It was with a heady cocktail of bemusement and incredulity, dear reader, that I drank in the latest proposals to improve the popularity of horse racing in the eyes of the British entertainment seeker.
Details revealed yesterday included an array of ideas, running the full gamut of the sublime-ridiculous scale. Some of the suggestions proffered seem reasonable (if not necessarily sensible). Others seem... well, to this racing fan, they seem abject and preposterous.
So what precisely am I harping on about?
An article in yesterday's Racing Post is what's piqued me. There, the respected trade journal relates that a project team called 'Racing For Change' (ingenious project title, guys!) has been assembled to consider how to drag horse racing into the 21st century. Apparently, a subset of these thoughts will be in place as early as 2011. Something for all of us to look forward to, for sure!
Somewhat ambiguously (it's not clear to me whether these are RP's ideas or ideas which RP's investigative journalism has unearthed - using history as a baseline, I'd suggest the former!), the quote is thus:
"Those identified by the Racing Post include:
*Flat championships that run from Newmarket's Craven meeting in mid-April to a concluding â€˜champions day', possibly at Ascot, in late-September.
*A jumps equivalent that begins at Cheltenham's Open meeting in mid-November and reaches its climax on John Smith's National day.
*Readily identifiable premier fixtures on the Flat, adding to those already recognised as such, with a high level of minimum prize-money.
*More Group 1 events to be staged on Saturdays.
*A team-based series involving Flat handicaps to be staged over six summer Saturdays. There will be points for placings, but the make-up of teams to be nominated in advance - owners, trainers, jockeys, horses, sponsors, or a combination of each - has yet to be decided.
*Qualification for the big Cheltenham Festival events through designated races, providing a championship that would supersede the sometimes-flawed Order of Merit.
*Stronger link between Cheltenham and Aintree, including possibly ending the jumps season at Britain's most-watched race meeting of the year."
Now, like I say, some of these are eminently reasonable. We know, for instance, that the big trainers don't run their flat horses typically until the Craven meeting in mid-April (and arguably even the Guineas meeting in May). But the Craven meeting is only two weeks after the current official curtain-raiser at Doncaster. So what is the real point of that? And, given that the all weather flat season finishes at the end of March, what specifically would be the benefit of having a two week hiatus, where fit horses had nowhere to run? Pointless, in my opinion. Reasonable, but not sensible.
Moreover, ending the season at the end of September with a 'Champions Day' not only usurps Newmarket's established and hugely successful mid-October end of season jamboree, quirkily enough called... 'Champions Day'; but it would also require trainers to decide whether or not they entered their horses for the biggest 'fin de saison' (end of season) meeting in Europe, the Arc Festival at Longchamp, which is always held on the first weekend in October. I wonder what the Newmarket beaks would make of the suggestion to cancel their fete and instead hand it over to Ascot.
Come on guys, that's just NEVER going to happen!
The same is true of the jumps, albeit to a lesser degree. With the growth of the 'Summer jumping' season, those light-framed horses who need faster ground to prosper have their moment in the sun (unintended pun, please overlook!). Again, most senior trainers will not introduce their better types before Cheltenham's November fixture anyway, so why deprive the lesser lights of some much needed prize funds. Those small fish are pretty tasty to the journeymen (and women) handlers who rely on such 'under the radar' meetings for their bread and butter (too many food analogies there?).
And then we have the same end of season bunfight in prospect - Ayr's Scottish National meeting would be out of season, as would the traditional 'last hurrah' for the Countryside Alliance card-carriers, the 'Whitbread' at Sandown (or whatever it's called these days).
Now I should say that firstly, I'm not Luddite, and I do believe that these things should be considered; and, secondly, in jump racing especially, everything after Cheltenham in March - let alone Aintree in April - feels a little 'after the Lord Mayor's show'.
So, perhaps Ayr and Sandown could be embraced into the Summer Jumping calendar without too many tears or blood cells being shed, metaphorically of course. Personally, I actually think that might be a good thing.
I'm not sure what to write about the team-based idea. Obviously, I try to avoid profanity in this little bloggie (it being a family show and all), but really. This has to be the most inane suggestion I've heard regarding racing for a very long time. Maybe ever!
Look, beaks - horse racing is a solo sport. Solo trainers, solo jockeys, solo owners (and syndicates). They all compete directly against each other. Why oh why do you think they want to be on the same side?!
In summary, two words: Shergar Cup!
One more word: NO!!!!
Regarding the suggestion of a stronger link between Aintree and Cheltenham, including possibly ending the season at Aintree... what specifically does ending the season at Aintree have to do with creating a stronger link between the Liverpool course and the Cotswolds HQ of jump racing? (Er, none.)
Furthermore, is it not the case that there are no two National Hunt meetings in the calendar with stronger ties already, and that if the festivals were another two weeks apart, pretty much all the horses from Chelters would run at Ainters (as opposed to about 30% of them)?
