Self-belief, money and marketing all vital to growing the sport
The second part of a special report on broadening racing's appeal
Political earthquakes around the world have told the story of people wanting change.
Increasingly there has been a feeling that for things to get better they cannot stay the same. Some in sport governance have evidently adopted the same view. Radical has become the new buzzword. Should racing now start to think radically as well?
It has become a cliche to say a sport is searching for its own version of cricket's Twenty20, a quicker, fresher, younger evolution of a status quo. Cycling has this year unveiled the team-based Hammer Series, while from Australia athletics has tried out a new model called Nitro that gained an airing on the BBC.
Explaining his vision for the sport, Lord Coe, president of the International Association of Athletics Federations, told The Guardian: "We have to be more innovative. We have to be braver and more creative in formats.
"Are we going to get back to the point where the Nine O’Clock News breaks into a world-record attempt of mine in 1981? Possibly not. But there is a lot more we can do to be more relevant and more exciting."
There is, however, also a reluctance to be revolutionary. Consider the following summation of the then-infant T20, expressed in 2003 by the late celebrated cricket writer Christopher Martin-Jenkins.
"Gimmicks and, let's face it, that is what much of this is, have a short shelf life," he said.
"My guess is that it will in the end have a negligible effect on crowds, finance, standards or interest. The general impression that these are fun events will serve the purpose of attracting young people who are used to noise, spectacle and instant gratification, but the sport's intrinsic qualities will remain its chief attraction."
Cricket, as a sport, does remain the chief attraction for those who attend. However, many who would never bother with a Test match will now happily pay good money to watch T20. Some will have been converted to appreciating five-day matches. As such, T20 has added, not detracted, from its sport.
Will racing have its own T20?
If it does it could first be seen on the Champs-Elysees next year.
The Jockey Club-backed City Racing project wants to bring city-centre horseracing to the likes of London, Paris and Sydney. However, when plans for the venture were unveiled, the response from within racing was not universally positive.
City Racing spokesman Johnno Spence, who himself has no desire to see revolution in racing, says: "Some of the reaction we got from Flat trainers was extraordinary, especially given the money behind it is completely independent of British racing's pots."
More supportive was Great British Racing chief executive Rod Street, although he stresses the important aspects bold thinkers behind projects like City Racing must consider.
"There is room for innovation but it must have context or it risks being a bit gimmicky," says Street. "That’s not to say gimmicks aren’t effective but they are usually PR devices and have a limited shelf life.
"For an initiative like city-centre racing to add value to the sport, there has to be connectivity to the wider sport. It must benefit the sport. As just a cash maker for external investors who have no vested interest in the sport, it would add no long-term value."
Street adds: "To ask if racing needs a version of T20 implies something is wrong with racing’s format. I don’t think there is."
City Racing would be an addition to the sport, not a change to the sport. While some believe that the sport needs radical development, senior administrators take a very different view.
"I don't think we should move away from the core product," says Horse Racing Ireland chief executive Brian Kavanagh. "I would say no to radical reinvention. You would end up throwing the baby out with the bath water.
"I know Twenty20 is popular but it hasn't replaced the five-day game, it has complemented it. Other sports that have made changes have altered the dates and times when events take place, rather than changing the sports and rules. That's the sort of thing racing can do better.
"Sometimes the barriers to getting into racing, once you've overcome them, are what keep you hooked. Once you understand the intricacies of the handicapping system and other technical stuff, the sport becomes a cerebral exercise."
In similar vein, France Galop supremo Olivier Delloye argues: "I do not believe the sport should change radically.
"My personal belief is there is much we need to change in terms of how we market the sport but there is not much we need to change about the sport itself. There is a trade-off about how many existing fans you're prepared to lose in pursuit of new ones.
"Changing the sport too much might lead us to lose our core audience, the people who have followed racing for years. We cannot afford to lose them."
Does racing need to be marketed differently?
Delloye feels racing must change how it promotes itself to potential customers. Coral PR director Simon Clare wholeheartedly agrees.
He says: "The way racing is structured means some of the power and commercial strengths are with racecourses, not the centre. The people running the sport don't have the spending power of sports like Formula 1, darts and snooker.
"Racing needs several million pounds for a mass-market campaign to sell the sport. That doesn't mean event marketing but marketing of the sport itself. That's costly and not easy to measure but it's how you change people's perceptions.
