Let’s play telly stats, everyone loves a stat.. Viewing figures for England playing Columbia topped 24 million. Wimbledon matches, available on free to air BBC regularly figure in the millions of viewers for matches leading up to the finals. Six nations Rugby regularly tops 8m. Premier League viewing matches on pay per view on Sky average 1m viewers a game.
Of course I am discussing free to air. I think it’s fair to say if a sport decides to head towards pay per view, it chooses to marginalise itself. The BBC clearly pays a lot less to cover sport, but its power in raising the profile of the same to new levels is without parallel. 13 million viewers tuned into see the Murray Wimbledon final on BBC. Wimbledon, for all its commercial power resolutely remains with the BBC.
Which makes he decision of Racing Chiefs to head down the commercial broadcaster route, and dumping a public service broadcaster in CH4 all the more inexplicable. In fact the BEEB does tender for Racing, but its bids are regarded by racetrack groups in charge of telly rights, and desperate for cash, as too low. They’re clearly less interested in growing the sport, over their trouser pockets.
Royal Ascot is the very pinnacle of the flat racing season. A five-day festival with some of the finest racing paired with considerable pomp, ceremony and fashion. Despite all this on offer, we managed on free to air a paltry daily average of just over 1/2 a million viewers, that’s one fortieth of those who tuned into England. Said figures amusingly buried in the Racing Post under an article headed ‘sectional times at Ascot.’
I don’t think, though, its down to the coverage. I recall watching last year several recordings of the show and I found the ITV manner struck an entirely good note with this meeting.
As a Bookmaker I often judge the success of the meeting in pure turnover terms, and that was significantly down this year. The simple fact was, what was on the ‘pitch’ was a dearth of top stars. Cracksman was off his game and dethroned, Lady Aurelia invisible. The St James’s Palace was an awful renewal, I’m sorry to say. Whilst there were some excellent performances, there’s simply far too many weak Group Class events, and too many excuses for absentees.
Fine, some people disagreed with me that comparisons with a World Cup qualifier were hardly fair, and of course I would agree, such comments are designed to engage the reader. The viewing figures at Cheltenham, Aintree and Ascot haven’t been impressive, given the free to air advantage, we ought to be batting in the 1.5m viewers mark, as was muted when ITV came on board. I do not, however, feel this is the fault of the network here.
What’s the issue?
The Sport, yes it’s us. Yesterday’s Eclipse featured just 7 participants. The follow-up to the same in subsequent races, comprising two handicaps and a listed marathon contained 6, 6 and 7 runners. The most popular event on the Racing calendar, in viewing and betting terms, is a 40 runner handicap in Liverpool. Most casual viewers to the sport have never heard of either Saxon Warrior or Roaring Lion. Up until this season neither had hit any major headlines with anyone other than Racing anoraks. We’ve become insular in Racing, we imagine the casual viewer knows who these ‘babies’ are. Losing a Derby winner to the field, is therefore, immensely damaging to the race.
The finest horse of our generation is now pumping out replacements at stud, to the tune of 300 grand a pop. The best of a rather moderate siblings would be Cracksman. In no way would I want to impune his successes, but in comparison to Frankel himself, his progeny have been a poor substitute to the great horse doing his thing on the track. Racing’s number one star retired to young, and well before he needed to. Buy a ticket for Barcelona, and you’ll see Messi. Buy a ticket for Racing each season, it’s unlikely the new audience we are so desperate to attract has heard of any of the performers.
Frankel, an iconic racehorse, literally put bums on seats. He retired, let’s not forget as a four-year old! Did he have any nuts by the time he was 4?? Would those same essentials be available to mares at 6? Well of course they would. Quite literally his stud value to Juddmonte far exceeded what he could earn on the track. Simple commerce you say?
