Sunday 15 December 2013

Nonsense at Newbury – A Self-Inflicted PR Disaster and “The Denim Conspiracy”, Part 1

Newbury was one of the first racecourses that my wife and I visited together, back in 1978. We had just started our careers up in Liverpool and escaped the pressures of the city (this was a couple of years before the infamous Toxteth Riots – and we lived near Toxteth at the time, in Sefton Park) for a weekend in the Cotswolds and a trip to the Hennessy. We saw Bob Champion win on Approaching. Ever since then, it had probably been our favourite racecourse. We had been visiting it regularly for 35 years, and indeed lived only a few miles north on the Woolley Estate for seven years, alongside the famous Woolley Down Gallops where five Derby winners, including Generous and Morston, did their final preparations. Last year we had an Owners for Owners box at the course, and were planning another in 2014.

Notice the use of the past tense. Amazingly, we were caught up in the fiasco of Newbury’s new dress code. I’m going to examine this in some detail over the next few blogs.

On Saturday, 30th November, we held our 7th “Meet the Trainer” morning at Jamie Snowden’s in Lambourn. Lots of owners came down, we had an excellent reviving breakfast at The Pheasant and most of us then went on to Newbury for a great day’s racing. I was aware of the new dress code and had even gone to the trouble of emailing all our owners about it. In their advance publicity they had said that “racegoers are invited to prove that Britain knows best when it comes to Autumnal fashion, with fabulous hats and coats”. I put on my best tweedy outfit and my wife Jack wore a recently purchased coat of blue cotton with leather flashings (ironically bought at Cheltenham Racecourse) and a matching blue trilby (bought at Haydock Park the previous weekend when one of our horses, Quick Decisson, ran there). She was also wearing black trousers, bought specially during the week to ensure that she met the course requirements of “smart trousers, no denim”.

We had both purchased premier badges for the meeting and were admitted to the course in the normal manner. We met up with Philip and Sarah Hobbs in the main grandstand to watch on a TV monitor another of our Owners for Owners horses, Lady Charisma, winning the opening race at Towcester with a typically brave and resolute performance. She is an immaculately bred filly – by Presenting, out of a top-class Cadoudal mare – so to have a first win with her was particularly important, in view of her future breeding potential. All of us were absolutely thrilled and very excited – she got up on the line, to win by a flared nostril!

Not surprisingly, I was then in need of sustenance. I went off to the Champagne Bar in the Wine Cellar in one of the Premier stands to meet up and celebrate with another of Lady Charisma’s owners. Jack went to the paddock to look at the horses for the next race, and then tried to join me. What happened next was spectacularly embarrassing – she was not allowed back into the Premier enclosure. One of the stewards refused her entry because she was deemed to be wearing denim. When Jack protested that she took the prohibition to refer to jeans, he reiterated the refusal by stating that “it’s the rule and you can’t come in”. Unbelievable.

As far as I am concerned, this is the antithesis of everything we are all trying to do in racing. I’m very supportive of any initiatives designed to improve the racegoer experience, encourage more people to come racing and build continuous loyalty and support for our great racing festivals. For the life of me, though, I cannot understand any initiative that results in a mature woman wearing brand-new, smart black trousers, a blue cotton coat (but one that was deemed to be “denim”), with a matching blue trilby, being refused admission to the Premier enclosure and publicly humiliated in this way. Especially as in Owners for Owners we are investing significant sums in racing and doing everything we can to encourage owners to buy more horses and maximise their day-to-day racing experience.

Once I found out about this fiasco, I tracked down the steward; remonstrated with him and his supervisor; then went along to the Newbury office where I was introduced to their ironically-titled “Customer Ambassador”, Alison Brown. She explained that a briefing sheet on the dress code had been sent out by email and that all staff had had a verbal briefing, apparently from the Facilities Manager, Lesley Whittaker. I asked for a copy of the briefing sheet but was not given one. Interestingly, Alison hadn’t been present at the briefing so could not comment on how well it was done, nor whether the subtleties of dress codes were properly explained. I asked to meet Stephen Higgins, the MD of Newbury, but he was unavailable due to being “on duty with the Princess Royal”.

What do you think to this incident? I’ve already had quite a lot of views expressed to me by phone and email. I’ll cover them in Part 2 on this subject. In a lighter moment, a couple of our owners talked of this as a “Denim Conspiracy” and suggested that Owners for Owners buy a horse, name it that, and run it in light blue silks with leather epaulettes. Ha, ha. It’s the only funny thing I can see in what was a really embarrassing experience, and one that I am still pursuing with Newbury.

Sunday 1 December 2013

The Importance of the Owner Experience – Comparing Our Wins at Marvellous Market Rasen vs. Skinflint Southwell

By email to: Simon Bazalgette, CEO, Jockey Club Racecourses; Richard Wayman, CEO, Racehorse Owners’ Association; Colin Booth, Chairman, Pip Kirkby, General Manager and Jane Hedley, Clerk of the Course, Market Rasen Racecourse; Tony Kelly, Managing Director, Arena Racing Company and Roderick Duncan, Clerk of the Course, Southwell Racecourse.

