Racing is not known for embracing new things, the pace of change in the sport often perceived as glacial; but might that be a little harsh?, writes Tony Keenan
After all, who in 1998 could have imagined what would happen in the 20 years since? The creation of Betfair, the rise of super-trainers, the festivalisation of race meetings, the increased globalisation of flat racing, the development of not one but two sport-specific TV stations are just some of the headline events which have occurred in past two decades.
Imagining what racing will look like in 20 years’ from now is difficult, a fool’s errand even. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try and having some sort of vision for the sport, no matter how differently things may turn out: it’s a bit of fun if nothing else. With this in mind, I posed five questions about where racing might be in 2038 to four people involved in the sport at present.
Brian O’Connor is racing correspondent for The Irish Times and has written three novels about the racing industry. Simon Rowlands is a time and sectionals expect who has worked in racing all his life, filling a variety of roles such as Timeform handicapper, newspaper editor and he was the first chair of Horseracing Bettors Forum. Ger Lyons is a Group 1-winning Irish racehorse trainer who has been based at Glenburnie Stable for over 20 years. James Knight is Racing Trading Director at GVC Group having previously been Head of Racing at Ladbrokes Coral.
Is horse racing still socially acceptable in 20 years’ time? Sports ebb and flow in their popularity and I think it is at least possible that something like American football becomes a bandit sport in the next few decades with all its problems with concussions and injuries. Racing is not at that point yet but is there any chance it gets there with a rise in animal welfare concerns? Where will we be at with the whip by that stage?
B O’C: Judged on international trends, if racing here has future problems in terms of social acceptance it will be probably be with National Hunt racing. It shouldn't be on a major scale since the sad fact is humanity's relationship with the animal kingdom is vastly more fraught in so many other sectors. But jump racing sells itself as 'Thrills N Spills' entertainment and those spills inevitably produce some fatalities. Every effort must be seen to keep casualties to a minimum. So while it may not be particularly edifying the reality is that there are far worse animal welfare issues out there than specifically bred and pampered equine athletes being asked to jump.
As for the whip I would hope in 20 years’ time that racing has long acknowledged how there's no way to make hitting a dumb animal to make it go faster look good. And by then I would hope trials where whips are used only for correction purposes have proved that there's still a first, second and third with punters able to bet and calculate accordingly. It will be different. But different doesn't mean the same thing as wrong.
SR: One of the few things you can say with confidence, based on past form, is that some things in racing will not change as much as they need to. There is a deeply conservative element in the sport and many aspects of racing may well not be very different in 20 years’ time. That informs what follows, rather than its being a ‘vision’ with which I agree.
I expect flat racing still to be socially acceptable in 2038, but less so jumps. The latter will need to address concerns about equine fatalities and the sport’s legacy association with hunting. There is a reasonable chance that, by then, the whip will be allowed to be used for ‘safety’ reasons only.
GL: Racing was here before us all and will be here after we have gone despite our generation of ‘PC do-gooders’ that try to suck the joy out of everything we enjoy. Jump racing could suffer more from the welfare groups than the Flat will but ultimately racing will survive as it’s too big an industry not to. We as a group need to stand strong and say enough is enough and stop giving oxygen to people who thinks it’s fun to keep dragging us into disrepute.
JK: I think it still will be socially acceptable but the sport can’t afford to be complacent. I’d see the whip issue as being much less of an issue than equine fatalities in terms of presenting a structural risk to horse racing (and particularly National Hunt racing). Whether those of us close to the sport like it or not, the Grand National remains a disproportionately large shop window for the sport, so every effort needs to be taken to make that race as safe as possible.
I think Aintree have done an excellent job over the past few years to that end, but I’m sure they will want to make it safer still. The other area in which progress needs to be made regards the wellbeing of jockeys. It is essential to have a sport where the human participants can lead a healthy lifestyle whilst competing and I think racing perhaps needs to look at minimum weights and how races are structured.
The race-day experience, at least in the UK and Ireland, has looked the same for a long time: six, seven or eight races, run at rough half-hour intervals, over the course of an afternoon or evening. Could this look different in the future? Will we have four-race cards because people haven’t the attention span for more or will we go the American route with epic ten-race cards? Will the races themselves be different? Floodlit jumping, three-furlong races, etc.?
B O’C: Race-day 'experiences' will probably only count in terms of the big festival fixtures. The current everyday reality whereby race meetings are mostly just another betting opportunity is likely to have accelerated massively in 20 years’ time. So it'll be fast-food action shovelled out quickly – obesity, racing style!