Pointless - I'm not even sure what the point of that suggestion is, let alone whether it has merit.
And here, I think, we get to the rub (finally, I hear you cry from the back of the ethereal room)...
What, specifically, is the problem that the racing authorities have identified? A quote from the chair of the Racing For Change squad, Chris McFadden, offers limited insight:
"The driving force for these ideas came from the rebranding exercise conducted by Harrison Fraser for Racing Enterprises Ltd (REL), which highlighted the need for simplicity and a narrative that will hook the new racing consumer.
"The 52-week season won't be thrown away, but just as motor racing has events outside the grand prix, we need to make racing's big events bigger, by highlighting the start, the middle and the end.
"We are looking to create a situation where, when a new consumer asks, â€˜When is the beginning and end of the Flat season?' there will be no ambiguity, because there will be a fanfare for both."
Now, excuse me, but how often does a new 'consumer' ask, "When is the beginning of the Flat season?". What?!!! To my mind, it beggars belief.
The use of the word 'simplicity' scares the living effluent out of me as well. It strongly implies a move towards the 'dumbing down' of horse racing. I'm a most secular person, but... God forbid!
My strong feeling here is that the racing authorities are mindful of dwindling audiences, naturally enough, and possibly of a commensurate reduction in racehorse owners. The latter point has made it much more accessible to the woman in the street with the advent and popularity of racing clubs and syndicates (a few shares still available in Baggsy - click here if you're interested!)
CONTROVERSY ALERT: I'm also noting an emphasis on a two-tier racing system, implying the return of 'gaff' or 'flapping' tracks. Whilst I don't think that's too big a problem, I believe a more explicit stance should be taken on that subject. There is too much racing. Fact. Less horses plus less trainers (or trainers with less horses, or both) plus less tracks equals more prize money, bigger audiences, more competitive (and compelling) racing.
Ultimately, who pays for racing? The punters in the betting shop / exchange, the punters through the turnstile, and owners.
If you want to get more money into the bookies' coffers, then innovate with the bets available. There is a brilliant (and deceptively tricky) bet in the States called the Pick 3, where - oddly enough - one is required to pick three consecutive winners. It's a sort of mini-jackpot and requires both skill and good fortune to correctly identify the horses that will not just win, but will also be overlooked by most other punters, ensuring a tidy payoff for a small outlay.
I'd play that bet every day. Seriously!
Instead, they give us the... wait for it... Super SEVEN! What?! If we want to play the fecking lottery, we'll go to Tesco and buy a ticket!!!!
That's NOT NOT NOT what punters want! Come on guys.
[Soapbox now tucked away again.]
The punter through the turnstiles is apparently not headed that way so often any more. Well, let me tell you, there are lots of packed race tracks on Sundays and Bank Holidays up and down the country, and guess what? There's no Group 1 or otherwise top class racing happening on those days. No, rather, the course honcho's recognise that if you want more bums on seats, you offer your product to a market that can access it. That is, a market that's not at work!
More Sunday action. Cease racing on Mondays. Nobody ever goes then, and the racing is dire. This is really not rocket science, is it?!
Owners... now this last point is perhaps the most tricky. It's not cheap to own a race horse. And prize money is a little weak generally. But, with less racing and fewer horses, prize money would at least be able to make some dent into the heavy costs of ownership.
Please don't misunderstand me - for most, owning horses is either a tax dodge or a wealthy woman's whimsy. Whilst I have no particular truck with either of those ends, nor do I have any sympathy when it comes to their ownership being a loss-making enterprise. After all, nobody forces people to own horses. And it's not like we don't have enough horses to sustain the industry.
Rather, the industry in recent years has grown too big, and it needs a (serious) trim. So, here's my somewhat controversial suggestion list:
*Lose the ten tracks that gross the least money (in terms of both racecourse and bookmaker revenues), and lose their fixtures as well (these tracks generally race on a Monday)
*Stop racing on a Monday - we don't need it, and it's embarrassingly bad
*Forget lottery type bets (we have a lottery, and racing can't compete, so shouldn't try - surely the Scoop6 has proved this beyond doubt!), and instead focus on nice, achievable win bets
*More Sunday race fixtures. Currently there seems to be a maximum of two, very occasionally three Sunday meetings. I'd be happy to see the same level as Saturdays. Let's have six meetings on a Sunday afternoon, geographically spread so as to encourage as many 'working class' racegoers as possible. Trust me, this one thing would probably do more to solve 'racing's problems' than anything the stuffed shirts will come up with.
*Embrace the fact that there is a learning curve when first accessing the sport. It's never been a problem for football. Or rugby. Or hockey. Or darts. Or tiddlywinks. Or any other pursuit on the planet. It is the nuances of racing that make it so infinitely appealing. To 'dumb it down' is to kill it off.
Those then are my thoughts.... doubtless you will have your own on this great debacle debate.
Feel free to leave a comment below. I'm sure that, between us, we can solve all of racing's woes this very afternoon!!! 😉