Racing's Shop Window?

This weekend the eyes of the general public focused on the sport we all love and follow.

Isn’t it ironic though that the race which captures the public’s imagination most is the one race that could be described as the freakiest in the calendar? (excluding those fantastic cross-country races at Cheltenham)

Run over the extreme distance of 4½ miles, over unique fences and with the largest field in the sport, it is in no way representative of the sport as a whole, yet it also happens to be the shop window of the sport.

My earliest racing memory comes courtesy of the Grand National. It was back in 1961 and I still remember Nicklaus Silver winning the race, the last grey to do so. Since then I think I have only missed one Grand National, either on TV or live at the course.

Some 8.5 million people in the UK will watch the race on television, although this is nothing like the numbers who watched the race a decade ago.

Many have debated why there has been a decline in viewing figures, for what it’s worth I believe there are two reasons.

Firstly there is more choice, both in terms of television channels and in competition for the leisure pound and time. Indeed taking into consideration the competition Aintree has, they do very well to get the audience they do both in terms of TV viewers and those attending the meeting. Saturday this year was a sell out in advance.

Then again they have an excellent product and it is very well marketed, it is a shame though the attention is focused on the one single race.

From my point of view the supporting cards on Thursday and Friday are amongst the best days jump racing of the year. Yet I wonder how many of the 55,000 racegoers at the track on Friday had ever heard of Master Minded or how many of them appreciated his performance. I would say odds-on it was a minority.

Far too many were there to participate in a fashion show and pour as much alcohol down their throats as possible, the racing was almost an irrelevance.

From the courses point of view that doesn’t really matter, as sales of alcohol are one of their biggest earners. I used to hold a licence for the Sports and Social Club and I know how much money can be made from the sale of booze and that was at subsidised prices. With the deals racecourses are able to negotiate and the commercial prices charged for the drinks, the income stream will be massive.

It has to be said Aintree is by no means the worst offender in terms of encouraging the boozers. By the last races York and Chester weekend meetings invariably resemble a High Street on a Saturday, teeming with drunks. I have often said you could run three legged donkey races round the Roodee and most of those attending would be none the wiser.

Anyway I digress.

The second reason for the decline in viewing figures is because the race has been emasculated.  Watch the reruns of old Nationals and the fences were more severe, more unforgiving. Now, although still a great test, the fences are not as severe, they are more forgiving. As a result the race has become more predictable, less of a lottery, dare I say less exciting for the casual viewer.

Let’s be honest a large number of people tune in to watch the spectacular falls, the thrills and the spills.

Of course changes had to be made, some of the fences were too severe and the number of serious injuries and fatalities was becoming unacceptable. Changes had to be made, but I wonder if the changes have gone too far. Have Aintree pandered to the so called ‘elf and safety brigade too much? Has too much attention been paid to the intolerant wittering of groups like Animal Aid?

There was an interesting feature on the BBC’s coverage of racing on Friday afternoon. They showed film from the 1970’s and 80’s where presenter’s, show-jumpers and other equestrian stars used to ride the course with cameras mounted on helmets. Richard Pitman pointed out this is no longer possible due to health and safety rules and the inability to get insurance cover.

What a sad state to be in?     

Whilst it is good to have a race like the National bringing racing to the attention of a wider audience, isn’t it a shame races like the Cheltenham God Cup, Friday’s Melling Chase or Saturday’s Aintree Hurdle are not the races concentrated on as the shop window, after all they are more representative of the day to day sport.

How many people after seeing the National will decide to go racing and then be disappointed not to see forty runner fields and seeing the horses jumping only “normal” fences?

 

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