Lack of star horses is hurting racing
The viewing figures for ITV’s coverage of Glorious Goodwood showed a slight increase on last year which is a positive sign. The most watched race was the Sussex Stakes last Wednesday won by Lightning Spear under a masterful ride by Oisin Murphy with a peak figure of 871,000.
But a sober analysis of the number of viewers for the big meetings across the year suggest that while the trend is lightly upward, the figures are probably not what either ITV racing or the sport itself might have been hoping for when they won the rights and a four-year contract at the start of last season. Audiences of 1.5 million were being talked about over time.
The averages for Royal Ascot this year, which was shown on ITV1 for four of the five days, were down from 867,000 in 2017 to 721,000. The reason cited was the impact of the World Cup. The Grand National last year was disappointing and that was put down to the unseasonably warm weather. Comparisons are still being made with the figures Channel 4 attracted in the final year of its contract in 2016. But how much longer that can be sustained is a moot point. At some stage ITV has to move on from that.
Let me stress that the fact viewing expectations have not been realised is nothing to do with ITV’s coverage. It is universally agreed that it is outstanding, with Royal Ascot a brilliant yardstick. The BAFTA for the Grand National output was no more than the channel deserved. The broadcaster has managed to successfully tread the fine line between satisfying the traditional audience but making racing far more accessible. The presentation teams and pundits work extremely well together, editorially it hits the mark every week.
So what might be the reason that audiences have not increased as markedly as one might have anticipated via the powerful terrestrial platform that ITV offers? Well I am grateful for Geoff Banks, the bookmaker and a controversial character who is not afraid to speak the truth to crystalise some thoughts I had had on this subject.
In essence sport is about competition, about duels, about personalities, about identities which an audience and the public at large can latch on to, relate to and become entwined in the narrative. Football, Wimbledon and the Six Nations for example draw in viewers in the many millions. Flat racing does not, nor has it had, a superstar that gripped the imagination since Frankel who admittedly was a freak of nature.
Part of the reason identified by Banks and with which I concur is the lack of star turns, or at least star turns who do not have a shelf life beyond two seasons before unceremoniously being retired and sent off to stud. Flat racing is now more a business than a sport. It is increasingly a means to an end whereby fabulously wealthy individuals who invest massive sums into the sport seek to make a return on their investment in breeding. Not only are their horses retired too young but to preserve their values during their all too short careers, often trainers at the behest of owners do their best to avoid head-to-head confrontations.
This is what Banks wrote in his most recent blog, which to my mind went to the heart of the problem. “Racing’s number one star [Frankel] retired too young, and well before he needed to,” Banks said. “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 four? Quite literally his stud value to Juddmonte far exceeded what he could earn on the track. Simple commerce you say?
“Except that Khalid Abdullah [his owner] is one of racing’s billionaires. Along with Godolphin, Coolmore, and [Anthony] Oppenheimer. They simply don’t need the money. It’s therefore a paradox they choose to send their ponies to service mares at three and four years of age.
“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”.
“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, is enough to see them defect. If you think they don’t avoid meaningful opposition, you don’t understand breeding.”
His overarching conclusion is difficult to disagree with too. “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 [even] best [repeat showings] of Columbo.”