'Racing could suffer showjumping's fate unless it reflects wider society'

Josh Apiafi: 'We have to make racing more reflective of society and if we don't then the sport will suffer'
Josh Apiafi: 'We have to make racing more reflective of society and if we don't then the sport will suffer'Credit: Dan Abraham

Racing risks the same fate as showjumping if it does not step up efforts to improve diversity and inclusion and become more reflective of wider society, according to one of the leading proponents of change.

Sky Sports Racing presenter Josh Apiafi was speaking as he launched the second year of the Racing Media Academy (RMA), an initiative to give under-represented communities routes into the sporting press.

Apiafi, a former chief executive of the Professional Jockeys Association, said: "The work I'm doing started as a diversity and inclusion thing but it's actually about the future of the sport. The alarming fact is, it's no-one's job to plan for the future or its fanbase.

"We have to make racing more reflective of society and if we don't then the sport will suffer. We're constantly being told our customer base is physically and virtually disappearing. We may be living longer and retaining the same customers for our sport, but that isn't being backfilled."

Apiafi drew a comparison with showjumping, a sport that featured regularly on mainstream television schedules in the 1970s and 80s but is now rarely seen.

"I think the industry is quite ignorant to the next generation coming through," he said. "Our future fans, owners, sponsors and breeders are all ten years old at the moment and we're going to lose them because we're not an option for them.

"For us to survive and not to become the showjumping of this century, we have to be relevant to society and to be relevant to society you have to be reflective of it, and we're not."

From January 1 to October 31, racecourse attendance figures in Britain were down 14.7 per cent compared to the same period in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic. Apiafi said the numbers were "scary", yet even worse away from the major meetings.

He said: "We have key performance indicators telling us we need to start looking at our sport and changing it. Our attendance levels, outside our three big festivals at Royal Ascot, Cheltenham and Aintree, are 30-odd per cent down, which is the scariest stat going.

"What I want is there to be somewhere for you to land no matter who you are or what you are to build your engagement with our sport. At the moment there are significant gaps within that because people's sole job is to get bums on seats or to place a bet."

The RMA is just one of the ways Apiafi has been working to develop better roads for minority groups into the sport under the Racing Pathway umbrella. He believes change starts with better representation at the top and, for all he was keen to acknowledge recent changes, said there was a considerable way to go.

Khadijah Mellah greets O'Meara Rusike (R) ahead of the Magnolia CupGoodwood 28.7.22 Pic: Edward Whitaker
Magnolia Cup winner Khadijah Mellah (left) greets South African rider O'Meara RusikeCredit: Edward Whitaker

"Change has to start with leadership and filter down," he said. "If I walk into any building or office, do I think it's changing? No. Look at the Sir Peter O'Sullevan lunch last week, which was attended by all of the leaders of our sport. There were two people there from a non-white background that weren't serving the food.

"However, I know there used to be one non-white person in the top 500 roles in British racing and now there are six, which is still an embarrassing statistic, but it is good because those six will in turn bring more people in. I need pin-ups for people to see in order for them to go, 'I want to be that'."

Apiafi left the Diversity in Racing Steering Group in December 2019 – calling it little more than a "talking shop" due to its lack of meaningful action – and he is concerned racing is at risk of failing to follow through on its intentions. He pointed towards the Diversity and Inclusion Industry Commitment as an example of how the sport needs to use data to deliver or it will stagnate.

He said: "They've got nearly everyone in the industry to sign the commitment, but I was a big part of pushing for more information.

"What data do we have? What is our current gender split? How many people do we employ from minority ethnic backgrounds? You've signed a commitment but you need to know your starting point and call out what hasn't changed."

As well as pushing for more diversity in non-yard employment, Apiafi believes there needs to be more of a focus on digital engagement to attract the younger generation.

Seven of the ten individuals enrolled in the inaugural RMA have secured employment in the industry and Apiafi is looking forward to welcoming the second wave of participants.

Joint funding from the Racing Foundation and the RMA's media partners, of which the Racing Post is one, has been secured for the second year, opening up two additional placements for 2023.

Apiafi added: "When we open our doors to diversity through the RMA it's amazing who walks through the door. It's fine to push the door open but we have to put a wedge in it so it remains open. Racing has so much to give but it isn't an option for everyone. When children turn up at Racing to School and the RMA they need to complete the journey."

Applications are now open for places in next year's RMA, which is free and accessible to anyone over the age of 18. It will run from April 23 to April 30, concluding at Sandown's bet365 Gold Cup meeting.

You can apply for next year's Racing Media Academy here

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Maddy PlayleDigital journalist