Donn's Articles » Worrying times

Worrying times

These are worrying times for racing on both sides of the Irish Sea. On Tuesday, William Hill announced that they would move their on-line betting operation from the UK to Gibraltar, thus reducing by an estimated £1.5 million their contribution to the levy, the source of funding of British racing. On Thursday, Ladbrokes announced a similar move. Interim figures released on Tuesday revealed that attendances at UK racecourses from January to June this year had fallen by 3%. It wasn’t that bad, it probably wasn’t as bad as expected in the current climate, but it is still going the wrong way.

Things look even worse in Ireland. An Bord Snip Nua has recommended a reduction in funding of €16.6 million to the Horse Racing and Greyhound Fund. The rationale for recommending such a measure may be somewhat questionable, apparently based exclusively on the relationship between total prize money in the UK and attendances at race meetings there compared to here, but that is a discussion for another day. The fact remains that, if implemented, a measure of that magnitude, a decrease in funding of over 24% would have dramatic consequences for racing here. A reduction in funding already this year has meant that all racecourse capital development has been halted and prize money has had to be cut by €6.6 million.

On top of this, all of Irish racing’s key indicators are down. Six-month figures from January to June this year released by Horse Racing Ireland last week make for grim reading. Total attendances were down by 17%, allied to which was a reduction of 22% in the total amount of money bet with the bookmakers on-course, while Tote betting was also down by 17%. Even at the recession resistant Galway Festival last week, attendances were down by 18% on 2008, betting with the bookmakers was down almost 27% and Tote betting was down by over 20%.

Admittedly, these reductions have come off record highs, 2007 was a record-breaking year for Irish racing. But 2008 saw a reduction of just 8% in attendances, and it has to be of huge concern that it looks like the spiral downwards is accelerating.

It isn’t easy for the racing authorities. The funding issue has been knocking around for a long time. Horse Racing Ireland have been wanting to align the funding for racing to betting for years now in order to eliminate its dependence on the whims of the government of the day. But how do you garner sufficient funding from the betting industry when a large proportion of betting is now routed on-line and off-shore? And what claim does racing have on moneys bet on soccer or golf or Gaelic football? All arguments that need to be resolved.

Of more concern is the falling attendances, and that is difficult as well. Racing is unusual as a sport, it often sits out on a limb, distinct from other sports. It is not a game that many people play, relative to other sports. If you are a sports enthusiast, if you are a soccer or a rugby fan, it usually follows that you enjoy watching and attending hurling and football and golf as well. Racing is often not a part of that family. When you pick up the sports section of your Sunday newspaper, you probably either go straight to the racing pages, or you don’t read them at all.

Racing is merely a betting medium to the majority. People can listen to soccer or Gaelic pundits discussing a match at length, the tactics, the personalities, yet when they listen to a race analysis, if they have an objective in so doing it is usually to try to get a steer on the likely winner. While betting is obviously integral to racing, it is not exclusive of all the other aspects. In Japan, racing fans are exactly that, they go to the races with banners and flags and they cheer jockeys and horses in the same way as we cheer counties and clubs. They are young and they are loud, and 180,000 of them pack Tokyo racecourse on Japan Cup day, when they pay Â¥200 (about €1.50) to get in.

Some of the marketing initiatives undertaken by HRI in the last few years have been worthwhile, but they have been merely surface-scratching measures in the main. Catering and comfort and admission fees are matters that need to be addressed for sure, but the fundamental issue is that we need to get people going racing for racing’s sake. You don’t go to a football match for the half-time entertainment. We have some of the best horses and trainers and jockeys in the world here, they are the stars, a lot of them are world-renowned, and they are accessible. There is a depth to this sport that is not yet fully appreciated by its target market. We are entering a hugely challenging time for racing and for HRI, because this decline needs to be arrested before it is too late.
© The Sunday Times, 9th August 2009