Donn's Articles » Tradition and commercialism can co-exist

Tradition and commercialism can co-exist

The decision by Boylesports to discontinue as flagship sponsor at Cheltenham’s December meeting is the latest in a worryingly long and growing line of racing sponsorships that have been consigned to landfill of late.

These are chastened times. The sponsorship dollar is not as liberally available as it once was – on the contrary, it is under armed guard in corporate vaults all over the country – and those organisations that do have the means these days are less likely than ever to have the inclination. It is more difficult than ever to free the funds that will indulge a CEO’s passion, and the PR benefit of a lavish sponsorship, in times when sackcloth and ashes are the order of the day, can be easily questioned by those who are so inclined.

The difficulty is that, in the scramble for sponsors, much else becomes secondary. Race names in particular seem to be as dispensable as the racecards on which they are printed annually. It is a worrying trend. Race names are not just a hat-tilt to tradition, they are the stepping stones (the narrative, if you are into that type of speak) that take us through the season, the bones on which the skin of the season can be constructed and referenced for posterity.

When Boylesports took over as title sponsor of Cheltenham’s December meeting in 2006, the race that was formerly known as the Bonusprint Gold Cup, and the Tripleprint before it, after being run for one year as the Robin Cook Memorial Gold Cup under the Totesport banner, became the Gold Cup. That was a pity, because there was an opportunity then to permanently name the race that some people still call the Massey Ferguson after one of British racing’s great ambassadors. Not only that, but the race that was formerly known as the Bula Hurdle became the International Hurdle. It was disappointing at the time to hear Cheltenham offer the notion that Bula had little relevance to today’s racegoing public as a rationale for the change.

You can understand it from the perspective of the sponsors. They are commercial organisations, they are not racing’s custodians, their primary objective is to engage in a successful sponsorship, a huge part of which is down to the amount of coverage and mentions they receive in the media. If the race is called after the company that sponsors it, then there is no other means by which the media can refer to the race than by mentioning the sponsor. It must be infuriating for sponsors to read about the race that they are sponsoring without seeing the company’s name associated with it.

In a way, you can understand it from the racecourse’s perspective as well. The racecourse executive is intent on getting the sponsor on board, the sponsor requests that the race name be changed, the racecourse agrees for fear that the sponsor will take their dollars elsewhere.

But who is looking after the big picture? Who is looking after racing’s narrative? No other sport sells its wares so easily to a whimsical sponsor. Surely race names are integral to horse racing as a sport, as an entity? Surely, if racing’s governing authorities are not intent on setting down directives or even guidelines, despite their constant reference to racing’s ‘narrative’, there is an onus on racecourses to protect the blocks on which each racing season is constructed? Taken to its nth degree (Cape Blanco won the Dubai Duty Free Stakes this year), we are left with a hanging canvas and no poles.

Even from a commercial perspective, it is a short-term view. There is an inherent value to the sponsor in being associated with a prestigious race, a value that is lost if the race name is demoted or removed. Some of the most successful race sponsorships are the sponsorships in which race names have been embraced, the Budweiser Irish Derby, the Smurfit Champion Hurdle, the Mecca Dante, the Coral-Eclipse (so closely associated, the words are now hyphenated). If a sponsor’s objective is brand recognition or association, then longevity and continuity is key.

Some racecourses have stood firm. Royal Ascot remains unsponsored, and even this Saturday’s King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, in which the word Diamond used to be included in subtle reference to the De Beers sponsorship, is now inconspicuously “sponsored by Betfair”.

They don’t make sponsors like Hennessy or Whitbread any more. Racecourses know that, these days, when a sponsorship is agreed, it is a temporary arrangement, they are liaising with fleeting friends. Even so, many established race names have gone the way of the Hillman Hunter, and trainers talk about the Whitbread Gold Cup, “or whatever it is called this year.”

Sponsors are obviously essential to racing, they are to be embraced, nurtured, cherished, but commercial interests can still be served while racing’s very identity is preserved.

© The Racing Post 20th July 2010