I’m meeting my campaign manager Paul, who is distinct and separate to my Passepar-one Paul. He’s not really my campaign manager, just a friend who I quizzed before I started. He helped me plan out this ludicrous venture in a pub in London, having vast experience of enabling people and companies to do absurd things, and was keen that I considered postponing the venture for a year so that I could do it properly. But I knew it was now or never, and I hope that the half-arsed nature of the tour lends a little spontaneity and charm to the whole shebang, even if I still don’t know how I’m getting from Edinburgh airport to Perth races tomorrow.
He arrives just before the first race and gets a quick bet on before joining me in the stand. Paul has backed Smoothtalkinrascal; somehow I knew he would. There is a great view up here of a racecourse that is a winding skate-park of a track, finishing with a camber that would attract warning signs on any road. It’s the second course in as many days that is ‘incomplete’ and again I kind of like its eccentricity.
There are zebras everywhere. There is even one by the finishing post (inanimate, I must clarify) and I am worried that the horses will be confused in the shadow of the post. Paul, who understands these corporate things, explains that Investec will have paid some sort of agency a lot of money to come up with this stunningly simple and utterly meaningless image.
I have somehow backed an 8/1 winner and we retire under the stand to celebrate my win. The bar is a study in slow, as young and inept staff operate beer pumps and tills like they are prodding alien life-forms. There is no post-office queuing system here, and the service injustice reeks like nasty aftershave. Paul has demolished his burger and chips by the time I emerge from the scrum with two pints, and is astounded by the average age in the indoor arena. There are mature people here who will not move from their seat for the rest of the afternoon, and will not get the faintest whiff of a horse, let alone sunshine. Paul is confused by the idea of coming to a racecourse and watching the action on a giant indoor TV. I am too, but each to his own.
We talk about the future of racing. Paul did an MBA about 15 years ago, which culminated with a three month stint at Harlequins rugby club. Back then they were struggling with attendances, and the CEO described to Paul how they weren’t competing with football, they were aiming for the families going to the shopping mall on a Saturday afternoon. Now they are hugely successful and clearly demonstrate that a sport can reinvent it’s way to success.
Paul talks about breaking down the barriers to entry for new customers, but I worry that if you dumb it down too much you will just attract dumb racegoers. They tried changing the odds to decimals a few years ago but it didn’t catch on. Racing is rich with history and tradition, and has weird and wonderful language and rituals. It’s partly what attracted me, all those years ago.
Paul thinks there is mileage in a team-based idea, with jockeys silks in the team colours. This is exactly the sort of blue sky nonsense I wanted from my dear friend, and say how the Shergar Cup doesn’t really work, in my opinion, as punters don’t care if they are backing GB&I or the Rest Of The World, as long as they have a winner. He points out that nobody cares about Athletics until the athletes pull on the vest of their country every four years at the Olympics, but I’m not sure different sports are comparable. We both love watching rugby because we have played it and respect the skills and bravery on show. I would suspect that only a few people in the crowd today have ridden competitively – the way we relate to horse racing is by literally taking a stake in the outcome rather than pinning allegiance to a particular flag. Sure, we have our favourites, but there is always another race half an hour away with different colours to choose.
I liken Paul to a latter day Da Vinci. Most of his ideas are unusual, but at some point he may just stumble upon a new helicopter and the whole thing could move forwards – evolution through deconstruction, he calls it. Of course, he’s utterly right that the demographic in the cavern under under the Investec Stand is alarming, and he’s not alone in his thinking – Nick Rust, the new head honcho of the BHA concurs that “we’ll face decline unless we deal with it – the time for action is now!”
Rust’s proposals are ambitious, but they need to be. He wants an extra 1 million racegoers and 1000 horses by 2020, and is concerned that owners on average get a return of just 26p in the pound. I too want racing to evolve and grow, but not lose sight of what has made it great over the years, and I worry where the extra million people are going to come from. If you replace the old codgers with young trendies who have no understanding or particular interest in horse racing, they will eventually figure out that paying £5 to jostle in a mosh pit for a crap pint of lager is not that much fun, even if Bananarama are playing afterwards. They will return to the pub, by which time the old codgers will have got fed up with the pop concerts and gone home to watch the racing on TV.
I ask Paul to guess the turnover and profit of as revered a name as Newbury, and he massively overestimates both. He rightly asks whether the current model is sustainable, and whether a cull of racecourses is necessary for the future strength of the species. But I wouldn’t know where to start – it’s the Fontwells and Market Rasens that give the sparkling variety not found in other homogenised sports. In the harsh world of market forces natural selection will happen, as Hereford and Folkestone know only too well, but we must cherish our diversity for as long as is possible. If you were building a track now you wouldn’t build Epsom, but racing would be poorer without it.
The last race we watch features a hot favourite at 10/11. I think it’s going to win, despite my recent avoidance of odds on shots. Mezajy doesn’t realise that he is responsible for a tiny ripple in the timeline of horse racing evolution – he unwittingly shoulders the burden of whether Paul leaves with a profit, or never bets again. He holds on, just, and the future of our sport is just a tiny bit safer tonight.