Friday 15 April 2016

Aintree, The Appeal of Festival Racing and British Racing’s Strategic Goal of Increasing Racecourse Attendance

Most of my friends and co-owners felt that this year’s Grand National meeting at Aintree was the best ever. The facilities at the racecourse are simply superb now, and the population of Liverpool embraces the meeting wholeheartedly as one long party, both on and off the track. And as for the quality of racing, with Willie Mullins bringing over so many of his hot-pots, it was outstanding. Personally the stand-outs were Cue Card’s win in the Betfred Bowl and the redemption of Paddy Brennan – and wouldn’t it be absolutely fantastic if Cue Card does go to Punchestown to take on Don Cossack; Apple’s Jade’s extraordinary performance in the 4yo Juvenile; Annie Power’s flawless jumping and Thistlecrack’s extremely impressive win in the Stayers’ Hurdle. Mouse Morris’s emotional win with Rule The World was spectacular and pub quiz bores were quick to tell you that the last maiden to win the National was at the end of the 19th Century. It is always interesting to note a horse for next year’s race and mine would be Vieux Lion Rouge, not least because a couple of years ago when one of our former horses, Lady Charisma, raced against him at Wincanton he impressed as a brave, tough stayer.

Throughout the meeting the head-on competition between Mullins and Nicholls for the Championship was a talking point and, as usual, there were a number of issues that pundits flagged up: should the Aintree meeting be extended to four days; is the Mullins dominance good or bad for racing; is it constraining betting as well as disillusioning grass-roots owners; should he even be eligible for the British trainer championship, and would it be better if that was settled on total wins rather than total prize-money; why are so many of the big bookmakers miserly in their pay-outs on the Grand National – surely in a field of 39 runners they should be paying at least down to 5th place; is the price of NH bloodstock now in bubble territory, judging by the extraordinary prices paid at the first Aintree Goffs sale, or is it just that there is now a platinum tier of mega-rich NH owners who will pay whatever it takes to buy a potential Cheltenham or Aintree Winner; and why is it that Liverpool women on Ladies’ Day seem to be totally impervious to the cold?

In many ways the Aintree meeting also highlights some of the relevant features that are central to British Racing’s strategic goal of increasing racecourse attendance from 6 million to 7 million by 2020. This goal was emphasised by Rod Street at the Newbury presentation that I attended a month or so ago. I thought his presentation was excellent, not least because it was backed by customer insight data obtained through the Racecourse Association’s study of attendance data 2011-15:

  • Only 6% of racegoers ever go to more than one racecourse, which is usually their local one. In effect therefore racecourses are not in competition, so there is considerable scope for racecourse collaboration.
  • There is positive awareness of racing on the part of 34 million people, even though they never attend. A marketing goal has been set to target 5 million of that group and to convert them into one million tickets. There will be a national “Come Racing” campaign.
  • Ten million people go racing once, but then not again for several years.
  • There is considerable churn in racecourse attendance: 27% of racegoers come back year on year, whereas 73% don’t. Over the next five years the goal is to improve the retention figure from 27% to 33%.
  • Two-thirds of all racecourse attendance is driven by the social side. Racing has a huge social audience, and therefore promotion and marketing messages to do with that social context are critical. A huge plus point of this is that the social aspects of racing make the sport more resilient than other sports, and also racing appears to be very attractive to both sexes and all demographics.
  • Yet, racing suffers from very low advance booking compared to other sports.

Aintree seems to be a case study of how to build and maximise brand and social loyalty: its positioning as a Liverpool festival has made it a “go-to event” on Merseyside; highly targeted marketing both retains the regular attendees and persuades the “one-off” customers to come back; it is a very attractive and safe event for groups of women to attend; and a lot of effort is put into advance booking (indeed I have already received details for 2017).

Increasingly I feel that racecourses need to collaborate together in well-defined regional groupings where they retain their individual strengths and characteristics while actively marketing the (social) advantages of going racing more regularly within that region. Yorkshire already does this, and I’m sure it needs to receive much greater marketing energy and endeavour. Linking together Aintree, Haydock and Chester as socially aspirational meetings could clearly be one example of this. It is a classic case of collaborating to grow the overall size of the pie rather than just dividing it up.

All in all it was hard to leave Aintree without being very positive for our sport, and really enthusiastic about a number of the initiatives being pursued by racecourses particularly those under the Jockey Club Racecourses banner. I really hope that the 7 million attendance target is not just attained but exceeded by 2020.