Dear All,

Earlier in the month, Owners for Owners had horses running on two consecutive days in very similar races. Shantou Magic ran on Sunday, 10th November in the Class 4, 2m 3f BDN Construction Novices Hurdle at Market Rasen, and Houndscourt ran the next day in the Class 4, 2m 4f 32Red Casino Novices Hurdle at Southwell. Both won. All the owners present were extremely pleased, and delighted for their respective horses. We won £4,548 with Shantou Magic and £3,195 with Houndscourt. In many ways these were fairly ordinary novice hurdles, of average quality and interest. Very few people will have clocked both horses – just typical horses running in typical races. However I am writing to all of you because the overall owner experience at the two courses was completely different and I felt it would be helpful to illustrate that comment with more detail. It seemed to me that these two races, at their respective courses, encapsulate the very different approaches to owners of Jockey Club Racecourses (JCR) and Arena Racing Company (ARC).

Let’s start with prize-money. During and immediately after the race, none of us as owners were thinking much about that. We were just overjoyed for our horses. But our prize-money at Southwell was considerably lower than at Market Rasen. If you look at the total win prize-money between both meetings, it was £29,329 for six races at Market Rasen (average £4,888) vs. £18,547 for seven races at Southwell (average £2,649). A marked difference. Yet again it illustrates the comment from Rachel Hood, President of the ROA, when talking about ARC (in the context of their refusal to sign the media rights prize-money agreement), that “Their business is about running sports stadia; they are putting profit before all other considerations and will pay as little as they can get away with for what they perceive to be their raw material – the runners and riders.” So on this specific criterion, JCR (and particularly Market Rasen) should be congratulated, with all the owners involved also appreciative that they have committed to increasing prize-money over the next few years, in marked contrast to ARC who have no plans to do likewise.

While prize-money is a critical issue, the quality of the owner experience when attending a particular racecourse is clearly driven by many other factors. So let me contrast the two courses, and follow through the actual behaviours encountered when we came into contact with various personnel. Alas there was little evidence of professional owner / customer management skills that might have been expected from an organisation such as ARC whose business competence is supposed to be managing sports stadia. Positive or negative experiences in the retail or leisure industry are usually generated by interpersonal encounters at a number of staff touch points. Southwell was lamentable.

We arrived at Market Rasen, parked the car and went over to the Owners & Trainers entrance, where we were greeted by a couple of friendly and knowledgeable members of staff. They welcomed us immediately, chatted about the weather, the going and our horse, and wished us well. We were given a programme and meal vouchers, and proceeded to the Owners and Trainers bar. It was Armed Forces Family Fun Day. There was a large crowd, numerous stalls and stands and a general buzz to the whole proceedings. In the paddock before our race, there were lots of owners and also Market Rasen personnel mingling with us. Our horse won and we were delighted to meet the parents of the race sponsors, who awarded us a prize and a lovely hamper of cheese. They had obviously studied the race and chatted to us about Shantou Magic’s future. Their son, the CEO of BDN Construction, was sponsoring a number of races that day. We went across to the winners’ room, where we were plied with as many glasses of champagne as we could drink and members of the Market Rasen executive came along to celebrate the occasion with us. Our trainer, Charlie Longsdon, has done very well at this course and everyone thanked us profusely for bringing our horse to the track. A great experience.

After staying overnight at Forest Pines Golf Resort nearby (with even a few of us braving the elements to fit in 18 holes on the Monday morning), we travelled down to Southwell, looking forward to a similarly enjoyable race-day experience. We were directed to park in a large puddle – not a good start. When arriving at the entrance, I wondered if racing had been cancelled, as staff took no notice of us and seemed in no hurry to let us in. We were completely ignored for several minutes. Grudgingly they eventually gave us an entry pass and we went off to meet up with co-owners. The Owners and Trainers bar and meal were perfectly acceptable. However, when we went into the paddock it was deserted at the start and clearly very few owners had bothered coming up to support their horse or the meeting. Houndscourt duly won (perhaps somewhat fortuitously) and we greeted him back in the winner’s enclosure. From then onwards, it felt as though everyone connected with Southwell just wanted to get us off the premises. It was the last race on the card. There was a desultory prize-giving with an individual who didn’t introduce himself, and we were ushered away for “a glass of champagne”. The one Southwell employee present could not have been more miserable if he tried. After a thimble full of champagne each, he refused to provide a top-up (“It’s against the rules”) even though three-quarters of the bottle remained (presumably he took it home?) and, as a true jobsworth, urged us to drink quickly so that he could wash up and leave. If it hadn’t been for the owners being on such a high, this would have been a dismal end to our long racing weekend.

So, Market Rasen clearly won the owner-experience race hands down. Congratulations, Mr. Booth, and please pass on our thanks to all your team. I’m sorry, Mr. Duncan, but Southwell appeared to us to be a track that is just milking the stadium asset and doesn’t really have much regard for us as owners. Obviously because ARC controls such a large percentage of fixtures we may have to return, but if we have a choice between visits to Market Rasen and Southwell, we’ll be heading to Lincolnshire every time. Increasingly, I’m sure that many owners will also feel the same about voting for other tracks rather than supporting those of ARC.

Yours sincerely,

Owners for Owners.

Reader note: the Arena racecourses are Bath, Brighton, Chepstow, Doncaster, Fontwell, Yarmouth, Lingfield, Newcastle, Windsor, Sedgefield, Southwell, Uttoxeter, Wolverhampton and Worcester. None have signed up for the prize-money agreement with the Horsemen’s Group and the BHA. Jockey Club racecourses are Aintree, Carlisle, Cheltenham, Epsom, Exeter, Haydock, Huntingdon, Kempton, Market Rasen, Newmarket, Nottingham, Sandown, Warwick and Wincanton. They have all signed up for the Premier Tier Agreement on prize-money.