Turf united as slump hits sponsors

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The Independent Online

By staging its annual conference in the heart of Westminster, surrounded by edifices massively expressive of durability and influence in church and state, perhaps the British Horseracing Authority hoped to instil proceedings with a corresponding sense of security. But a more pertinent tone was set as Paul Roy approached the chairman’s lectern, only for a disembodied voice to begin lengthy instructions concerning evacuation procedure. It concluded with one, final admonition: “You must take care when crossing the road.” The hall did not know whether to laugh or cry, but at least the twin themes had been set. For even in a domesday scenario, you will never stop some people stating the bleedin’ obvious.

In fairness, at least there was a convincing show of unity from factions whose dreams of avarice caused such fratricide in the good old days. Times like these doubtless concentrate the mind, but credit must also go to Roy’s self-consciously modern regime. Nor were its leaders bereft of intelligent insights as they groped for a way out of the economic midnight. Indeed the chief executive, Nic Coward, concluded the conference like the prophet in the wilderness, suggesting that the present environment had auspicious parallels with the birth of the Premier League.

Inevitably, it was necessary to endure a presentation from racing’s “rebranding” consultants. Once you got past the pillage of the English language (which achieved a brutal nadir in the word “premierisation”) it contained truths so unexceptional that they approached truism. Essentially these concerned the sport’s broader “invisibility” – above all its monochrome, commercially distasteful demographics – but doubtless remained worthy of reiteration to an introspective community.

Naturally it remained unclear how racing was supposed to meet enthusiastic but vague exhortations to get itself “from the back to the front pages and into Hello! magazine”. After all, for a minority sport it already enjoys grossly disproportionate exposure – including, for the time being, on terrestrial television. The only specific aspiration seems to be a £5m marketing fund.

Just where anyone will get his hands on that kind of dough is, of course, an increasing preoccupation. The Racecourse Association chairman estimated that sponsorship has slumped by 40 per cent, while corporate income is haemorrhaging. Anxiety pervades the breeding, racing and betting industries. Thoroughbreds are luxury goods. But at least the situation is being addressed with due sobriety, notably the welfare implications when a horse becomes viewed as too expensive a plaything.

Tim Morris, the BHA equine science director, said that only three unwanted thoroughbreds had entered abattoirs in January. “It’s important to deal in facts,” he said. “Not rumour or tabloid innuendo. Let’s not make a problem where there isn’t one, but equally let us plan ahead. We shouldn’t be alarmed, but we should be alert.”

The same spirit – prudence tempered by ambition – pervaded many of the broader aspirations, not least Coward’s hopes to modernise the anachronistic levy apparatus by which racing gains its ounce of flesh from bookmakers. As one of the lawyers involved at the time, and having subsequently joined the Football Association, his reminder that the Premier League emerged from the last recession merits respect. “It was a sport that had massive, unexploited, latent potential,” he said. “When Sky came into the market, the true value was released. When people look at what broadcasting rights might be worth, it’s not down to what subscriptions are, or advertising, but what it’s worth for that broadcaster – in the totality, compared with not having those rights. And that’s the kind of question we have to ask about fixtures. We want to get our true value.”

As Roy had observed, the crisis would bring its opportunities. Correction in the bloodstock market would make horses more affordable, and deeper travails in, say, Formula One could yet give racing a new appeal. “When the going gets tough, you don’t draw in your horns,” he said. “We’re not out there on a whim.”