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Friday 1 April 2016

Ides of March for the Bookies: Whacked by Whittingdale and Mauled by Mullins. But Who is the April Fool? Please Step Forward, Paul Darling

So how was Cheltenham for you? I always like the turn of phrase of Alastair Down in the Racing Post, and he described this year’s festival as “the antidote to cynicism”. Having been critical of Cheltenham’s facilities in the past, it is marvellous to be able to praise the course for everything that has been done to transform Prestbury Park and make it one of the best sporting venues in the world. Indeed, in many racegoers’ eyes, it is now the best race meeting in the country and certainly this year it proved to be a punters’ paradise. Even I made money on every single day, which shows how easy it was!!! It’s a long time since I’ve had a Heinz in, but how could anyone fail to perm lots of winners from Douvan, Annie Power, Vroum Vroum Mag, Yorkhill, Vautour, Thistlecrack, Limini, Ivanovich Gorbatov, Don Cossack and then the three JP McManus-owned and top amateur-ridden hotpots of Minella Rocco, Cause Of Causes and On The Fringe – laid out, or what?

The stand-out performances for me were Douvan in the Arkle (first horse since Flying Bolt in 1965 to do the double with the Supreme Novices’); Sprinter Sacre’s emotional comeback in the Champion Chase; Any Currency’s win as a 13-y-o in the Cross Country for our trainer Martin Keighley (who attended our OfO champagne picnic with his wife Belinda that day and convinced most of those present to entrust their cash to “Woody” and Aidan – a superb ride); Vautour’s romp in the Ryanair; Thistlecrack’s sublime win in the World Hurdle; and then Don Cossack demonstrating why he is the top chaser in training in the Gold Cup (and OfO has a particular interest in him as we have a Sholokhov 2yo, nicknamed “Don Caster”). Great to see first festival wins for Dan Skelton, Harry Fry and Ian Williams as well as Martin, while you can’t help but be envious of Patricia Pugh, whose horse Altior won the Supreme Novices’ and is only the second horse she has ever owned. Victoria Pendleton, quite rightly, was lauded for her personal poise and riding performance on Pasha Du Polder, although she has a veritable mountain to climb to catch Ruby Walsh, who passed his landmark of 50 winners at the Festival on Black Hercules. And after Gold Cup day, the debates on whether Cue Card would or would not have beaten Don Cossack will continue for many years. Phew – a magnificent meeting. Now on to Aintree, where Willie Mullins is expected to send a team of over 20 horses in a bid to win the UK jump trainers’ championship crown. The last Irishman to do that was the legendary Vincent O’Brien, one of my all-time heroes. Willie is now odds-on for the title and is 6/4 to land seven or more winners in Liverpool. I wonder if we’ll see a repetition of the stats from Cheltenham – four owners managed to win half of the races. I definitely hope not.

Throughout March the backdrop to British racing has been all about the announcement by the Government on the Racing Right, and on Budget Day, Wednesday, 16th March, Chancellor Osborne reiterated that offshore betting operators will contribute to racing’s finances, and in Nick Rust’s phrase, the Government is clearly committed to a “fair, enforceable and sustainable return from all betting activity on our sport”. The timetable to introduce the new funding system was outlined by the Chancellor with consultation planned over the summer, notification to be given to the European Commission, a statutory instrument to be published by the end of the year and then the new funding model in force from April, 2017. A huge win for racing.

So I was delighted when Paul Darling, Chairman of the Association of British Bookmakers, made a short speech in which he said that “we’re clearly entering a new era of partnership between betting operators and racing. It’s time for all of us in the betting industry to admit our past failures and lack of innovation, and embrace the new spirit of partnership that will strengthen the whole of racing, its sustainable funding and our own profitability.” On behalf of the big operators that had previously declined to become Authorised Betting Partners (ABP), such as William Hill, Coral, Paddy Power, Betfred and Ladbroke’s, he announced the launch of the Aintree Betting Pledge (ABP), whereby any registered owner will be entitled to a £100 free bet that can be placed on any of the Mullins runners.

If only, if only ….. What Mr. Darling actually said is that the amount of money racing now receives from betting shops is “completely unsustainable” and that racing is a product that is now a loss-maker in his industry. He believes that the current levy is unaffordable and that it makes the racing product less attractive than others. Indeed, “racing must be willing to treat betting as a partner and not as the enemy from whom as much cash as possible must be extracted by whatever is today’s latest device”. Alas, therefore, the sniping and skirmishing is bound to continue. There are some real dinosaurs in the betting industry.

The excitements of Cheltenham prevented me from doing the promised summary of the BHA Newbury strategy forum that I attended at the beginning of March. More on this in the next blog ….. provided of course that Aintree doesn’t distract me next time, which is highly likely.

I am always interested to hear your views so please do leave a comment. If you can't see the comment box at the bottom of this post then navigate to the post using the right hand navigation or click here > and scroll to the bottom of the page. Look forward to hearing your views. Thanks very much for sharing them.