"If racing doesn't do anything I'm sure it will be fine and continue to perform well. But is there an opportunity to go out and try to convert more people to the sport, and at an earlier age? Yes, I think there is. That would be an exciting project but it would require proper funding."
Street echoes Clare's assertion regarding where racing continues to fail, saying: "We haven't mobilised ourselves collectively, one reason being we tend to do lots of deals individually, for understandable reasons."
That suggests a different approach could yield different results. Delloye, however, has one overriding concern.
"Sometimes I wonder if we have deep enough pockets to make changes in people's minds," he laments. "We are not playing with the same guns as football and tennis."
Money isn't everything
Although advocating a major marketing drive, one that would inevitably not be cheap, Clare also believes racing's profile, and therefore popularity, could be boosted by the sport starting to greet the world with a smile on its face.
"Racing has often talked itself down over the years, whereas Barry Hearn would talk up darts and snooker," says Clare. "Even if what Barry said had more style than substance, it was an infectious approach that made you want to be part of the sport.
"Racing no longer has any need to pretend it isn't doing that well. To get government support on issues like ABP [authorised betting partners], racing had to paint an almost sorry picture of itself. Now that matter has been resolved, racing should be shouting from the rooftops about things like record-breaking prize-money.
"The overall message should be, we're a sport on the up, come join us. Success breeds success. The more you tell people a sport is doing great, the more people want to become part of it."
Reasons to be worried: now and in the future
According to Spence, there are two individuals in particular who have made many people want to be part of racing, through the way in which they promote the sport, with one of them not even saying anything to do so. That particular one isn't Frankie.
"The sport's greatest two assets, in terms of marketing, are Her Majesty the Queen and Frankie Dettori," says Spence.
"Flat racing will really struggle without Frankie. He is the only person within racing who attracts the interest of the consumer-lifestyle media. My biggest worry is there is no-one coming through to take the baton from Frankie. There is nobody to fill the void.
"Likewise, someone trying to sell Royal Ascot without the Queen will find it's a very different ship."
In terms of selling Royal Ascot, Spence believes in the medium term the racecourse will end its veto on race sponsorship – and that, he is confident, would benefit the whole sport.
He says: "I would be very surprised if Royal Ascot doesn't introduce commercial race sponsorship within a five-year period, although there is already a strong commercial partners’ presence throughout the royal meeting, the latest being Porsche, with product placement and branding sites clear to racegoers and on TV.
"For racing, due to the royal patronage of the meeting, race sponsorship would open a huge number of doors to other high-street brands. Prize-money and support would trickle down to other race meetings as well."
Intriguingly, both Spence and Street point to betting, the way into racing for so many fans, as a barrier to some potential commercial partners.
"Betting is a huge turnoff to a lot of high-street brands," says Spence.
"We had a big global sponsorship of Oaks around the world lined up with Santander. That went to the final stage at board level. The reason Santander didn't go ahead was they felt that, as a bank, they couldn't support an initiative in which gambling is so heavily involved. We've had similar scenarios with other high-end brands, including Gucci."
Street recognises "there are some brands that would find it difficult to position themselves with racing due to perceptions around betting" but he is also adamant the symbiotic relationship between racing and betting will remain vital.
That does not mean, though, the relationship can stand still.
"For betting on racing to be relevant to a similar or larger-sized audience in ten years' time, the betting product needs to be presented in formats that are compelling, simple and fast," says Street.
"Racecard and form formats are arguably far too complex to new, younger customers. To the new generation betting is about instant gratification. Do people want to trawl through a racecard and work out what it all means or look at a simplified card that does everything for you?"
Street adds: "It has, to date, proved difficult for the sport to develop new and mutually beneficial strategies around betting – in part due to the adversarial environment around levy income and media rights.
"Perhaps with a more temperate climate ahead of us, racing and bookmakers can work together more effectively. Racing’s proposed new tote also provides the opportunity for trial and innovation in how the betting product is presented."
Racing can be positive about becoming more popular
More than anyone in racing it is Street who is directly charged with broadening the sport's appeal. With one understandable caveat, he is optimistic the mission can be completed.
"Participation is a real obstacle to us compared to other sports," says Street.
"Sports like cycling have increased in popularity alongside campaigns linked to the sport being participatory, as we know from all the middle-aged men in Lycra on a Sunday morning. Similarly, if you see Harry Kane score a brilliant goal for England you can replicate it in your back garden. It's not so easy to replicate Frankie Dettori winning a big race on your front lawn."
