14th November 2023
A few days ago the headline on the front page of the Racing Post screamed ‘This is why we love the jumps’ under a picture of Paul Nicholls, Gordon Elliot and three horses which I later, with some help from Charlie, identified as Frodon, Gerri Colombe and Nassalam. It was a very promising headline and I expected there to be further detail beneath or on the next page but all there was was a subheading which stated, ‘The rescheduled Champion Chase spearheads a magical day featuring old friends and exciting youngsters at Down Royal, Wincanton and Aintree’. I was left to speculate as to why it is that jump racing seems now to be so much more popular than the flat, in the eyes of Racing Post journalists at least.
Rightly or wrongly, my take on this was that it is largely about the fact that the top horses are around for longer and the public can get to know them. A narrative can be built around them. And yet, one of the Racing Post’s top, and in my opinion best, journalists said of the Flat staying division that watching horses like Subjectivist and Stradivarius was like watching bicycles with flat tyres or glorified point-to-points. On the flat it is the stayers that tend to be around longest and it is them that the public are most likely to identify with and the best ones go a lot faster than the chasers or even the hurdlers.
So why is it that so many in the media see the jumps as so much more engaging. ‘Exciting youngsters’? Surely not. Or is it the trainers and the jockeys that are more interesting personalities. Maybe.
I was drawn to think about it all again by another article in the Racing Post. Today, Sam Hendry suggests that we should be doing more to ‘tap into Japan’s ocean of racing-mad fans’. He seems to be saying that our product – and he is talking about flat, not jumps – is better than Japanese racing and so we should be doing more to sell it to Japanese racing fans. ‘The first step’, he says, ‘would be to entice more Japanese runners to Royal Ascot, the key arena in advertising European racing worldwide’. Note, he doesn’t say Wincanton, Down Royal, Aintree or even Cheltenham.
I think he is missing the point. The Japanese racing fans are fans of the sport, first and foremost. Sure, they bet, collectively and probably individually, more than British racing’s punters but racing in Japan is marketed as a sport and the leading participants, human and equine, are afforded celebrity status. The Japan Racing Association are primarily focused on the sport of horseracing and the furtherance of the Japanese thoroughbred. The head of the JRA in the UK told me that ‘in Japan the racing is for the breeding’. I fear that, if we asked the head of the BHA, she would say, ‘in Britain, the racing is for the betting’. That is the difference between Japan and the UK.
There is a huge amount we could learn from Japan about all aspects of marketing our sport and, if we waken up and start learning quickly, we can maybe encourage more people to follow British racing and/or covert some current followers into true fans. But we are light years away from attracting Japan’s ocean of racing-mad fans. That will never happen so long as the Racing Post and most other media organisations covering racing portray it and market it purely as another betting medium.