I was intrigued to read, in the run-up to this year’s Champions Day at Ascot, that the inaugural event in 2011 had been “a resounding success”.
Interpret that how you may, but my own recollection of the occasion would translate that comment as: “The sun shone and Frankel was there.” Was there really any more to it than that? Apart, that is, from the fiasco over the breach of the ridiculous new whip rules, which, fortunately for the organisers, did not become public knowledge until most visitors had left the course and the BBC transmission had ended.
Frankel has, of course, been the best thing to happen to British racing in years, and the fact that his career has coincided with the inauguration of Champions’ Day has benefitted that event enormously. The fact that he will not be around to grace it with his presence in 2013 is already a concern, as there is no doubt that he was the only reason why Ascot were able to sell as many tickets as the health and safety folks would allow this year.
The fact that Frankel’s career has coincided with the inauguration of Champions’ Day has benefited that event enormously
Since last year’s 2,000 Guineas, when we first realised what an exceptional performer he was, Frankel has enjoyed an ever-rising profile in the media, to a level unsurpassed in my experience of the sport. The bonus of his third season, with his fresh feats of brilliance showing him faster, higher and stronger, has been well exploited, and his continued justification of all the hype has kept racing in the headlines in an exceptional year for British sport. For all that Bradley Wiggins, Mo Farah and the other Olympians, Andy Murray and the Ryder Cup fellows have achieved, Frankel’s consistent excellence has been without parallel. Surely there’s a case for nominating him as Sports Personality of the Year.
While we must be grateful for the huge contribution Frankel has made over the last three years, there is obviously a flipside in the huge void he now leaves. He has attracted large crowds wherever he has raced and it is reasonable to suppose that as his reputation grew and the media focused more and more on him, among them were newcomers to racing. Can we believe that he will have made converts of them, eager to become regular racegoers?
That would surely be wishful thinking. Any who do become hooked may easily become unhooked again, realising soon enough that they are not going to see a Frankel-type performance on every visit. Some will be smart enough to recognise that if they go racing regularly for the next 50 years, they are never going to see another Frankel. Once they’ve seen the best, where is the point in bothering about the rest?
Racing is a costly commitment
A great horse will attract new fans to the sport. But one superior performer is not going to make fans for life, ready to make a serious and costly commitment on a regular basis, unless they find out quickly that racegoing is an enjoyable experience that warrants it becoming a pastime. And of course, what makes it an enjoyable experience is not the same for every racegoer.
Having been committed to the cause from an early age, it’s hard to put myself in the position of a person who may go once just to find out what it’s all about and guess how he or she might react to a first visit. My first Derby was Sea-Bird’s. If I had been there just to learn the Derby experience, instead of one who was already involved in racing and passionate about the sport, would I have decided that I must make it an annual outing? If I had never been racing before, would that have made me follow the sport to the degree that I would find an afternoon at Pontefract or Leicester appealing?
What makes it an enjoyable experience is not the same for every racegoer
Of course, the Derby has to be a special case. Yes, I feel sure I would have been determined to attend, year after year. I would probably have realised that I might never see the race won by a horse as good as Sea-Bird again, but the occasion is something unique in the calendar, the atmosphere is fantastic and I feel sure that a first-time visitor would revel in it and want to experience it every time it came around.
But would the Derby experience make me – or anyone else – want to become a regular racegoer, attending mundane meetings where nothing resembling a good horse is on parade? I hardly think so, unless I had a special affection for the horse per se and got a real buzz about watching him in competition. That, and only that, is what turns a casual visitor into a regular racegoer.
Anyone who recognises racing only as a medium for betting is well aware that it’s possible to bet on the sport without ever visiting a racecourse. Anyone for whom betting is a way of life also knows that there are countless opportunities for wagering on other sports, many of them perhaps more attractive than racing, an arcane form of sport, mystifying to the uninitiated. (And as racing knows, to its cost, its share of revenue from betting is constantly dwindling.)
Betting is something that can be indulged in at the racecourse once one is there. It isn’t a reason for attending. The availability of alcohol is also not a reason for going racing since the pub licensing laws were relaxed, though it seems to enhance the experience for many, albeit while spoiling it for many as well.
What difference does Dettori alone make?
In recent years there have been concerted efforts to make the public identify with the human characters in the sport, which to all intents and purposes means the jockeys. That’s all very well, but does the fact that Frankie Dettori is riding make a significant difference to racecourse attendance?
If I pay to watch Lionel Messi or Roger Federer, I know I’m going to see them do something wonderful, that will be memorable, and will convince me that I’m getting value for money. I can’t depend on seeing Dettori do something brilliant, for all that I know he is a brilliant jockey. He is only ever part of a double act, very dependent on his partner – which, from next year, will not be owned by Sheikh Mohammed.
Value for money. There’s another crucial consideration. I have often wondered how regular my racegoing would have been had I not been blessed with a press badge. I’ve always had those basic requirements of a regular racegoer, a love of the horse and the thrill derived from watching it in competition, and I can add to that the pleasure granted me through the acquisition of so many friendships made and maintained on the racecourse with folks who share my passion.
But I am bound to say that there have been times – most of the time, in fact – when the cost of racegoing would inevitably have limited my opportunities to indulge my fancy. We live in an era when most people have been brought up without ever having seen a horse in the flesh; they are no more familiar with the horse than they are with the creatures found only in a zoo.
I don’t doubt that there are many who might become fans of our special creature, the thoroughbred, if we made it easier for them to become fans. I’m told that admission to Longchamp on Arc day – for the best day’s racing staged anywhere in Europe – was €8. Here the charge for even minor meetings means that racegoing represents an expensive day out, a deterrent rather than an encouragement. It is clear what needs to be done.