Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Sand and Spectators

You might think that when a popular horse like Jim Goldie’s Hawkeyethenoo runs at Lingfield, he makes just as splendid a spectacle on the sand as he does on the turf at Ascot or York. You might think so, but you’d be wrong. Same horse, same jockey, same tactics, completely different level of interest. 

Last week The Racing Post’s principle tipster, Tom Segal, confessed that he struggles to find any enthusiasm for all-weather racing. Meanwhile, Alan Lee, writing in The Times, remarked on the dearth of racegoers at Britain’s all-weather tracks – an average of just 788 per day across 314 fixtures. When it comes to racing on an artificial surface, it seems that the majority of race fans develop attention deficit disorder. 

The truth is that the majority of these fixtures are not scheduled with racegoers in mind; they are scheduled for the betting industry. Initially the all-weather tracks bridged a gap in the schedules when freezing conditions impacted on turf tracks. The tracks weren’t always as resistant to adverse weather as their name suggested, but in general they performed a valuable service. In later years the focus changed to exploiting new time-slots. 

The all-weather tracks at Wolverhampton and Kempton were designed with floodlights, enabling them to race during dark evenings, which in turn allowed high-street betting shops to remain open for longer hours. The all-weather racecourses are rewarded financially by the betting industry through media rights payments and, to be fair, they have recently announced some dramatic increases to their prize funds.

The industry has a business plan which effectively promotes all-weather racing: if the fixtures generate sufficient off-course betting turnover, the Horserace Betting Levy Board (HBLB) makes significant contributions towards the prize money and integrity costs of each meeting, irrespective of their appeal to racegoers. Why else would there be plans to build two or three more?

The danger of reducing a spectator sport to this level is that the focus shifts away from the core values that established the fan base. Customers vote with their feet - or the lack of them. On some days the gates may as well stay closed to the public - perhaps this will be part of the business model for all-weather tracks in the future. 

By voicing such concerns, I could be accused of espousing elitist snobbery with a tenuous grasp of the commercial realities that drive the sport... But hang it! Cartmel is hardly elitist and I fully appreciate that the racing and betting industries are inextricably linked.

I like to have a bet as much as the next man (and possibly the two men standing next to him, the lady next to them and the one watching the dogs on the main screen; although the guy playing the roulette machine, in the corner of the betting shop, probably has it worse than I do). The thing is, I believe that the sport of horse racing is integral to my betting enjoyment - not an incidental side show. 

When it comes to racing on turf, Alan Lee noted that Cartmel achieved an average crowd of 9,012 per fixture in 2013 – more than any of the three tracks which host the Classics of the Flat racing season: Doncaster, Epsom and Newmarket (as well as Newbury where this week’s selection is Chris Pea Green - each way in the race that the nostalgic will still think of as the "Schweppes").

While I’ll gladly accept any plaudits, the current management team at Cartmel can take very little credit for the amazing crowds that we welcome each Summer. It was our far-sighted predecessors who created the formula for a fun racing event which attracts hoards of people to this beautiful corner of Cumbria. And it is these people, the ones that attend year after year, who lend racing at Cartmel its vitality and party-like atmosphere. To me, fixtures at Cartmel – and similar events where the racegoer is key to the proceedings - are what horse racing is all about. 

Twenty years ago, media rights payments from betting shops were paid according to a formula which took account of the number of racegoers in attendance at each meeting. If the HBLB could find a way to reward racecourses for generating larger crowds, all tracks (including the all-weather ones) would place a greater emphasis on attracting and entertaining the public.

The fixture list would look very different. Levy yields may decline slightly; they may not. Jump fixtures in the winter would have to be protected. There might be fewer all-weather fixtures - but I bet that they would be more fun to attend, they'd attract bigger crowds - and the horses that race on the sand might just create as good a spectacle as they do on turf.  

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