Except that Khalid Abdullah is one of Racing’s billionaires. Along with Godolphin, Coolmore, Oppenheimer. They simply don’t need the money. It’s therefore a paradox they choose to send their ponies to service mares at 3 and 4 years of age. Golden Horn was exceptional, a potential perennial superstar. Retired as a three year old to bolster Oppenheimer earnings.
And whilst they race, as fans we are treated to the monthly pantomime of will they-won’t they show up. It’s nothing new to see horses openly avoid competition. Because it makes more commercial sense to the afore-mentioned billionaires apparently to send them to stud all with the grand title of ‘the best I’ve ever owned.’
Only a few luxuriant trainers are afforded such stars. Our press hangs on their every word. When connections dodge events because of the opposition, it’s always tied to one excuse or another. You really don’t expect them to say ‘I’m not going to the Sussex because Enable is down to run.’ Of course not. It’s a niggle or a knock, and they roll out to perform a few weeks later. Because Racing affords these few stars that many opportunities.
So whilst I take on the amiable Lee Mottershead, explaining to us how nice Charlie Appleby is, whom he telephoned about the Derby winner’s defection from the Eclipse, it’s because I’m eternally disappointed we allow connections such an easy ride, when we absolutely know most defections are a cynical exercise in maintaining breeding valuations. Masar ‘got a knock’ was the report, the extent of which was unspecified, but he didn’t need a scan. And he was withdrawn on the day before the Eclipse. On the day of the Eclipse, the same Racing Post is reporting he is ‘responding well to treatment and likely out very soon.’ The damage wasn’t that earth shattering after all. Could he have, in fact, turned out to entertain us after all? Was Appleby too cautious, or could the late entrant to the field in the notably talented Saxon Warrior in fact influenced the decision. In any other sport, such questions would be routine.
You know it really makes little odds to me if Masar was, or wasn’t fit to race. Some keyboard warriors accused me of slandering Appleby, which means they didn’t care to read what I wrote. It was the the meek acceptance that yet another star didn’t turn out to work on a feature day I objected to. People paid to see Masar in the Eclipse, others wagered on him and lost considerable monies. We all deserve a reasonable explanation for his absence. Journalists seem far too ready to accept the stable tours. Nobody called Appleby a liar. I am though, entirely frustrated with the top echelons of training, and their constant histrionics. As we all should be. It really wasn’t about Masar, or this incident. Perhaps I am an essential evil to some, saying what others dare not. I really don’t seek to be controversial, but I do want the sport to challenge itself to do better.
Athletes, notably human ones, constantly perform with injuries, knocks and niggles. Our best horses appear so wrapped in cotton wool, the slightest inflammation, or let’s admit it, the presence of another star suddenly turning up in the field, enough to see them defect. If you think they don’t avoid meaningful opposition, you don’t understand breeding.
In my view, I’m perfectly entitled to question top trainers as to defections, it doesn’t mean I have to be an expert in training, as Jim Boyle so farcically alleged. It does mean I have to understand the commercial realities he so tacitly ignores, which I believe I do. And to continue to pressurise trainers into participation. Some may argue ‘the welfare of the horse’ as paramount. That’ however shows a fundamental ignorance of what’s important to connections. A series of 1’s and an early bath.
So no, it isn’t about Masar, persay. I welcome him back in a week or two’s time, crutches or not. I am frustrated with the eternal merry-go-round of top middle distance performers and their early departure to stud.
As to the future? Unless the Authorities in charge of Racing on both sides of the Irish Sea do something about arresting the flow of top horses to stud, the only thing that will keep Racing going is the beer tent. The viewing figures are telling us to pull our socks up as a sport, because we cannot best Columbo.
A notable giant of training died this week. If my memory serves me correctly Dunlop had to depart his life’s career, because the books wouldn’t balance, with a short fall in product to train. Those at the highest echelons of training, with positive bank balances, because they are rich in Racing’s best product, owe it to the others, to send Masar, and his peers, out to race as often – and for as long as they can. So what if they don’t always win? The sport cannot grow without its stars.