But on the big days I hope the racing experience doesn't alter too much. One of the major selling points of racing in this part of the world is its tradition. You couldn't dream of a technically worse racecourse than Epsom but it's where history is played out every year. Racing down Pall Mall might sound trendy now but nothing dates faster than trendy.
SR: Big race days, particularly at weekends and on evenings, will more clearly be a ‘simulcasting’ experience in which racegoers alternate between the live action in front of them – still seven-race cards on average – and the action from elsewhere, both elements broadcast on large screens and hand-held devices, with runners easily identified on-screen by their saddlecloth numbers.
Betting itself will be more ‘tournament’-like, with individuals and groups competing against each other, on- and off-course, using apps. There will be kudos – and benefits – to be had in being part of a gang who finished in the top 10 in the Melrose Stand on Ebor Day, say, or in coming out top in your group of 15 at Newbury on a Stag or Hen Do.
Jumps races are started from stalls, placed on all-weather mats that are removed before the runners come round for the second circuit. A small number of valuable four-furlong handicaps will be permitted, such as at British Champions Day, but much too late for Caspian Prince to be crowned Champion Sprinter!
GL: Absolutely not! You simply can’t run the races any tighter, we tried it in Ireland and 30 mins is a push. The only people that don’t have the attention span to stay the distance are folk that don’t know the game and we should absolutely stop pandering to them. Stop dumbing down the game, if you want to follow our sport make an effort to get used to our language and ways, why should we always be explaining ourselves? For me it goes back to my basic argument which is to concentrate on the people in the sport rather than worrying about those that are outside, if they see us having fun then human nature dictates they will want a piece of the action, simple!
As it is in the UK at present they already have too much racing hence the disgracefully low prize money. So logic dictates that more races on the card will mean even lower prize money and how LOW can you go?
JK: Racing has become more commercially minded over the past few years and the current betting data is telling us that more money will be returned to the sport via levy if courses put on seven- or eight-race cards as opposed to six – so I definitely think the trend would be for longer cards as opposed to shorter. I’d be all for experimenting with new race formats like four-furlong bullet races – or even individual horse time trials.
Again, Racing can’t afford to be complacent and there may be some different formats which appeal to new audiences. The key with all these things is to give them a chance with a proper trial and then if they don’t work – just can them and try something else. By trialling and failing fast, we might just stumble across racing’s T20 – i.e. something that, perhaps surprisingly, appeals to a wider audience.
There was a time when the only way you could watch most races was by going to the track. The modern media landscape has changed that utterly where every race is now televised and available on our devices. Are we at the high-point of racing coverage now and how will it look 20 years from now? Will there still be terrestrial TV coverage and specific racing channels? Could individual courses be running their own feeds?
B O’C: Will there be terrestrial telly? Will there even be telly? Racecourses could flog their own feeds but who's to say they won't be subsidising punters to bet in 20 years’ time. The big question though is what will the market be. If the buzz is the bet who cares about the medium: is Portman Park the gambling future?
SR: The consequences of Brexit on the economy and the continued mishandling of racing by those in power will have finally led to a degree of belt-tightening by the sport. Racecourses are down in number to about 40, half of which are really struggling, and the size of the fixture list has been trimmed commensurately.
Terrestrial TV coverage of racing is a distant memory – indeed, terrestrial TV itself may be – but one consequence is that those racing devotees left can see all the action on one dedicated racing channel, with any pretence at editorial independence from the bookmaking concerns that ‘sponsor’ them having been ditched. Subscription comes at a very affordable 100 Euros a month, Britain having back-tracked and re-joined the EU in 2023.
Despite the culling in numbers of races, there will be a shortage of jockeys due to the majority of them quitting after just a few winners to work in the racing media. Yes, individual racecourses could be running their own feeds, but under an umbrella organisation after initial efforts at going it alone in broadcasting pictures proved absurdly amateurish.
Far from being a golden era for data provision, the successor to the successor to the BHA has pawned the family silver by finally privatising all forms of data. You will have to pay to find out which horses are running, which jockeys are riding, which weights are being carried, let alone what a horse’s striding and sectionals were, while connections will be able to buy favourable circumstances (weights, draws, etc.) for their horses, but you will also have to pay to find this out, obviously.
GL: We are spoilt for choice now so much so that you don’t have to go racing anymore to see the action. As with all, the IT will keep developing and evolving and no doubt the future will give us more WOW moments as avid gadget users. I’ve no idea where it will all end but I do think that attendances will continue to struggle because of TV coverage.
