The Irish Outsider – Wednesday, December 11th 2013
Racing tends to define its media differently to other fields; the publications and outlets that cover the sport are often gentler than would be the case elsewhere. Sensible arguments can be put forward for the chummy atmosphere between journalists and subjects they cover – mainly that the former need the cooperation of the latter to do their jobs – but it hardly justifies it.
Within racing’s bubble however, it is notable how some of the participants are dealt with more critically than others; the treatment of racecourses and politicians harsher to than the toothless coverage of bookmakers, bloodstock interests and jockeys and trainers. If you’re looking for a reason for that, it’s the money, the second group either directly or indirectly contributing to the financial viability of the media that cover them.
The furore surrounding dress codes at Newbury last weekend was a good example of how the racing media will often jump on a race track when the opportunity presents itself, the comment on the subject tending to such outrage it became a parody. That Newbury made a mess of this was clear – race-goers have the sense to dress themselves – but it was such an open goal it hardly merited comment.
Who really cares about this when there are many other issues that really matter? It’s similar when the old chestnut of admission fees and the price of food and drink are wheeled out on a slow news day, ignoring the fact that the same rules apply to almost every event where you have a captive audience from concerts to other sporting occasions.
This is not to say that racecourses should be immune to criticism. They are worthy of reproof on any number of important issues from going reports and watering to the measurement of race distances, something which received notably scant coverage in the aftermath of the Betfair Chase at Haydock, a race where times suggested it was run over a shorter trip than advertised, an egregious crime, akin to running the 100 metres sprint over 99.
But it is clear that racecourses receive a disproportionate degree of approbation relative to other parties in racing which is probably down to them being self-contained entities that tend not to advertise extensively in the media; they make their profits through admission fees, food and beverage sales, racecard sales and TV rights.
Politicians are another soft target for the racing media. They are criticised for not having a sense of the broader industry, as in an editorial by Leo Powell of the Irish Field recently and in Ireland of late, there has been plenty of comment for failing to deliver on promises to establish new legislation on betting tax. Both of these are quite relevant arguments but it should be remembered that politicians have much bigger concerns than racing; they have a country to run, however badly they may be doing it.
Furthermore, they don’t run party-political broadcasts on the racing media the last time I checked and the attacks from a few racing hacks are barely a blip on their radar when compared to the comment from the sabre-toothed political media.
Bookmakers, who are the backbone to advertising across all channels of the racing media, get a much easier ride. The almost complete lack of coverage of knockbacks is the most obvious issue that is ignored and then there is the flipside, the often brutal exploitation of losers until they are bled dry. There is rarely any comment on the whole ethics of laying bets where winning punters are simply refused point-blank.
I’m not suggesting that every bet should be laid, far from it, but there should be some code of conduct in place and bookmakers made to provide at least at base level service to all punters; one doesn’t go into Tesco and get knocked back to two cans of beer because you were only buying products that are loss leaders ,though nor can one buy fifty crates, a fair-minded approach.
Knockbacks are only the start of it and many issues are left uncovered from Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (thankfully, still banned from Irish betting shops), the ever-increasing use of jockeys in tipping columns which seems a conflict of interest, the creation of round-the-clock racing (or to use its horrible industry-speak title, ‘product’), best exemplified by the introduction of Good Friday racing, all of which contributes to there being far too much racing.
Then there are the irritating fantasy prices that are publicised and not laid, the tipping on obscure sports on the back pages of the Racing Post because there is nothing else on and the omnipresent PR reps that boast of massive bets. I’m left to think that one of my friends has it right in engaging in a weekly ‘which bookies’ PR would I like to punch?’ game.
The big bloodstock interests don’t advertise quite so much as bookmakers, but in certain sectors they hold plenty of sway, notably in a publication like the Irish Field where breeding is heavily represented. Coolmore are the experts in PR, a veritable hype machine, but sometimes one wonders why the gloss of their stallion campaigns isn’t questioned, the media comments that form the backbone to these ads often coming from the very media the owners advertise in.
Sales talk, from the jockeys to trainers, is their currency with comments about such a horse being ‘the best ever’ happening so often as to make them a parody. No comment is made on the area of group race inflation where we have far more group races than ten years ago, surely a breeder-driven development, and when is the last time you read a negative comment on a stallion, such as them getting types that weren't genuine?
Of all the players in sport, jockeys and trainers might be the most sensitive of all. Whether it be criticism of a bad ride or bad placing, they tend to throw their toys out of the pram at even the inkling of negative comment, often responding with the ‘how many winners have you ridden/trained’ argument.
Should a media member step out of line and critique a trainer or jockey, then another journalist will invariably spin it back in favour of the supposedly injured party, knocking the doubters. While jockeys and trainers may not advertise in the media they do provide the news and filler that is the backbone of day-to-day coverage and without this material journalists are in a bind.
The exception that proves the rule of jockeys and media is Ryan Moore who, despite being the best of his generation, is constantly slated for not being media-friendly enough, as if his willingness to engage in meaningless pre- or post-race platitudes and blandishments matters a jot for what happens on the track. Moore may not be inclined to bare his soul to Bob Cooper in the parade-ring but the ironic thing is that when, on the rare occasion, he does have something to say, it is worth listening to.