How racing is coping with the summer logjam of sporting congestion

Eagle-eyed readers will have spotted that this is my first column since Royal Ascot. Doe-eyed readers (of which there are probably fewer than the number of world-class footballers with a UK passport) might be asking why.

Monday, 14th July 2014, 9:00 pm
POWER PACKED -- Slade Power and jockey Wayne Lordan after their success in the big race of the day last Saturday, the July Cup at Newmarket. (PHOTO BY: Keith Heppell)
POWER PACKED -- Slade Power and jockey Wayne Lordan after their success in the big race of the day last Saturday, the July Cup at Newmarket. (PHOTO BY: Keith Heppell)

Have I been on holiday? Have I been indisposed? Have I been ill? Have I fallen out with racing (fat chance).

The answer to all is no. My only credible answer is that, like many fanatical punters over the past few weeks, I have been immersed, nay submerged, by the sheer volume of sport, including racing, that has been thrust in our faces.

Once every four years, the World Cup always disrupts schedules. On top of the Brazilian extravaganza has been piled the annual ritual of Wimbledon fortnight, not to mention Test cricket. And while I am not a disciple of the Tour De France, however hard the ‘Racing Post’ try to ram it down my throat, I fully accept the impact it made on its sojourn in this country.

The sporting congestion came to a head a week last Sunday when fallout from the World Cup quarter-finals collided head-on with the men’s final at Wimbledon, the British Grand Prix at Silverstone and Le Tour in Yorkshire.

Thanfkully, racing saw sense and did not even attempt to compete on such a playing field. Modest fare at Ayr and Market Rasen passed by even the most ardent of fans.

But, as if to make up for the shortfall, we were bombarded with meetings on the Saturday just past. Frantic fare from four top tracks on the same afternoon that required hours of head-spinning form-study beforehand and proved impossible,as it unfolded, to properly digest in real time.

The whole caboodle adds up to a logjam that exposes the task racing faces in atttracting support and interest at the height of summer.

All sports are chasing the same sporting pound. And all racecourses are keen to maximise the appeal of their major meetings by racing on a Saturday when the biggest audience is available.

However, can racing cope, and is racing happy about it?

The three barometers of merit currently in vogue are: racecourse attendances, TV viewing figures and bookmakers’ turnover.

The bookies are adamant. Overloading one day with so many big races turns off punters, affects betting turnover and so damages the levy, which is at the heart of racing’s finances.

However, it’s hard to envisage changes to the schedule, if only because attendances are standing up remarkably well. After huge, increased crowds at Epsom’s Derby meeting and Royal Ascot, almost 100,000 racegoers flocked to last Saturday’s big four meetings.

Given that more than 38,000 were at York and almost 33,000 at Chester, it’s unlikely either of those tracks would be persuaded to move their cards to ease the overload.

Ascot’s gate of 16,381 was actually sub-par, but any attempts to persuade them to switch dates are hamstrung by the fact that it sits neatly between the Royal showpiece and its prestigious King George meeting.

Curiously, the smallest crowd was at for the premier card at Newmarket, whose decision to move its three-day July Festival from midweek to end-of-week was largely responsible for the controversy in the first place. Just over 12,000 were at HQ -- to complete an aggregate attendance of 35,852 over the three days.

That figure is barely 1,900 higher than 2005, the year the meeting lost its Tuesday-to-Thursday status. Few racegoers deny it lost much of its unique charm at the same time -- yet Newmarket officials remain determined to resist a U-turn, insisting its flagship race, the July Cup, needs to be run on the most commercially attractive day of the week.

As for TV viewing figures, the agenda remains so distorted and disfigured, it is barely worth debating. The insistence on ignoring lifestyle changes imposed by the digital revolution and focusing on total number of viewers, rather than audience share, triggered farcical criticism of the Irish Derby earlier this month.

The great race’s very future was held up to ridicule, even though as many as 15% of the total TV audience watched. That was double the audience-share for the Epsom Derby -- even though the race coincided with Brazil playing in a World Cup match, shown live by the BBC!

Epsom was clearly not fazed by the figures because it is now considering copy-catting The Curragh by staging its Classic in the early evening in a bid to boost the TV audience.

However, the bookies are not happy with that because the race would clash next year with the final of football’s Champions League. And there must be a danger that putting the race back would affect attendance figures too.

The meeting attracts racing fans from all over the country, yet the logistics of travelling to and from Epsom Downs are a challenge at the best of times -- never mind at a time of the day and night when the public transport operators are unlikely to be as flexible and accommodating as they are in mid-afternoon.

If all this sounds to you a gargantuan mess crying out for leadership, you’re probably right. Sadly, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) does not have sufficient control over the fixture-list to intervene unless it can persuade the courses to compromise.

Just as in the row over the re-naming of the Stewards’ Cup at Glorious Goodwood, the BHA can show its teeth but, unlike Luis Suarez, it cannot deliver a bite.

Perhaps then we should turn to 32Red, castigated as a villain more wretched than World Cup worm Suarez himself, if we want to extract the sport from its congestion minefield.

The online casino company faced the awesome obstacles of erasing 174 years of tradition, of incurring the wrath of racing professionals and connoisseurs nationwide and of removing that crucial thread of identity that keeps punters connected to big races, big racedays. But still, somehow, it got a racecourse to budge from its stance!

It also got racing united! In condemnation yes, but united!