JK: Who knows? It was quite hard to predict we’d all spend every waking hour glued to our phones 20 years ago, so I almost dread to think what technology will have done to us by 2038! We’ll probably be shouting orders at a screen and then, as if by magic, a virtual Matt Chapman will appear and shout back at us. I’d like to think there would still be a place for Racing specific TV channels, but my guess is that the whole concept of ‘Terrestrial TV’ will be done by 2038.
My children’s generation aren’t really tied to the idea of watching something specific at a specific time on ITV or Channel 4 and for them, it is assumed that TV is something that is consumed on demand. That trend will likely continue and you could easily see events just being streamed live via Twitter, Facebook or whatever new social media channels we are wasting our lives on in 2038.
Betting aside, technology probably hasn’t affected racing quite as much as it has other ways of life but it surely will over the next decades. Where do you see this impact happening, be it in training, breeding, viewing, riding and so on?
B O’C: Those old April Fools’ gags about jockeys being wired to trainers and owners in the stand like F1 drivers will probably come true next year, never mind in 20. The potential of 'AI' is vast. But it's the prospect of another 'AI' in the breeding sector [artificial insemination] that could start to make a compelling technological and commercial case. That will be another example of how advancement doesn't mean the same thing as improvement.
SR: Analytics and sophisticated data will be used more and more in breeding and training, and will exist (e.g. horse weights, sectionals, striding, heart rates, etc.) on raceday but may not be available to the public at large (see above).
‘Jockey-Cam’ technology will extend to the option to view the race – e.g. from the back of the favourite in the Derby – as it happens and to being able to ‘ride’ the race after the event, complete with personalised commentary, captured for posterity.
GL: Horses will always need to be exercised and no technology will be invented that will take the human element out of that and if it does then the game is F****d! We need jockeys to keep being bred and we need to do whatever necessary to help us as employers to attract the younger folk to come and work in the industry. Governments have to become more educated to this as right now we are at staff crisis point, God only knows where we will be in twenty years’ time.
JK: It’s happening now isn’t it and I think to excel or get an edge in any aspect of the game –
whether it is training, breeding, betting, riding, whatever – people are going to have embrace technology and use it to supplement their existing skills. For example, the smart buyers at the sales are now using big data to inform their choices. That means using modelling techniques to rate pedigrees or machine learning to analyse areas previously considered ‘dark arts’ like a horse’s gait.
All elements can and eventually will be modelled and I could see there being something of an arms race in terms of who can get their hands on the best predictive models. That’s not to say there won’t still be room for some human interpretation, but we have to let the computers do what we humans aren’t very good at, which is crunching through millions of bits of data.
Silver bullet time. Money is no object and there is one thing you can do to future-proof the sport. What is it?
B O’C: Virtual reality is divorcing more and more people from the living, breathing reality of horses as creatures rather than simply a set of form figures. Conversely that will make animal welfare an even greater issue and it's in racing’s own interests to be seen to invest in animal welfare. Whatever cost there is in being seen to do that is dwarfed by the threat of accusations of cruelty or negligence. Animal sports will become even more defined by their treatment of the animal itself.
SR: Embrace data and its analysis, and make it as freely and widely available as possible. Far from being ‘off putting’, things like sectionals and horse weights can shine a light on numerous sub-plots within a race and add hugely to the interest in the sport if framed in intelligible and interesting ways. Clearly, the media – such as it will still exist – will need to change its ways considerably to allow this to happen.
If I was allowed a second bullet then it would be that a forward-thinking, competent and ‘can-do’ regulatory authority would regain control of the fixture list in a well-funded sport.
GL: I would start again on betting and media rights. Use Hong Kong as the model and all income generated by the sport should be reinvested back into it and be self-sufficient. We can’t pat ourselves on the back as being the ‘great I am’ when we still need handouts from respective governments. There’s too much pointless bureaucracy involved in running the business side of racing now and with technology improvements things should be made easier and not harder.
Central stewarding is something we should aim for and make the current system of enquiries a thing of the past. No time should be lost on race day playing the ‘yes sir’ no sir’ game to these prehistoric men and women who are clinging onto anything to keep themselves relevant. Before the horse has pulled up and returned to the parade ring a decision by central stewards should be made and the winner called. Connections can always have the right to appeal later on but with the technology now available it’s a pointless exercise having jockeys going in and explaining themselves, it’s pathetic and outdated.
JK: Money is an object and that’s the problem! To future-proof the sport, we need it to be sustainable financially for all of the constituent parts. I think it ties in with other areas your questions have touched upon, but I think the sport just needs to get smarter all round. Racing needs to embrace technology and data so that when a decision is being made, it is backed by facts rather than the gut-feel that maybe was the best we could do before the data revolution. In this way, the sport can maybe start to get a bit ahead of the curve, rather than always being dragged along just behind it.