Just back from a couple of days at Goodwood while staying in the truly beautiful South Downs National Park. Increasingly my wife and I, when we go racing, try to make it a proper trip and there is no shortage of places to stay. It amused us that both the hotel we stayed in and the restaurant where we ate were both frequented by a very well-known retired football star, now owner. He must read the same guidebooks as we do! Like us I’m sure he was raving about The Barn at Roundhurst and the excellent food at The Duke of Cumberland in Fernhurst.
The Qatar Sussex Stakes lived up to its star billing, bringing together the winners of the English, Irish and French 2000 Guineas – apparently the first time this has happened at Goodwood. The Gurkha had looked an unlucky loser in the St. James’s Palace at Royal Ascot, under one of Ryan Moore’s less impressive rides. This time however the horse was ridden much closer to the leader, Galileo Gold, and always looked as though he was going to beat him inside the final furlong. The only disappointment was that the French 2000 Guineas winner, Awtaad, failed to show his form on ground that was probably too quick. With over £1m of prize-money, it was hardly surprising that the field was top class, although one of the common themes being expressed after the race was that at the platinum level of racing the money is really just being shared out amongst a very few privileged people: the winner was owned by Derrick Smith, Mrs. J. Magnier and Michael Tabor; the second by Al Shaqab Racing; and the third, Ribchester, by Godolphin. Having said that, I doubt whether any of these care much about the actual prize-money, since the bloodstock value is what really matters these days. Great battles though between top horses such as Galileo Gold and The Gurkha are thrilling to the core racing fan and the whole racecourse was buzzing afterwards.
As always there was a fair bit of publicity about Goodwood in the national press, with interesting coverage of Charles Gordon-Lennox, Earl of March, and his passion, even obsession, with raising the total Goodwood experience year on year. Managing the 12,000 acre estate, which is completely self-funded, employing well over 600 staff full-time, and dealing with all the various commercial ventures is a huge undertaking. So he must have been delighted when last year the entire Glorious Goodwood meeting was sponsored for the first time by Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club, which is Sheikh Joaan Al-Thani’s Al Shaqab operation. They have committed to a ten-year sponsorship deal and it has already led to substantial injection of additional prize-money with around £5m on offer at this meeting. There is definitely considerable affection for the quintessentially English “Goodwood Experience”, not just amongst Qatari sheikhs but the racing public across all the levels from the privileged Richmond Enclosure (which is where my wife and I went courtesy of the ROA arrangements for their members) through to the bucolic (alcoholic?) pleasures of Trundle Hill overlooking the course, as well as the large number of picnics around the various car parks.
One aspect on which the Earl of March has been outspoken is the need for racing to “reinvent itself”, particularly through marketing, branding and strengthening its overall customer proposition. He clearly feels like many of us that racing is still not exploiting its assets and customer appeal in the way that it could do across the widest possible range of customers. This theme has also been reinforced recently by Simon Bazalgette, CEO of the Jockey Club, who is currently leading a strategic overhaul of what the Jockey Club actually stands for. At one level they are clearly a commercial success, turning over £183m last year, and that level of financial strength has enabled them to invest £415m in prize-money and improvements in facilities over the last ten years. Over 2m customers a year go through their gates, with a similar number for non-racing activities, notably pop concerts. However Mr. Bazalgette believes that the Jockey Club can raise its game hugely, and apparently is working with M&C Saatchi on exactly what the next phase of their commercial mission should be about, and how to communicate it.
It is hard not to be really optimistic and encouraged by the restlessness and strategic endeavour that Messrs. Gordon-Lennox and Bazalgette are putting into driving their racecourses forward. While I don’t think many of us were thinking like that while watching The Gurkha storm home, you cannot help but feel that the whole racing experience at the top of the sport can still be developed much further. Let’s hope that is the case and that there is a substantial trickle down in revenue and funding from it to the less exalted, day-to-day, grassroots racing.