One of the central missions of the British Horseracing Authority’s Racing For Change initiative when it began in 2009 was to make a much better job of telling the sport’s stories to the general public. Rod Street, chief executive of the organisation that was renamed Great British Racing 12 months ago, tells Chris Smith how they went about it in the second part of our four-part feature.
The team at Great British Racing – or Racing For Change as it was known at the time – faced a daunting task when they set out in 2009 to raise the profile of the sport among a dismissive general population and an increasingly disinterested media. Then they were dealt three aces.
The first was the mighty steeplechaser Kauto Star, whose exploits, particularly at Cheltenham against great rival Denman, are now the stuff of racing legend in Britain and Ireland. Then came one sublime window of opportunity featuring the prodigious jump jockey Tony “AP” McCoy. And then there was Frankel.
Of course, it’s one thing being dealt the hand. Knowing how to play it is another entirely, and that’s where the Racing For Change team showed their mettle.
In the case of McCoy, the objective looked almost unattainable. The ultimate seal of sporting popularity in Britain is to win the year-end BBC Sports Personality of the Year vote. It’s an accolade that’s gone to all the U.K.’s sporting giants over the years – athletes, motor racing drivers, boxers, footballers, show jumpers, cyclists, skaters, they’ve all won it. Nobody from racing has, not even Frankie Dettori after his famous “Magnificent Seven” when he went through the card on one of Ascot’s biggest days in 1996 (he came third behind a racing driver and a rower).
The only other time the sport has made the frame was when McCoy himself came third in 2002. That was after a season in which he rode 289 winners, a British record (flat and jumps) that still stands today. But the McCoy legend had been building steadily after that, so much so, that by 2010, he had been champion jockey 14 years in a row and had become the first person to ride 3,000 winners in the U.K. Then he won – for the first time - the race that resonates more than any other with the general British public, the Grand National. Some may say it’s the only race that resonates with them. Gradually something akin to a clamour began to build for the Northern Irishman to receive the ultimate recognition – the BBC award.
The trouble was, of course, that the clamour was only inside racing. So, Racing For Change swung into action.
The award is voted for by BBC viewers, but AP – as he is known – first had to be on a short list of ten before anyone could dial his number, and there was no guarantee of that - the nominations are made by sports editors and other leading media types with no particular empathy with horseracing.
“Before we could even go on about ‘Vote AP,’ we had to make sure he was on the short list,” said Chief Executive Rod Street. “We hosted a day at Seven Barrows [the stable of leading jumps trainer Nicky Henderson], where we got the media along, including many of those editors who make the short list, for a day at Henderson’s yard. They took AP on on the Exerciser, they had his breakfast - which was a very disappointing breakfast - and they got to see him at work on the gallops.”
McCoy received the nomination and went on to win the title, polling an astonishing 42 percent of the vote.
“That was probably a turning point for us,” Street said. “I think the industry saw the benefit of collectively getting behind something. AP won that absolutely on his merits, he was a winner before we started the campaign, but it would have been terrible not run a campaign, because had he come in second, racing could have said ‘why was there no campaign.’”
It was the kind of coup racing’s new PR machine could hardly have dared dreamed about. To get the horse of a lifetime – everyone’s lifetime – for the following two years was the stuff of implausible fiction.
But to make the most of Frankel for the good of the sport, the team had to learn from a very recent lesson – the missed opportunity of Sea The Stars.
“Two years before Frankel did his magic, Sea The Stars came along, and that horse came and went with barely a whisper,” Street said. “Sea The Stars won the Guineas, the Derby, and the Arc in his three-year-old season. It was magnificent, but the sport made nothing of him. There was no central function when Sea The Stars was around. It was an opportunity missed. We didn’t make the same mistake twice with Frankel.”
Street describes it as serendipitous that the first ever Champions Series race was Frankel’s awesome 2000 Guineas in 2011.
“He was 14 from 14 when he finished and he ran in nine of ours,” Street explained. “So, while it probably made it really hard for us in 2013 without him and that we were probably coming off a false base after two years of Frankel, it was the best thing we could have had to launch the series.”
To make sure the media had an idea of the horse’s ability, Street’s team went direct to the sports editors again.
“We did a Frankel video, which created some sporting context,” he said. “It had some lovely dramatic music. We showed the Newmarket performance [the 2000 Guineas], and we did it in the context of racing’s Usain Bolt. And we got that out to sports editors to say to them this would be like Usain Bolt winning the 100 metres title two seconds faster than anyone else. It’s like him running eight seconds. And that got interest and resonance.”
Then, there was the television advertising.
“Frankel had his own TV advert,” Street said. “He had a TV advert in Yorkshire, which was the first time there’s been a TV advert for a horse, and the advert was ‘come and see Frankel’, and York was 22 percent up on attendance that day.
“The really interesting thing with him was when he went into double figures. Before he was 10 from 10, he was well known and we was getting traction, but all of a sudden, double figures has some kind of meaning to the outside world. They think ‘this horse is unbeaten, 10 from 10 now.’ We spoke to the Black Caviar connections and they said that Black Caviar didn’t start to get any traction until the number got quite big. It’s ‘there’s this horse and she’s never been beaten.’ How many has she won? Well, three. Well, so what? But 10!
“So it was only in that second half of the summer [of 2012] that Frankel really became household. And certainly he’s one of the first horses to go front page since Red Rum [triple Grand National winner of the 1970s]. On the day he ran at Ascot in his final race, he was on breakfast news, he was on the front page of papers.”
That the sport could take advantage of the Frankel phenomenon was largely due to the structure and ethos that Racing For Change had adopted from the start.
“I think we’ve done a great job in the last few years of telling our stories to a different audience,” Street said. “Much credit there is down to Nick Attenborough, who’s our Director of Consumer PR. He wasn’t a racing PR director - we know that audience very well - he thinks about the consumer and where our stories might land, and we’ve placed thousands of stories now in the widest possible media, which has got racing talked about in places it wasn’t. And so we’ve had double-page spreads in broadsheets, centre-page spreads in Sunday tabloids on health and fitness, lads’ mags, Sky Sports have a horse with us, we’ve had a racehorse taken by Soccer AM [Saturday TV show].
“The great thing is it’s all measurable,” he continued. “We’ve been able to show people what we’ve done - from having things in the highest-end publications on bloodstock to some of the more sort of quirky things, like the Filly Factor, which was our search for Britain’s first female racing commentator. We’ve just sort of developed a team that gets out of bed every day thinking about what the story of the day is.”