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.