So then, why don’t you go racing? – Turf Talk: 28 November 2016

YOU – a racing person – might reply “Of course I go racing”! But you would be one of relatively few who populate our South African racecourses.

This is not new news. But we find that people of any background –who can afford in all senses to go to sports events – think it is all about gambling and “don’t want to know”.

Horses as beautiful athletes participating in sports competition do not seem to “grab” the potential fan base. Prawns grab. Such initiatives are very worthy efforts. But not promoting the racing itself.

When looking at the UK situation for some sort of perspective, we must not compare apples with oranges. That is there and this is here. Yes. But horse racing is horse racing. And not only for the big days.

Over six million people went racing in UK in 2015. That is an average of 4,250 people at each race meeting – 7 days a week, several per day, all within a small, heavily populated country – ranging from tens of thousands on major days to less than a thousand on a dull Wednesday at a little track where fans have nevertheless paid the equivalent of 350-600 rand just to get in.

Summer weather – contrary to popular barb – is usually a gorgeous accompaniment to the Great Day Out culture. In the winter, small racecourses that operate jumping only are often packed to the rafters with overflowing car parks.

 Chepstow Racecourse in South Wales—just another race day.

Chepstow Racecourse in South Wales—just another race day.

Their patrons may be getting very wet (but only on the outside of rain clobber) or are wearing their favourite winter coats, scarves and gloves and downing a hot whisky.

But for much of the year in South Africa, it is seri-ously hot. Wandering around outside for more than a few minutes at a time is not everyone’s first choice activity. Air-conditioning is preferred whether in easy-access betting halls and refresh-ments outlets or in boxes and restaurants. Huge grandstands absorb people behind glass, with or without a balcony and compartmentalise them in boxes.

All the more joyous, then for the South African new to racing to be able to go into the Parade Ring with hosts, or with racecourse guides or to stand along-side it and take in the magnificence of our equine athletes, and their vividly clad riders who may include a star jockey or two or three. Some of them will become owners or members. Some of them will make the next generation that we so badly need right across the industry.

How about incentivising existing owners to bring at least three guests every time they race?

But for now, taking the family racing or having your hen party on a racecourse or just rocking up with a bunch of friends is not high on lists of preferred recreations.

Why? Is it really because it is conceived to be all about gambling? If so that’s a shame. It is a brilliant sport with equine and human participants each with their story, competing much as human athletes do whether that be in a major stadium or at a local event.

But nobody takes their seat in an athletics stadium and contemplates an each-way bet on the 5,000 metres. If the slogan at your local athletics stadium were “Track and Field – It’s a Rush” what would that signify?

The notion that less than half the people on UK racecourses have a bet is probably flawed. But even if it is 75-80%, we can be sure of three facts: (i) the other 20-25% don’t bet (ii) plenty of the 75-80% don’t bet on every race, or only do a Jackpot or Placepot with friends while they concentrate on enjoying the day and the sport and – most significantly (iii) most of the 75-80% only ever bet when they go racing. In other words they treat it as part of the fun on the day, to take or leave.

That fun is in looking at the horses in the parade ring and making up your mind – whether actually betting or just predicting or willing your own favourite to win. For some, shopping around in the betting ring for the difference between 3/1 and 11/4 is also part of the fun, as well as important to professional gamblers who are rarely to be sighted but are “there”. While most racing professionals don’t care a hoot about exact odds, arithmetic ability in punting and getting better odds than your mate can feature in contrast to the relatively mindless “whatever” odds that result from computerised betting.

Terrestrial TV broadcasting of a whole afternoon’s racing at one, some-times two, courses is the biggest single “introducer” of people to racing. The satellite/cable channels do a different job with a stronger betting focus, dodging around from track to track with few frills and less opportunity to broadcast atmosphere. They are not free-to-air and are therefore out of reach of the majority who anyway would not subscribe.

Mind you, Tellytrack has a better position than (say) Racing UK being “included” in many DSTV packages and we know that its managers are looking to broaden the appeal of its broadcasts.

A top, highly respected trainer recently called for ITV – to which terrestrial racing broadcasting is returning with more live days’ racing to be shown than any other live sport in the country – to drop all betting coverage from its broadcasts. He was exaggerating to make his point which was/is that it is a turn-off for many sports fans. The bookies squealed but a surprising (but minority) amount of support was expressed.

As it is, betting has a limited “expert” slot before each race and graphics will show starting prices, but the focus on the horses and their people goes way beyond the number cloth and a set of odds. –tt.

At the races: Goodwood.

At the races: Goodwood.