Betting is the one area where Britain’s promotional organisation Racing For Change, now Great British Racing, has achieved only limited success over the past five years in its drive to make the sport healthier and more popular. There’s a good reason for that, but there’s also a very valuable by-product, as Chief Executive Rod Street tells Chris Smith in the third part of our four-part feature.
It’s the reason prize-money in Britain lags so far behind other jurisdictions around the world, and it’s been a bugbear for racing professionals for more than half a century. Yet, according to Great British Racing’s Rod Street, the lack of an exclusive pari-mutuel betting environment has given the British racing industry one hugely significant advantage in an era in which the sport is increasingly under pressure to attract the paying customer.
“We think British racing has woken up to its troubles a bit faster than other jurisdictions,” Street said. “Where in some jurisdictions you have pari-mutuel betting and you’ve not had to fight too hard for the customer because you’ve got lots of money in the coffers and you can pay high prize-money, all of a sudden you’re noticing a migration from your pari-mutuel pools to other ones that might be football-related or other sport-related.
“You’ve seen your income come down, but what you haven’t got is sort of the natural consumer focus that British racing’s always had to have.”
Betting in Britain is dominated by fixed-odds bookmakers, who pay an agreed annual levy to racing, about a third of which goes toward prize-money. In 2012, the country’s prize-money for flat and jumps totalled £117 million ($195 million), but racing had to scrimp and save through racecourse contributions, sponsorship and other means to get it that high – and it was still noticeably lower than the largely pari-mutuel fuelled totals in comparable jurisdictions such as Australia (£215 million or $357 million) and France (£155 million or $258 million).
“British racing has always had to work hard to get people through the gate,” Street said. “We’re a nation of racegoers. Almost six million people would have gone racing last year. They’re big numbers. If you look at France, if you look at the States, if you look at other areas where there’s been pari-mutuel driving the prize-money, there’s probably been a softer underbelly when it comes to customer focus.
“They’ve been subsidised, and I suppose the subsidy leads to complacency.”
Street found that Britain’s customer focus increased significantly after Racing For Change was established in 2009.
“But even before that we had a stronger customer focus,” he explained. “We meet with our counterparts [from other countries around the world] and they’re very open and we envy their pari-mutuel betting, their pools and high prize-money, and they envy our popularity with consumers. High prize-money in some places and no-one turns up to watch it.”
The advent of Racing For Change – renamed Great British Racing 12 months ago – brought a number of changes designed to make going racing more enjoyable for the public.
“We’ve brought in innovations like larger number cloths, which to us are relatively very small things in nature, but innovations like that, where people in the grandstands can actually see the number of the horse that’s running, are quite important to customer service,” Street said.
“We’ve introduced the Racemakers last year – utterly stolen from the Gamesmakers [the volunteer initiative at the 2012 London Olympics],” he said. “It’s been astonishing. We found this pool of people who’ve been prepared to give up their time to come and share their passion and their knowledge of the sport at a race day with what seems to be a very equitable trade of a free ticket for a race day on another day.
“We recruit them by category, so we have horse experts, we have betting experts, we have generalists. We like a bit of local knowledge, so it’s great if you’ve got the guy at York who’s been going to York for 10 or 20 years who can tell people how to get back to the station and can give some local racing knowledge as well, and we’ve been oversubscribed.”
One of the first jobs Racing For Change undertook in 2009 was research on people who didn’t go racing.
“They said there were two obstacles,” Street said. “One was lack of knowledge about horses and one was lack of knowledge about betting. So we got them through the gate and we immediately gave them two fences to jump. So these Racemakers are there to try and make it that little bit easier for the novice and try to get them interested.
“It can’t be prescriptive,” he continued. “You cannot coerce people into getting passionate about the sport. What you do is show them a few interesting bits and pieces, give them some insight, and then they’ll learn for themselves. And in my experience, and I’ve been a racing fan since knee-high, the joy has been learning. I haven’t needed anyone once my imagination was sparked to do it. You pick it all up. So what we’re really doing is just opening the door. We say to people ‘come down to the paddock. If you’ve never been racing before we’ll show you what to look for in a horse. Let’s go to the betting ring and we’ll show you what the board means.’ Once you’ve done that, the rest people pick up.”
Another innovation is “Meet The Racehorse,” in which a retired racehorse is brought to all the Champions Series days to interact with the public.
“We put them in a very well liveried paddock, we have an attendant there who knows what they’re talking about, and it gives the racegoer a chance to come and actually get up close and personal,” Street explained.
“So it’s really good that, for people who can go one year to the next without seeing a horse, they can actually come up and get close. And again that’s another part of the magic. For some people, it’s not about the betting, it’s not about the form, it’s about the animal.”
Yet, betting remains the biggest challenge for Britain, or more specifically monetising racing’s betting value in a fixed-odds environment.
“Anything that hasn’t got a levy on it is going to be better [for the bookmakers] because it then relates to their margins,” Street said. “So there’s challenge there, to maintain our relevance within a betting context, which we’ve only got half right. In terms of more PR for the sport, more visibility, yes, I think racing’s relevance is there, but whether or not that’s manifested in terms of our market share [in betting] is debatable because we’re up against football, we’re up against online gaming.”
Street believes the industry’s trump card is the real popularity of a day at the races.
“In all the consumer surveys we’ve done, racing scores really well as an experience,” he said. “Something like 78 percent of the people we’ve surveyed say racing is either good or excellent as an experience. So there isn’t an obstacle to having fun at the races. It’s probably more attractive than many other sports. So if you can get people to come through the gates, if you can get people who come once a year to come twice a year and tweak that frequency, in popularity terms you can get more people participating and watching.
“The challenge is that you’ve got to convert these people to start wanting to punt on it. And instinctively, in order to do that, you need to be talking some serious volumes of people because again most of your occasionals will stay occasional. There’s nothing you can do about that. There are some people who would say – and we do all sorts of surveys – I love a day at the races, it’s brilliant, I go to Royal Ascot once a year, I go to Uttoxeter, I go to Perth, it’s a great day out with my mates, it’s great fun, then I go back to my life.
“So they’re not going away thinking negatively about racing, it’s not actually getting into their lives. And the key has got to be, if we want to think about what we’re going to look like as a betting product in another 10 years’ time, to capture more people’s interest in that, which is probably our biggest challenge.”