog will know that I have been wary about the direction our leaders want to take my beloved sport. In this drive for growth – new customers, a diversified product attracting younger generations, and of course increased profits – I want to repeat louder and slower to anyone who is listening: don’t lose the essence!

My latest repetition of this mantra has been prompted by a speech given on Tuesday by Ed Chamberlain, ITV Racing’s frontman who knows a thing or two about sport reinventing itself to success via his time in football. At York’s Gimcrack Dinner on Tuesday night he said:

“There is plenty we can learn from football and other sports. Sport always needs to stay trendy, to be vibrant and appeal to the young. Some frown on concerts that are now so popular at race meetings in the summer. To me they offer a perfect opportunity to educate people about our sport, engage them in our sport, and entice them to come racing again.”

Ed Chamberlain

He is not alone. BHA head honcho Nick Rust has often spoken about his desire to increase and broaden the customer base, and when I interviewed Andy Clifton (then Head of Communications at Newbury, now Racing Director of the Racecourse Association) during my Around The Races In Eighty Deys odyssey, he was unapologetic about the use of pop concerts to attract new people.

Ed Chamberlain, Nick Rust, Andy Clifton – these are all proper racing people with the best interests of the sport at heart. They are the good guys – honourable men with the courage to back up their convictions. I just think they are wrong.

Horse Racing is not like other sports. It should not attempt to become a homogenised, vertical-drinking, glitzy hullabaloo aimed at those with the attention span of a demented goldfish. The world is big enough for different forms of entertainment, some of which don’t have to scream fun in your face for you to have a good time.

An old-fashioned view? Perhaps. I’m not as young as I used to be, it’s true. But even when I was a young man, when I was into pop concerts and every day was a new adventure to unfurl, I was drawn to the subtle intrigue of horse racing.

I didn’t mind that trainers and stewards were called Mister and Sir, or that most stakeholders wore tweed. I was fascinated by the language and tradition. I enjoyed working out whether 100/30 was better or worse than 7/2.

Chamberlain uses the example of cricket, but I do not think the two sports are analogous due to their structural differences (see my blog Horse Racing Is Different) in the timing of the action and the territory of the customer. He also called trainers to not only allow apprentice riders to do media training but to encourage them to do so.

“So far, we have just scratched the surface with the players, the jockeys, on ITV,” he said. “It is crucial in the modern age with so much information so readily available, that we tell viewers something they don’t know. To be different. To give them unique insight. I believe jockeys are in the best place to do this.”

Well, Ed, I’ve watched a lot of racing and I don’t think I’ve ever gained a unique insight from a jockey just before the race (“yes, I think he’s got a good chance”) or afterwards (“he’s run his heart out”). They are too vested in the outcome to say anything of interest.

But I’m just an old dinosaur, resistant to change, with no original ideas of my own, eh? Well, I have been racing a lot, and to all the different courses in Britain. Significantly, I have done this ‘on the ground’ as a common punter, which is surely a different experience to many of those charged with leading our sport to this bright new future. If you want to attract and keep customers, here is what needs to happen:

• Make getting to the course easier. I went to Newbury a couple of Fridays ago and most people after my stop couldn’t board the train and would have missed the first race
• Get the Racing Post sellers to hang around for longer than just the first race for latecomers (see above)
• Provide more and better seating – the racegoer is more fluid than in other sports and often never gets any space to settle in
• Provide better food and drink with more and better staff to serve it, offer good sandwiches and mini beer festivals from local breweries and a bigger and better range of catering vans (the Chinese at Plumpton is fantastic!) – really, the standard on my epic journey was mostly abysmal, and trying to get a drink in less than 20 minutes at some meetings virtually impossible
• Make gaps between races 35 or 40 minutes (see above)
• Therefore go back to six race cards rather than the recent fad for seven or eight (this may also help field sizes)
• If you want to make efficient use of often dormant facilities why not put on a pop concert on a different day to the racing – Newmarket has seen that the two often don’t mix very well
• On a similar note, if you are going to attempt to get 70,000 people through the turnstiles, know what you are going to do with them – too many of our feature days are spoilt by a claustrophobic vibe

More than anything, though, understand that celebrating your history and heritage is not the same as living in the past. Horse racing should not be ashamed of what it is, or afraid to say no. I am not against change, I just dislike the clamour to revolutionise because “that’s what you do”. Don’t lose the essence!