Ian Davies, who has worked for both papers, on the rise and fall of the Racing Post and The Sporting Life

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The Independent Online
THE Life is dead, the Post lives on, yet just two years ago, the Life was the market leader, selling 69,000 copies daily to the Post's 49,000. What went wrong? Whodunnit? Did the Post murder its rival, or did the Life commit suicide? And what will life, post-Life, be like?

The Post, when it launched in 1986, failed to hurt the Life. Following the closure of the Sporting Chronicle, the Life's former broadsheet rival, in 1983, the Life gained 7,000 sales to betting shops, yet the brains behind the Post squandered the chance to gain those 7,000 sales at the direct expense of the Life by introducing the Post as a tabloid. In 1986 and 1987 the Post sold only 38,000, whereas the Life, boosted by a price cut from 40p to 25p - the launch price of the Post - soared to 85,000.

The Post, sustained by massive subsidy from its owner, Sheikh Mohammed, made steady, but hardly decisive, headway. By April 1996 the Post sold 49,000 whereas the Life, which lost sales to betting shops after shrinkage in the bookmaking industry, sold 69,000.

Then a moment of madness. The Life made a Gerald Ratner of itself in June 1996 by initiating its now infamous "reader-friendly reshuffle". The Life's design had, until this point, catered for the betting shops. The race cards and form flowed across the same sheet of newsprint, leapfrogging through the paper.

The new "reader-friendly" Life placed race cards and form on sequential pages. For the readers, things were easier to find. However, with race cards and form now backing on to each other, betting shops suddenly needed two copies of the Life to fulfil the function that one had previously done. It was the mother of all mistakes.

The wail of the century ensued as enraged bookmakers jammed the Life's telephones to complain and - with the help of its benefactor - the Post capitalised on it.

The Post, which had already racked up losses of pounds 40m since its launch, persuaded Sheikh Mohammed to dig deeper into his coffers by bankrolling a second, betting-shop, edition to supply the bookmakers.

Adding a second loss-making product to split the market for an existing one is, economically speaking, bonkers. But, thanks to a culture of petro- dollar-subsidy-induced complacency, the language of the economist has never been en vogue at the Post.

The deed was done, the bookies deserted the Life in droves for the betting shop Post and - as the Life's sales plummeted by about 33 per cent - the Post had finally bought its way into being the top-selling racing daily.

The Life, mortally wounded, limped on until December 1997 when David Montgomery, the chief executive of Mirror Group, which owns the Life, did an "if you can't beat 'em, buy 'em" deal with the Sheikh to publish the Post under licence and close the Life, as we know it, forever.

For the Post, however, it is a Pyrrhic victory. The Post's losses were never brought under control and surely that is why, as his disenchantment with the economics of racing in Britain deepened, the Sheikh decided to sell the Post and its staff into the loving care of the Mirror Group.

Montgomery has pledged to increase resources at the Post but, as a glance at the corporate form book reveals, that is not Montgomery's way.

Montgomery is the Arkle of cost-cutting and it is long odds-on that, post-Life, the racing industry will be serviced by a single publication, which progressively becomes leaner and meaner.

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