When AP McCoy crossed the line on his 4,000th jumps winner we were reminded that any sport is driven by star performers and performances. The value of McCoy’s extraordinary achievement – or, equally, of the magnificent Frankel’s string of victories – has incalculable worth in connecting racing to millions of people who, day-to-day, are unlikely to give our sport a second thought.
Events such as this also remind us that it is rare these days for our sport to appear on the main TV and radio news or in the main sections of newspapers – and this despite the huge promotional efforts that are now made under the much improved administration of British horseracing.
Of course, nobody can expect racing to come close to matching the might of Premier League or Formula 1, but its gradual decline in the consciousness of the general public is a major concern. Yes, we must be thankful for Channel 4 Racing, the two specialist TV channels and especially the Racing Post in playing such an important role in preserving and serving a hard core of racing enthusiasts, but we cannot escape the fact that, with each generation, that core has been diminishing in number.
The value of McCoy’s extraordinary achievement has incalculable worth in connecting racing to millions of people
This is not to denigrate the efforts being made to target a new, young audience or to ignore the drive shown by racecourses in maximising attendances, but our most important task is to mould racing in such a way that it will naturally attract a bigger fan base.
There is no mystery as to how this can be achieved. It is simply to do what other sports have done and what racing is now effectively doing through the British Champions’ Series. You match the best against the best and promote it through every means at your disposal.
The British horseracing year, punctuated as it is by time-honoured festival meetings, some of world-renown, has a natural way of pulling the best horses and the most enthusiastic crowds together. But is it enough? With still no clear structure to the racing seasons, there remains a lack of clarity over jockey/trainer/owner championships.
Saturday programmes do not have a sufficiently strong focal point to ensure we maximise our audience, while most bank holidays lack the appeal necessary to a make an uncommitted fan take notice. In particular – and notwithstanding the new Good Friday all-weather championship – more has to be done to reinvigorate racing during the Easter period and create a proper high-class festival at that time.
We also have to acknowledge that a bloated fixture list, that often lacks structure, has fuelled the ongoing decline in editorial space devoted to racing in national newspapers.
With most sports editors putting racing a long way down their list of priorities, we have, in recent years, seen a profusion of racecards absorbing the space once devoted to news and analysis about the major events – either that, or racecards being left out entirely. Is this one of the prices we must pay for allowing racecourses and bookmakers to dictate the size of the fixture list?
In a utopian world where one horseracing authority holds the rights to betting, TV pictures and all fixtures, that authority could simply impose a policy that was best for the whole industry. But we can only play with the cards we have been dealt and it is a matter of judgement whether racing’s long term future is best served by snuggling up to the betting industry, especially when you consider how much levy bookmakers avoid paying by going offshore.
If all this seems a far cry from AP’s glorious milestone, you should consider that every time racing connects with the general public, as it did for his 4,000th winner, there is the certainty that a few more racing fans will have been created. It is why, be they human or equine, the great ones truly deserve our adulation.