RACING COMMENTARY : Jumping sponsors take a giant leap

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The Independent Online
It was quite a double. On Tuesday they landed the Champion Hurdle and then, two days later, followed up in the Gold Cup. Suddenly, they seemed to feature in every television broadcast, and in every newspaper, both front page and back. Yes, you can forget about Bailey and Williamson. The biggest winners at Cheltenham last week were surely Martin St Quinton and Danka.

St Quinton is the shrewd and fortunate businessman from the fax and copier company who signed a sponsorship deal with the Lambourn trainers just a couple of weeks before the Festival. It ensured that almost every horse from National Hunt's focal point rode into battle with the Danka logo prominent on its jockey's silks. When the agreement was announced, St Quinton estimated that it would cost his company £100,000 each year. Already, he seems to have secured a deal of which Gordon Gekko would be envious.

You almost wonder whether Norman Williamson's acrobatic dismount from Master Oats on Thursday was really as spontaneous as it seemed. It was, after all, a predictable choice of picture for the next day's papers and so it proved. There was Danka, on the front page of every daily broadsheet with the sort of prominence which would cost well into six figures at normal advertising space rates. Three weeks ago, hardly anyone knew of Danka's existence, and still fewer were aware of what the company actually did. In less than a month, St Quinton has effectively tackled the first part of that problem. He now has almost three years to address the second.

And good luck to him. The Lambourn-Danka deal was of considerable benefit to all concerned, not least the smaller yards in the area which might otherwise have struggled to find sponsors, or the racing authorities who have an ideal template as they set out to exploit the lucrative possibilities of sponsorship. And if, when the agreement expires in 1998, the Lambourn trainers scratch their heads and wonder how St Quinton picked up such a bargain the first time, he will deserve racing's gratitude for giving the sport a sense of its own worth.

The relationship between sport and sponsors is, after all, supposed to be symbiotic. They need us every bit as much as we need them, a fact which cash-strapped racecourses can easily forget. Indeed, some might argue that they need us more, for racing is an advertiser's dream. It has speed, athleticism, danger, serious money, triumph and disaster, and, let's be honest about it, an attractive air of loose living. When football-boot manufacturers seek endorsement, remember, they pursue Ian Wright and Eric Cantona, not an effective but colourless centre-half.

Now that racing is waking up to its economic potential, it is time to stop treating sponsors like altruistic great-uncles who take pleasure from giving us handouts. We should also remind them that their cash buys co-operation, not subservience. Is it really necessary, for instance, to use a sponsor's name every time a race is mentioned. The way some television presenters used to talk, for example, you would have though that Ever Ready had sponsored the Derby since the late 1700s.

Just as racing should be starting to assert itself, what's more, it has the additional bargaining chip of rising public popularity. The crowds at the Festival last week were at record levels on all three days, while at Uttoxeter on Saturday, a 30-year high of 13,000 are believed to have passed through the turnstiles.

Small wonder then that Cheltenham is considering expanding the Festival to four days, although with championships in all divisions already in place, it is hard to see quite what is missing at present. It is yet another sign, however, that ours is a sport on an exponential up.

Sponsors are very welcome to come along for the ride. It is racing, however, which must be doing the steering.

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