Its been a super June in world racing, the biggest in 37 years in fact as American Pharoah finally broke through and won the Triple Crown in USA. I’ve been following American racing for a number of years and the sport there is in what you might call contraction mode. Over the years its suffered as at one time it was the largest spectator sport in America but as time went on and other entertainment options such as the, “talking picture” people stopped visiting the track and thronged the cinema halls of America. Slowly American racing declined, many historical tracks such as the picturesque Hialeah Park in Miami and more recently Hollywood Park in Los Angeles stand shuttered. Made for Television sports like American Football and Basketball have also corroded racing’s base.
America has soldiered on and though things aren’t as good as they were in old days, the Americans understand a lot of basic concepts to promote their sport. The Main thing in their scheme of things are the heroes of the sport and in American Pharoah they have one. Ever since the Belmont Stakes victory the rockstar of racing has been everywhere; the cover of Sports Illustrated, front page news in every major Newspaper Stateside, parades at Churchill Downs and Santa Anita, his connections are throwing the opening pitches at baseball games, his jockey, Victor Espinosa has been on every conceivable talk show and even raced Jimmy Fallon on a mini bike on the Tonight Show. Across the pond there is England the ancestral home of racing, they had “THE” Derby on the same day as the Belmont Stakes, John Gosden fired home a classy 1-2 with Golden Horn and Jack Hobbs. Furthermore popular jockey Frankie Dettori won the Derby after a rough couple of years and getting the sack from the high profile Godolphin job. The affable Italian has mounted the greatest comeback since Lazarus. I’ve been shocked at the coverage that English Racing has got in mass media, a picture of Gosden posing with his Derby couple the next morning at Clarehaven Stables is just about it.
The sport in England is very well established and the quality of competition is amongst the world’s best but lets face it, the Lords and Ladies from the Sport of Kings are yesterday’s news. Today’s kings are people like the ruling family of Dubai, the young enthusiastic princes from Qatar, the Saudi businessman Khaled Abdullah and many more of this ilk. British racing pretty much lives off the largesse of the Middle East, if Sheikh Mohammed were to quit Newmarket the economy would go into a big time downward spiral.
I love the coverage by Channel Four of British racing but thats because I understand what is a very nuanced sport but I’m pretty sure it flies over the head of the casual fan. On the other hand NBC Sports in America caters to the casual fan and their entire telecast is about human interest stories connected to the horses as such people connect that much better and as a result the entire show is far more watchable than the English telecast.
Thus I come down to how we in India fit into the picture. A dwindling audience and more worryingly a lack of interest by the Upper Middle Class in the sport has reduced our sport from being a sport for the Uber set to a sport for people who come to the racecourse thinking they’re going to earn money from it, yup I’m talking about you, the guy in the burgundy polyester pants with a slight shine leading in a horse in Mysore. Never has Indian racing been marketed properly to proper people, the result has been a lack of interest by people mainly due to the fact that they don’t even know it exists.The curiosity factor is huge and whenever a stranger asks me what I do for a living they always end up having a long conversation with me which inevitably ends with I’d love to go racing. Unfortunately we’ve never quite got the word out properly and the health of the game has suffered as a result. Over the years one has seen so many sponsored races unfortunately the sponsor gets nil value for spending their money. No promotion, hardly a mention in the press or on social media the best way to put our promotional effort would be to say that we are preaching to the already converted only. If Christianity had the same attitude they’d be confined to the greater Jerusalem area rather than be the biggest faith on Earth.
While gambling is the lifeblood of racing, its heart and soul is the sporting aspect and the thrill of leading in a winner. I’ve had guests visit the Bangalore Turf Club and they’ve loved it. Relatives of mine from Chandigarh were in Bangalore, they came racing and lost a bit punting a couple of weeks back but loved the thrill of the game, guess what they were back this week too, why? The answer is they enjoyed themselves. Simple little steps would go a very long way, I can arrange passes for people I know as can many other owners and trainers. Why not have a simpler system where one can buy a ticket like one can for a Cricket or Football match, through Ticketmaster or Bookmyshow with proper seating and hospitality. Spending a nice December afternoon at Royal Calcutta Turf Club in your swish Armani suit, getting wined and dined alongside the adrenalin rush of cheering for the horse you punt on is a very cool thing to do. A win win for all as the race club can charge according to the service, a club like RWITC whose betting ops are on Life Support would do extremely well to become a hospitality hub, with the advent of night racing the synergies are mind boggling. Clubs lose money on conducting live racing with the possible exception of Bangalore, to augment their live product with hospitality would only add to their coffers. A non gambling dependant revenue stream would do wonders for the finances of the clubs, plus it would attract a better quality of sponsor looking to market their high end products to the wannabe set. Indian Polo does this extremely well and racing ought to learn from them. Sponsorship of big ticket events such as Cricket is far more expensive by an exponential factor and the marketing isn’t targetted spot on because lets face it your average cricket fan is not going to buy a Rolex Watch or An S Class Mercedes, while the possibility of a horse owner buying one is higher. An attempt to separate the gritty low end gambler, from people who might like to punt but would prefer a higher level of comfort and are willing to pay for the same. When you think about it its actually a simple idea akin to the high rollers getting to gamble in a VIP room.
I’ve written about the hospitality or the lack thereof the same many times earlier unfortunately BTC just doesn’t get it, they still serve crap in the owners’ canteen if you can call it that, unidentified fried junk cooked in adulterated loose oil and the ubiquitous “Bisibele Baath” this is supposed to be about Champagne and Caviar and beautiful people dressed in their Sunday best. Okay, I understand that its too much to expect but a Cafe Coffee Day or a Barista isn’t asking for much is it? Having a high end bar section with a high cover charge serving beer and wine would be cool too. Both Calcutta and Hyderabad got their hospitality spot on during their Invitation weekends in 2013 and 2014, it was extremely well done and classy.
I doubt there’s an entity in the world thats as oblivious to marketing as the BTC. Wonder whether any of you were aware that Fillies’ day was promoted as Ladies Day, no press release, no newspaper ad, no billboard, the only place it was mentioned was on the members’ Lunch Invite. So I guess one of the four or five ladies that the BTC publicity department managed to get across to, won the best dressed competition. Wouldn’t it be better to have invited Ladies’ in general with a promotion lots of well dressed ladies would have been happy to turn out simply for the curiosity factor.
Stories like those of Ms Rajamma who was a partner in Indian Derby winner Super Storm are a publicists dream. A girl from a small town in Karnataka who came to do college in Bangalore and worked at BTC on the weekends as a tote operator to earn a little extra money. She works hard makes good and has enough money to fulfil her dream of buying a horse, she buys a leg in Super Storm and the rank outsider under an inspiring ride from Jimmy Fortune wins the biggest of them all, “The Indian Derby.” Its got movie script written all over it but alas…. racing missed out yet again.
Its time things changed or else these inefficiencies are going to rip the heart out of Indian Racing. Things on our Punjab racetrack are at a very advanced stage and the hope is that we have the contract signed between the government and the chosen concessionaire by the end of July. This is going to be India’s first privately built racecourse ever and its operations are going to be run along the lines of a for profit business and you bet marketing is a huge part of the whole idea, champagne wishes and caviar dreams anybody?