How best to promote and market horse racing to a wider sporting public is a hot topic at the moment. The columnists of the Racing Post are particularly eager to exercise their mental dexterity on the subject, and fair play to them as every strategy and innovation they have proposed is sensible and worth pursuing, as you would expect from such learned and respected journalists. But their words of wisdom only reach fellow racing fans; they do not reach the wider sporting public who are the sport’s supposed saviours.
As we all can agree, I.T.V. are doing a fantastic job in presenting our sport, even if they can only embrace the same audience that either loved or hated Channel 4’s coverage. Slowly but surely they will grow interest in the sport, though it may take longer than the length of their present contract.
The overlaying problem in attracting a new and lasting audience is that the broad diversity that is the sport’s perpetuating appeal to us, the racing enthusiast, is, to the newbie, also its greatest obstacle. Tennis may have men’s and ladies singles and three forms of doubles tournaments but in essence the courts remain the same and the same rules apply. Take away the offside rule and football and rugby are easily explained. Cricket has become more complex but essentially it remains a bat and ball game. In racing, though, every racecourse has its unique configuration. We have flat racing over every distance from 5-furlongs to 2-mile six-furlongs, run at racecourses that can be tight and round like Chester to long and straight like Newmarket, plus all-weather tracks. We have hurdle racing, steeplechases, hunter chases and point-to-points. There are races for apprentices, amateurs, lady jockeys, with even charity and celebrity races thrown in for good measure. There is the betting element, the breeding element and the training element. There is the different surface types, everything from standard all-weather to firm to heavy on turf. Horse racing is the sporting equivalent of the entrance exam to a Cambridge university.
It is why horse racing is a life experience much more than a sport. The diversity may be off-putting to the casual observer but it is its many layers that make it so different from other sports and we should try and sell this notion while expending less time going down the ‘jargon-busting’ route.
A decade or so ago this sport sold itself out to the ‘devil-may-care’ division of the sport, the betting industry, and it was widely advised that it should be compulsory for jockeys to ride every horse out to the finishing post to make life easier for punters, bookmakers and handicappers alike. Thankfully this wrong-headed approach was not sustained and it is now realised the heart and selling point of the sport is the horse and its welfare.
Of course the sort of brouhaha that Davy Russell and Dennis Egan contrived will always knock the sport’s image. As will use of the whip and defence of the whip. Image and perception is everything and if we want to broaden racing’s appeal this hot potato must be grasped. At the end of the day, whether the whip is applied or not, every race will always have a 1.2.3. And that is what really matters for the punter, the bookmaker and the handicapper. What doesn’t matter is a losing jockey claiming he would have won if he had been allowed to hit his horse with a whip! The sooner ‘hands and heels’ races are introduced for senior jockeys the better life will be for those whose job it is to market and promote our sport.
The truth is this: to the majority horse racing is a sport for the very rich. Yet here I am, as poor as a church mouse, whose life has revolved around the sport since childhood. We must make people aware that this sport is all-embracing. The Aga Khan, Arab princes and ruling monarchs could not have their sport if it were not for the contribution of the horse-carers, the punters, the racecourse staff, those on a day out at the races; the working class.
Adam Kirby throwing his arms around Harry Angel at Haydock is just the right sort of image we should be portraying because affection and love is at the heart of the sport. The last line in Michael Tanner’s introduction to his book ‘My Friend Spanish Steps’ also typifies what this sport is about: ‘For this is Spanish Steps and at long last I can tell him how much I love him’. This sport is about Man’s centuries old love affair with the racehorse. If you could bottle the reception Sprinter Sacre received on winning the Champion 2-mile Chase at Cheltenham and distribute the essence to every other sport, people would better understand horse racing. This is the message we should be delivering to the wider sporting public.
Not that we should forget the craftsman and sages that are the Racing Post columnists. If the sport funded a scheme whereby the Racing Post could produce a special edition of their Sunday supplement to go into, for example, the Sunday Telegraph, the reach of sport would extend beyond the limitations of the industry. If the supplement had articles on how to contact a trainer about buying a horse, with a ball park figure on costs; articles on great horses, both in training and retired; interviews with celebrities with an interest in horse racing and those who work in the sport, we would be reaching the wider sporting public who are, supposedly, our holy grail. If Alastair Down, Lee Mottershead, Tom Kerr, Steve Dennis and others (why no female columnist?) can’t sell this sport to the sporting public then horse racing is truly going to end up travelling to hell on a handcart.
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.