There are, however, reasons to believe racing can become more popular, even if to make that happen much work will be needed.
Street adds: "Racing has a habit of navel-gazing and crying, 'woe is us, woe is us'. However, while we should reflect that there may be challenges and issues, there is also a great opportunity if we get it right. I believe the size of the opportunity is as big as the scale of the challenge."
'We need to up our game to remain competitive'
BHA chief executive Nick Rust on the importance of making racing more popular
We have a wonderful sport that is capable of capturing the hearts and minds of the public, but we cannot stand still. We need to increase racing’s popularity to reach new audiences and retain existing ones if we are to achieve our ambitious growth targets.
Building on what is already great about our sport, we must innovate and be prepared to change. That means more emphasis on all our customers – racegoers, viewers and people who bet.
The new levy and Racing Authority provide an opportunity for the sport to come together in understanding how we can make the sport more appealing and engaging to new audiences, while losing none of its proud history and heritage and continuing to make it attractive to trainers, owners, jockeys and stable staff.
Leaders throughout the sport (from the BHA, racecourses, horsemen, media companies, welfare groups and others) are currently working together on a refreshed strategic plan for the future. Ensuring we have a joined-up commercial plan for the sport – with a particular focus on consumer growth – is one of the key themes.
The sport has a bright future. We are the second-most-attended sport. Three of the top ten attended sporting events annually are racing events. We have a dedicated broadcast partner, our own national newspaper, two dedicated digital TV channels and significant racecard and editorial coverage in the daily papers. Most other sports would die for those assets.
However, despite racing’s popularity in terms of attendances, the sport itself is not in the top ten in terms of engagement and popularity with the public. We need to up our game to remain competitive and ensure the sport’s popularity not just now, but in the future.
What is Great British Racing doing now?
ITV: Working together directly on improving the sport's storytelling, promoting champions and exploring new ways racing can help the broadcaster innovate.
Social media: Getting racing out to the biggest possible potential audience. The combined Champions Series Facebook and Twitter platforms are the biggest of their kind in British racing.
Under 18s go free: Last week launched racing’s biggest-ever campaign to attract more under 18s to the races, focusing on the summer holidays.
Consumer insight: Every racecourse is making its consumer data available for analysis, enabling GBR to develop a significantly better understanding of racing's customers.
Promoting racing syndicates and clubs: GBR launched the 'In the Paddock' website (inthepaddock.co.uk) this year as part of the industry’s strategy to increase the number of owners.
Mark Boylan on the situation in Ireland
Attendance is far from the only barometer of racing's popularity but it is encouraging that the number of racegoers passing through the gates at Irish meetings is back on the up.
Last year's reported 1.3 million visitors to Irish racecourses is still below the record 2007 figure of 1.4m – but it is nearing levels achieved in the early noughties.
Horse Racing Ireland's marketing and PR manager Barbara White believes these positive trends are underpinned by a long-established relationship with the thoroughbred in the country's psyche.
"It's difficult to compare the Irish and British industries, but my understanding would be Irish people are still much more connected to the horse," says White.
"The UK has become a lot more metropolitan due to the size of their population but we all want to strive to be better in horseracing; we are on the up with attendances but it's always a work in progress."
Social attractions designed to increase attendances such as ladies' day competitions and student racedays divide opinion about their effectiveness in creating lasting racing followers.
"It's hard to measure," White admits. "We do as much as we can to create the content a person needs to make the step to become a dedicated racing fan through various platforms, especially digitally.
"I think racing can be quite a difficult sport to understand in certain ways and we're trying to develop the education process as much as possible, from making trainers and jockeys recognisable to the public, to explaining the significance of an Irish horse winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup or Derby."
Longines Irish Champions Weekend is a new initiative that has quickly become a popular event. Just under 24,000 attended the two-day gala last year and a jumping equivalent is set to follow next February.
HRI recently launched a new 'Experience It' campaign, in which any group can trial racehorse ownership as a syndicate for a day; following the horse's training progress, visiting the yard and racing in the syndicate's name.
White concludes: "Recruiting and educating the next generation of racing followers is a priority, with funding for student societies at third level, and the Go Racing Kids Club is something we're passionate about.
"The ideal scenario is we get potential racegoers to visit a 'point of entry' meeting, such as the Galway or Punchestown festival, and then have them return off the back of that experience. That makes a significant difference to attendance levels."