A Curate's Egg

As I write this there are just three weeks to go to the opening day of The Cheltenham Festival, easily the best four days racing of the year.

An added edge this year is the lack of preparation  for many of the stars as a result of the bad weather and abandonments.

There have even been extra races staged to help some of the main contenders.

Although I do wonder if, for example, Saturday’s extra hurdle race – set up for Punjabi – would have been staged had a lesser trainer wanted a race for his contender. There seems to be one rule for some and one for others – somewhat unfair I think.

Let us hope the weather improves for the festival and we don’t have the nightmare scenario of the weather impacting our enjoyment.

I have just been firming up my racing plans for the next few weeks and it seems hard to believe that the turf flat season starts in a little over four weeks.

I don’t know if I am mellowing with age but I seem to be enjoying the flat turf a great deal more in recent years and the big question this year is will we have another superstar to rival the performance of Sea The Stars last year? Only time will tell.

To get away from the cold weather my wife and I popped over to Malta for the weekend, as one does, just to get a break from the cold.

The racing scene in Malta is not that big and trotting is very much the scene out there, although there are occasional “normal” flat races . Meetings are generally twice a week “in season”, the season being winter where the temperatures are high teens / low twenties, with racing taking a rest in the blistering heat of high summer.

As this was a flying visit racing was not on the agenda. On Saturday we went past the course and was surprised to see a reasonable crowd in the stands and a sizable number of runners in the saddling area. I say surprised because Saturday is not a racing day.

I though little more of it until I noticed the same on Monday.

In the end curiosity got the better of me and I stopped to find out. It transpires these are open training sessions.

What a brilliant idea, it is a shame we do not have more open sessions in the UK. Here you may be lucky to see an occasional schooling session after racing but all too infrequently and, only then, it racegoers are told about it.    

Talking of change the latest suggestions from Racing For Change (RFC) came to the surface today and there are some interesting proposals. Some seem to make sound sense, almost coming into the stating the bleeding obvious category, others could be called “innovative” or perhaps controversial.

One of the more obvious comments is that racing needs to market itself better outside the racing media. Hooray somebody has finally realised it at last.

Unfortunately there are still too many following and, more worryingly, running aspects of the sport who still seem to think racing has some God given right to be in the forefront in the consciousness of the public.

The reality is (and too many seem to be unable or unwilling to accept the proposition) racing is a minority sport.

Yes it may attract 5.7 million attendees every year but has anyone looked into how many individual racegoers there are. Certainly there are not 5.7 million different people going racing every year.

Now if you say it quickly 5.7 million sounds very impressive, however let us put the figures into perspective.

In 2009 the 5.7 million were shared between 1,427 meetings giving an average attendance of 4,008 a meeting.1

In the 2008 / 2009 Premier League season 13.5 million attended 380 games with an average of 35, 592 per game.2

If you want a nearer football analogy to racing then the average attendance at a League 2 game this season is around the 3,800 mark.3

The simple concept from RFC is to move racing away from the sports pages, a laudable aim but implementation will be more difficult.

Unless the story is related to scandal the non-racing press will, unfortunately, not be interested. No matter how much those of us close to racing think there are many good stories.

The second “stating the bleeding obvious” observation is racing is no longer the primary sport in bookmakers. Gone are the days when the only sport attracting the punters attention in the bookies was racing, with a spattering of greyhound racing.

Now a punter is more likely to go into a betting shop to bet on a football match or the result of X-Factor.

Linked to that (and it is a significant issue that all in RFC seem to be ignoring) is the funding of the sport, via the Levy is anachronism.

Why should racing and only racing receive a share of the bookmakers profits – it harks back to the arrogant view that racing is somehow special.

If racing gets a share of the bookmakers profits from betting on its product, then why shouldn’t football, golf, tennis, darts or any other sport also receive a subsidy?

Then we have the issue of the exchanges, who are not part of the levy but who currently make a voluntary contribution?

What happens if they change their mind about making a contribution?

The whole issue of the funding of racing needs to be reviewed and the future of the sport should then be developed around a viable financial model.

One good suggestion is a big handicap to be run the same time every Saturday afternoon, to be heavily marketed in the hope of persuading the non-racing punters to have a flutter.

Certainly the concept works in France where they have the daily Tiercé race. OK nobody is suggesting something as exotic as that but the idea has some merit.

Another suggestion is a defined start and close to the racing seasons.

RFC accept the National Hunt season is reasonably well defined, climaxing at Sandown.

However they are looking for more definition to the flat season and are looking at a season ending Champions Day to close the season a meeting which will feature championship races for three-year-old and older horses.

Do we not already have an end of season Championship meeting – staged in Paris the first weekend in October.

Would our French cousins, indeed would racing fans here, want to see the Arc meeting diminished in any way?

There is also talk, once again of some form of “team championships” well, excuse the language, that is absolute bollocks – racing is not a team sport, never has been, never will be.

The nearest we have to a team event in horse racing is Ascot’s Shergar Cup meeting. Yes a great fun day out but it is a novelty event with little bearing on the remainder of the season.

Is it really being suggested that racing changes the very way it works in order to attract followers of other team sports?

Racing is not a team sport and has sufficient merits and attraction to stand on its own two feet.

Yes racing needs to change its image, it does not need to change the nature of the sport.

Like the curate’s egg RFC is good in place but in other areas the suggestions are off.


1. Racecourse Association

2. The Premier League

3. The Football League


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