Tradition

Looking at the bottom of my computer screen it tells me it is 08:35 on Monday 22nd August 2011.

So what I hear you say, well it is conformation the world did not end at 15:40 last Saturday afternoon, as predicted by many.

What was going to precipitate the destruction of everything we know?

No it wasn’t the latest experiment at the Hadron Collider attempting to replicate the Big Bang. It wasn’t a rogue asteroid about to hit the earth in a twentieth century re-enactment of the wiping out of the dinosaurs, although arguably dinosaurs were the soothsayers of doom in this case.

It was the running of a horserace on York’s Knavesmire – yes the Ebor Handicap was being moved from its “traditional” midweek slot to a Saturday afternoon. “Traditionalists” were up in arms, boycotts were threatened.

In the end it was a popular day, the crowd of 28,185 holds up well against the mid-week figures and arguably many were put off because they expected bigger crowds. By moving the Ebor to a relatively quiet Saturday afternoon the race became the centre of attention on what is the busiest day of the week betting wise. I have not seen all the bookmakers figures but the Tote report a 7.2% increase in turnover on the race this year but I would imagine the traditional bookies figures would also reflect an upturn.

The reality is, and it is an important reality in these difficult financial times, moving big races to a Saturday afternoon is generally a positive move.

I say generally as there are exceptions which prove the rule, the most notable being the decision to move Newmarket’s July Cup to a Saturday spot.

So why has the Ebor move seemingly worked whilst the July Cup move was seen as a failure?

The answer is actually quite simple. The Ebor was moved to what is, from a class and betting perspective, a very quite Saturday afternoon. Therefore there was an untapped potential, a void which the Ebor was able to fill.

By contrast the July Cup was moved to what was already a very strong Saturday afternoon, an afternoon which already had two top quality races. An afternoon where the addition of a third top quality race at a third different course proved the old adage you can have too much of a good thing.

What can we conclude from these two changes?

Firstly change is not necessarily a bad thing, provided the change can be justified, generally on commercial grounds. Secondly, change for changes sake and change where the consequences are not thought though is not a good idea.

However a significant number of those who oppose these changes do not take any consideration at all of the rationale behind the change, their stock argument is it is “tradition” that such and such a race is run on this day.

It is getting close to a generation ago that the Epsom Derby was moved from its “traditional” Wednesday slot to Saturday afternoon. Few will argue the move has not been a commercial success. The meeting is invariably sold out and the crowds still flock to the hill in their tens of thousands. Moreover the character of the race has not changed and the international audience has increased.

Yet there are still those, even in the upper reaches of the racing establishment, who still believe the move of The Derby is the biggest sell out in the history of the sport and they will still take every possible opportunity to bemoan the move.

The “tradition” argument has also been prevalent in the on-going debate surrounding the changes to the Grand National course, which – depending on your perspective – are either unnecessary tinkering with a once great race, carried out as a knee-jerk reaction to the 2011 renewal or they are progressive changes carried out solely in the interest of horse welfare.

In reality, as is often the case, the truth is somewhere between the two extremes.

I can see why people do believe the changes are simply tinkering and they are seen as appeasement. What really rankles is when the tradition argument is rolled out to justify a particular stance.

Tradition alone is never a justification for not changing something. Indeed, in my book, the only time tradition should be used as a determining factor is when all the other, logical as opposed to emotional, arguments fail to sway the verdict one way or another.

I’m sure when bear baiting and cock fighting were banned in England in 1835 supporters claimed they were ”traditional” sports and the bears and cocks would have to be slaughtered if the sport was banned, yet few sane people would argue the bans were not justified.

Now I appreciate cock fighting and bear baiting are a world apart from horse racing, however two common factors are public perception and the use of tradition as an argument against change.

Like it or not the Grand National is the “shop window” for British racing, it is the race most in the consciousness of the general public, especially those who do not follow horse racing on a regular basis.

The public will be more inclined to believe what they see with their own eyes rather than any press releases from either side of the argument.

Most sensible people acknowledge the likes of Animal Aid have an agenda and their pronouncements are treated with a varying size pinch of salt depending where you stand on the issues.

However it would be naïve to assume pronouncements from the racing industry should not also be treated with the same scepticism. They are, after all, just another vested interest.

Racing, as an industry, seems content the Grand National is its showcase race. Therefore it has to accept the consequences, that if horses die in the race then it will reflect badly on the sport as a whole. They cannot therefore complain when there is an adverse reaction.

On a forum this week I saw a former Aintree marketing executive advocating, effectively, stage managing the television coverage to show the race in the best light possible – he even used the dreaded “spin” word.

That would be a very dangerous path to take, it would be a route the public would see through immediately and it would do even more irreparable harm to the sport. If racing needs to spin what is it attempting to hide would be an obvious question.

Those who follow racing need to remove their blinkers and rose coloured spectacles and realise the perception of the general public of our sport is not as bright and positive as ours. Arrogantly proclaiming those in racing no best or that racing has its traditions carries no weight in the court of public opinion.

Like it or not racing cannot afford to ignore public opinion remember what happened to hunting!!!

I believe there are far better races which could be used as a shop window for our sport. On reflection I think the Grand National is a race which can ultimately do the long term future of the sport more harm than good and no amount of tinkering will change the negative perception the race creates. It is one of those instances where common sense has to override tradition.

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