Monday, 15 April 2013

Aintree and The National – Grand Result for Racing

As readers of the blog will know, I’m a huge fan of Aintree and much prefer it to Cheltenham. Alas though, in recent years I’ve been going up to the Grand National meeting with an increasingly heavy heart, in view of all the controversy surrounding the course and injuries / fatalities to horses, not helped by the stance adopted by the RSPCA (Royal Society for Permanent Criticism of Aintree).

But what a result this year, and a really fantastic outcome for our sport. When all 40 runners sailed over Becher’s, the roar from the crowd was truly heart-warming. Hats off to Aintree for all the work they’d done to maintain the going, and the softening of the fence cores has clearly helped enormously, as did the far less frenetic than usual start, with a shorter run to the first fence. Without doubt, the National is the most famous race in the world, and the only time that our sport truly takes centre stage. Lots of statistics were being bandied about, such as that half the UK population bets on the race, £150m staked, 600 million people watching worldwide, etc. This certainly goes right to the heart of racing’s brand value and the aims of Great British Racing that were covered in the last blog.

The other statistic that I welcomed was that there were no more than 20 protesters at Aintree. I really hope that the BHA and all the bodies connected with racing do everything possible now to maintain the high ground in defence of National Hunt racing, and challenge the nay-sayers who argue that in some way jumping is cruel. As the Aintree changes have shown so purposefully, we’re doing everything possible to exercise our duty of care towards the animals that we all love and admire.

When I saw Frankel thrash Excelebration in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot, I felt that was the best horse-race that I’d ever seen, or would probably ever see. But then to be present to watch the sublime performance of Sprinter Sacre destroy Cue Card and Flemenstar in the Melling Chase was to my humble eyes even better. Stupendous.

I was also interested to see the announcement from the Jockey Club that the £45m make-over at Cheltenham will go ahead straight after the 2014 Festival meeting, with the aim of completing it for 2016. There is going to be a new grandstand complex, some spectacular tiered viewing of the parade ring and much improved crowd circulation around it. As always in racing, there were a few vested interests fighting against it, but no doubt they will be adequately compensated and it certainly looks as though this investment plan is going to go forward quickly.

So with the Aintree spectacular and an imminent huge upgrade at Cheltenham, it really looks as though National Hunt racing is going from strength to strength. Having said that, I was wondering what other changes would make a real difference. I would certainly like to see much higher prize-money at the October Cheltenham meeting and really use this to kick-start the jumps season, and hopefully not clash it with Ascot’s Champions Day. At the other end of the season I’d also love to see either Ayr and / or the Sandown mixed meeting similarly revamped so that we really have a grand finale through March and into May. And then the race planners can have a look across the season and plug some of the weaker periods with bigger races as part of a high profile National Hunt series. Anyone against, please take one step forward.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Great British Racing ... but Compare Dismal Doncaster to Dynamic Dubai

I’ve been very interested in the way Racing for Change has morphed into Great British Racing. On balance I’m definitely in favour, and their web site,, gives all the details of what they are trying to do, as the marketing and promotional arm of British horseracing. Encouragingly, they have been really specific about their role, which is to widen the sport’s fan base, help grow revenue streams and maintain British racing’s position internationally. They have a clear mission statement about broadening the appeal of British horseracing at every level and have mapped out seven clear aims and objectives. Not everyone will like the marketing-speak, but if they meet their goals it will be a job well done.

So in this blog I thought I’d have a look at two of the aims and objectives, in the context of the start of the Flat at Doncaster. Let’s evaluate it in terms of aim #4, “Improve the production and delivery of the raceday experience .... Give customers a reason to visit and return”; and aim #5, “Market the thrill of ownership .... Attract, reward and retain existing racehorse owners”.

I don’t think the racing authorities could have kicked off the Flat in such a dismal manner as Doncaster on Friday, 22nd March. A seven-race card with total win prize money of less than £50,000; one Class 2, one Class 3, three Class 4s and two Class 5s, one of which was a very modest race for amateur riders. All run on very testing conditions in front of a minute crowd, and absolutely no atmosphere whatsoever. No evidence here of “the thrill of ownership” or “a compelling story”, and no incentive to “widen racing’s exposure across all media platforms” as the Great British Racing web site describes it. A total damp squib, followed by fits and starts over the next few weeks. What an absolutely pathetic way to kick off the Flat, and as the marketers would say, “bookend the season”.

In comparison, what about Dubai’s World Cup Saturday? Total win prize money of a whisker under £10m, and with fabulous prize money all the way down to 6th place. Indeed the lowest place prize money in any race was £12,269, which is only £700 below the top win prize money of the Class 2 at Doncaster.

Now obviously there is no way at all that Doncaster on a wet Friday in March is going to compare with Meydan in all its pomp and glory. But surely the collective racing industry can do something to kick off our Flat season with a much greater sense of style and excitement. Some ideas:

•   Change the start date of the Flat. Put it back until after the Grand National. Build up a real
    sense of back-to-back weekends of fabulous racing.

•   Dramatically increase the prize money for the first day of the Flat, and have it on a 
•   Aim for £1m of prize money, with money all the way down to 6th place.
•   Frame the races in a way that really incentivises trainers to get their horses to Doncaster 
    for this kick-off meeting.
•   Make sure that the meeting doesn’t clash with another “showcase” event.
•   Have a proper PR and social media campaign well ahead of the meeting, to build buzz 
    and excitement.
•   Actively involve top jockeys and key sporting personalities in the whole event.

One of the races I’d like to see in this card would be the start of a “Syndicate Series”, say with a value of £50,000, that is open only to horses in joint ownerships, partnerships and syndicates with at least four owners per horse. Run this series throughout the season (and have a similar one over jumps). Have prize money down to 6th. It would guarantee maximum fields and big crowds with all the co-owners and their friends.

This seems such a good idea I think I’ll even send it to Great British Racing.