Racing Post takes a punt on charging for online content

The horse racing bible thinks there are big winnings to be had on the net. Ian Burrell reports

There's a grey top hat and a sequinned bow-tie in the Racing Post television studio; left-over props from a feature on Royal Ascot made during the summer. The studio is a £100,000 investment that is intended to help transform a famous print title, known to many for the broadsheet-sized lists of runners and riders pinned on the wall of every British and Irish betting shop, into a video-rich multimedia proposition.

It might seem strange that Alan Byrne, the Racing Post chief executive, compares his product, a bible to punters and bookies alike, to the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal but then these publications have many things in common. The Post is based on the 23rd floor of Canary Wharf's Canada Tower, at the epicentre of London's financial quarter. Like the WSJ and the FT, the Post serves its audience with mountains of data and updates on every movement in the market. And like those business publications, the Racing Post believes its specialist service is sufficiently valuable to justify charging online users for access.

It is a policy which is already meeting with success. In July, Racing Post launched an enhanced online offering for members willing to pay £7.50 a month (equivalent to 25p a day). Some 3,000 signed up in the first week and membership is now approaching five figures. Some are prepared to pay more. Other packages include a premium tipping service for £9.50 a month, a package that offers live online racing from the satellite subscription channel Racing UK (£7.50) or an all buzzers and bells "Ultimate Membership" for £199.95 a year. More than a quarter of subscribers have chosen this ultimate package.

Yet this is not a strategy designed to exclude users from "It's our aim that our site will contain more and better free content than anybody else's site," says Byrne, an Irishman and former editor of the Post. "But if you want real detail and full access to our database of more than 20 years on every horse that's ever run in Britain and Ireland and the opinion of our experts on the quality of performances or the ratings we ascribe to each performance then we invite people to become members."

Racing Post has a staff of 240 and deploys correspondents at every race meeting, filing frequent "Live Reporter" updates on the weather, the going, the views of the trainers and the results of the races. In days past, they'd simply have filed an 800-word round up for the paper at the end of a day's racing. Live Reporter will still be offered free on the website.

Sales of the daily print edition are down around seven per cent year-on-year but still hover at 100,000 rising to 150,000 on big days such as that of the Ascot Gold Cup or Cheltenham's Champion Hurdle.

Among the most precious assets of the print edition is tipster Tom Segal's "Pricewise" column, billed as "the world's best tipping service". "One year Pricewise was so successful – it had nine or ten profitable Saturdays in a row – and when William Hill explained to the City why their profits were down one of the reasons given was that Pricewise had been so successful," says the CEO.

The print version – for which the key opposition is the national press - sells for £1.60, rising to £1.80 on a Saturday when it offers a 144-page book, including 25 pages of football betting. Byrne admits to "anxieties" that the launch of the specialist online subscription service might cannibalise the print sale but says there has so far been no sign of this.

The secret, he says, is to keep the various offerings distinct. So "Pricewise Extra", which is Segal's quick response to the betting that bookmakers release on Saturday morning, comes too late for the newspaper but is at the core of the £9.50 online tipping service. Punters, says Byrne, are quick to complain if this premium content is not available on the dot of midday. "The audience is as demanding as the most rigorous production editor to make sure that deadlines are met," he says. "Having moved to a situation of charging for some premium content we absolutely have to deliver a top class service."

But the users are getting something special, he contends. "Pricewise would have the ability to move the betting market. If Tom says back Sea The Stars at 10-1 then in a few hours it will have tumbled to 6-1." Making the comparison with business titles, Byrne observes that "rather like the FT we are analysing data and focusing on a series of markets. In our case they happen to be horse races, the Premiership or even The X Factor."

Thanks to Gordon Brown's introduction of gross profits tax, betting is booming in Britain, though racing's share of that market is waning. The Racing Post has had to diversify into reality TV shows and even politics. "If you can bet on it, we report it and analyse it and would attempt to provide statistical basis for that analysis," says Byrne, who advised Irish private equity group FL Partners when they bought the title from Trinity Mirror in 2007.

The Post sublets its offices from Trinity Mirror and the Post's television studios could yet be used by the Daily Mirror as Byrne looks to find new revenue streams. In the meantime the facility is being used to film preview pieces on the big races or the likes of former Republic of Ireland striker Tony Cascarino offering football betting tips. Video features have been made about Sea The Stars, the Derby- winning Irish Colt, and a guide on how to assess a horse's physique when standing by the paddock at a racecourse – all good material for driving more users to the website.

The Racing Post has high hopes that its "freemium" model of distinct offerings for print, online free and online subscription will produce profits. But Byrne, who likes the odd punt himself, has still one more idea for making money. "I've often thought that installing a betting facility on the editorial floor would be a route to increased revenue," he says. "But we haven't put it to the test yet."