Donn's Articles » Sponsors and race names

Sponsors and race names

We live in a changing world. The rate and pace of flux in most walks of life these days is greater than it has been since the origins of humanity. You cannot expect that racing’s little cocoon would be immune from such change. On the contrary, change should be good, embrace it, move with the times. Often it is the inability to change that takes you to the edge of the abyss.

However, the change that is good is the well-thought-out strategic change for the long-term betterment of an entity, not the knee-jerk change for the satisfaction of short-term whims. Take race names, once etched in stone, the trusted street lights that showed us the path through the season, the stitching that held together the fabric of the racing calendar long before the word narrative ever wended its way into racing-speak; now mere bubbles that can be pricked at the behest of any cheque-book-waving marketing director.

Times were when the naming of a race after a sponsor was a perfectly reasonable way to be going about your business, simply because a sponsorship was a long-term agreement. The Whitbread Gold Cup, the Irish Sweeps Hurdle, the Hennessy God Cup – a sponsor, like a puppy, was for life.

Before 2001, you could never have imagined the Whitbread being called anything but the Whitbread, in the same way as, these days, you can’t imagine the Hennessy Gold Cup being called anything other than the Hennessy. The Hennessy is still the Hennessy, but the Whitbread is now the Whitbread or whatever it is called these days. A Nintendo Wii, apparently, is not for life.

The or-whatever-it-is-called-these-days caveat is one that is being increasingly employed by trainers and race planners, and that is a worrying state of affairs. You can understand the confusion. It is difficult even for racing professionals to keep up with the changes, so what chance have the new people that racing is trying to attract?

There have been, of course, the well-documented recent wholesale abolition or demotion to ‘registered as’ status of some of the bastions of the racing calendar, like the Bula Hurdle and the Bunbury Cup, but confusion reigns when the sponsor’s name is the only means by which the race can be identified.

The Jewson Chase used to be the two-and-a-half-mile novices’ handicap chase at the Cheltenham Festival, now it is the new Grade 2 race. The Ladbroke/MCR/Pierse Hurdle will be the Hurdle this year, the Ritz/William Hill Trophy will be the JLT Specialty Steeplechase, the Massey Ferguson/Tripleprint/Boylesports/Robin Cook Memorial/Vote AP McCoy Gold Cup was the Spinal Research The Atlantic 4 Gold Cup, the Schweppes/Tote Gold Trophy will be the Betfair Hurdle. Also, the Betfred Gold Cup, run at Sandown in April between 2004 and 2007, will be run this year at Cheltenham on 16th March.

The Bunbury Cup, Prince-like, became the race formerly known as the Bunbury Cup in 2010, but had its name re-instated last year under a climbdown brought about by public outcry. Then the same sponsor went and demoted this year’s Tolworth Hurdle to registered-as status.

In one sense, you can understand the issue from a sponsor’s point of view. Journalists being journalists, the reality is that the Thyestes Chase is much more likely to be called the Thyestes Chase than the Goffs Thyestes Chase. However, in another, it makes no sense at all.

The success or otherwise of a sponsorship should be measured by strength of association with an event rather than simply by numbers of mentions in the media. If it is numbers of mentions you are after, why not simply advertise instead? The most successful sponsorships in the world are those in which the association rolls off the tongue: the Guinness Book of Records, the Barclays Premier League. Same in racing, the Coral-Eclipse, the Darley Irish Oaks. The value of the sponsorship should be in the association with the event name, not in the obliteration of it.

Some sponsors recognise the value of the race name. Coral have never done anything with the Eclipse other than hyphenate it, and the Morgiana Hurdle name was re-instated this year under Ladbrokes’s sponsorship, but, regrettably, others have not been so far-sighted.

You can understand it from a racecourse’s point of view. Times are tough, sponsorship dollars are thin on the ground. If a potential sponsor says he wants a caged snow leopard in his corporate suite on the day of the race, then you are probably going to investigate ways in which you can have a caged snow leopard in his corporate suite on the day of the race.

There is an urgent need for a list of race names in Ireland and Britain to be drawn up, names that are sacred, the cornerstones of the racing calendar, names that cannot be modified or removed, listed race names like listed buildings. Sponsors become part of the race name, not the race name.

Start with the 25th anniversary of Saturday’s Victor Chandler (Clarence House) Chase. Or whatever it is called these days.

© The Racing Post, 17th January 2012