I have a dilemma.
A week on Saturday sees the inaugural British Champions Day at Ascot, the climax of Racing For Change’s (RfC) grand plan to add a narrative to the flat racing season.
On the one hand it promises to, probably, be the best single days flat racing staged in this country, with the added bonus of it being held at one of my favourite courses. On the other, it is in danger of turning into a form of three ring circus and from a “working” perspective it will probably be a difficult day. Plus I have a few nagging doubts about the morality of the day.
Let me share some of my thoughts.
I have always given a cautious welcome to the Champions Day, certainly staging it at Ascot rather than Newmarket is an inspired choice. Ascot is an ideal venue in terms of facilities, location, configuration and viewing. One suggestion I would make regarding the venue for Champions Day, should it be an on-going feature, would be to consider alternating it between Ascot and York.
My main concern about Champions Day was the potential negative impact it could have on Longchamp’s Arc meeting. It could be argued some of the Group races at Longchamp this year did not have their usual strength in depth, although it is dangerous to make a judgement on the evidence of just one year.
Having seen how the day itself is being organised I have some more nagging doubts.
First of all there is the racecourse presentation which is being headed by ATR’s Matt Chapman and also includes somebody called Amanda Davies and trainer Robert Cowell.
Matt Chapman is quoted as saying, "the on track team see it as their mission to enhance the experience of regular racegoers while engaging and enlightening those less familiar with a truly great sport" – what wonderful marketing speak straight from the RfC Bible.
With an audience consisting of both hardened, experienced racegoers and newcomers that aspiration is going to be very difficult to achieve without the real risk of alienating significant sections of the audience.
In my experience regular racegoers do not want to be bombarded with constant chatter and what they consider “irrelevant” talk over the PA.
There has been a proliferation of this sort of presentation in recent years and it is questionable if it is always for the betterment of the raceday experience. I think it works better at the more family oriented meetings, not at the showcase meetings.
Some racecourses have handled this better than others. The ones who have got it right only have the presentation broadcast in certain parts of the course, thus giving racegoers the option to either opt-in or opt-out of listening to it.
Hopefully Ascot will do the same on Champions Day.
As with the art of television commentary – less is best.
The presentation team composition is also very interesting.
I have already upset Matt Chapman in a previous epistle and I have no desire to further fan the flames today. Matt, however, is very much a Marmite™ character as far as followers of the sport are concerned and the organisers are taking a calculated gamble in using him as opposed to what could be considered a “safer” pair of hands.
Having said that, Matt is also, possibly, the one person who could actually pull this whole thing off – and this may come as a surprise - I genuinely hope he does.
As for Amanda Davies I must admit I hadn’t a clue who she is until I looked her up. It seems she is the daughter of David Davies, former BBC presenter and FA bod, and she apparently presents the sports news on the BBC News Channel. I am not aware of her having any racing pedigree and one assumes she is being wheeled out at the “token” female.
Her selection seems somewhat unfair on the, presumably more knowledgeable, females presenters who already work in racing. Is the suggestion none of these are good / pretty enough?
Regarding Robert Cowell having never seen him in action I have no idea how suitable he is as a presenter / pundit but, again, I am surprised at the inclusion of a relative unknown in the line-up.
Time will ultimately tell and I am more than happy for my scepticism to be proven unfounded but is this really the best presentation line-up that could have been produced?
Another problem for me will be working at Champions Day.
Put simply the racing press corps can be divided into two camps, those of us who go racing most days at tracks, big and small, around the country and those who only turn up for the big meetings.
Although there are some notable exceptions, who do appear at the smaller courses day-in and day-out, most the correspondents for “The Nationals” tend to fall into the latter camp.
These are the ones who would not be seen dead at Fakenham on a wet Tuesday afternoon in November, assuming they even know where Fakenham is.
Yet they are the ones who invariably turn up at the all major meetings and then strut around the press room as if they own the place. Woe betide anybody who dares sit in “their seat” - even if they have not bothered using it the previous eight minor meetings at the course.
They are the ones who will bark at some poor employee of the racecourse “do you know who I am?” when they are faced with something that doesn’t quite go their way.
There is little more stressful than a press room full of egos.
The “morality” question stems from the financing of the day. Racing is pleading poverty, complaining about lack of money with the consequent result of ever decreasing prize money, leading to (selective) tariffs and protests. Yet racing is somehow able to stage a single days racing with prize money in excess of £3m.
OK a large amount of this money is coming from sponsorship and from Ascot but does it not sent out a confusing message about the state of racing?
Can such a huge amount of prize money be considered right in these austere times?
Does such huge prize money for six races just not enforce the generally held prejudice that racing is simply a rich man’s game?
It is akin to me complaining to all and sundry, making a really big deal of the matter, that my financial situation is such I could only afford to eat supermarket value range food. Only to then take my friends out to dine at The Fat Duck at £180 a head.
So do I really want to spend the day working in a press room rammed full of egos, fighting for desk space, at a meeting which may well become a vaudeville show and where the prize money is arguably obscene?
Or do I want to go to Cheltenham where it will be much more sane?
Do I want to watch top draw races and the culmination of the flat racing season?
Or do I want to go to Cheltenham for what is, in effect, a low key meeting for the course?
Interestingly a number of my “day to day” racing colleagues have said they will be going to Cheltenham instead of Ascot – maybe the press room at Cheltenham will be busier than many expect.As for me, I have not decided yet and I am still open to persuasion either way, although my car is currently parked facing west rather than south.