The Super 12 or the Last-Ditch Dozen?

Horseracing is trying to ditch its ‘cloth caps or top hats’ image and appeal to a trendier audience with a new series of races.

Horseracing is revamping its marketing in a bid to get rid of its schizophrenic image. For too long the sport of kings has been saddled with a polarised audience. Punters tend to be privileged aristocrats quaffing Pimm’s in hospitality tents or else they are old tabloid readers spending their last few pennies in seedy, smoky betting shops.

Following the publication of an independent report in 1999, the British Horseracing Board (BHB), the sport’s governing body, announced its intention to bridge this gap. Its mission: to capture the 18 to 35 ABC1 age bracket currently conspicuously absent from the sport.

The report said the sport needed root-and-branch reform. It recommended national and regional advertising campaigns for all the BHB’s 59 courses; the appointment of a sales and marketing director; an increase of staff in the communications and centralised sponsorship departments; and the creation of a central database of racegoers.

The result was Discover Racing, a joint marketing drive between the racing and betting industries. Launched in July the &£10m, three-year marketing initiative was left reeling by the resignations last week of BHB marketing director Teresa Cash and race director Paul Greeves.

The main thrust of Discover Racing is to develop a national strategy for racing and betting that will make it easier to participate, thus increasing attendances and encouraging customer loyalty.

Of the 59 courses, 49 have been further boosted by a &£387m ten-year media rights deal with Attheraces, a consortium made up of Channel 4, BSkyB and Arena Leisure. Of that money, &£80m has been set aside for marketing from the grass-roots upwards. Attheraces is in the process of launching a digital television channel, a website and interactive TV. A WAP service will follow soon.

The sport has barely been able to pause for breath before the introduction of yet another initiative: the Super 12 Challenges (MW last week), a series of races organised by Super 12 Racing which represents the top-dozen courses around the country, including Cheltenham and Aintree. The 47 races will have a league-style, format with trophies for the top jockeys in both jump and flat racing. The series starts next May and the hunt is on for a title sponsor and four associate sponsors.

Super 12 Racing chief executive Kim Deshayes believes the competition should take its inspiration from Premiership football or Grand Prix racing, which market themselves on a plethora of glamorous stars. Ferrari driver Michael Schumacher and footballer David Beckham are worldwide icons.

Frankie Dettori is probably racing’s best-known star, but beyond that famous names don’t exactly roll off the average person’s tongue. Deshayes believes that, given time, horseracing can rival football or Formula One for the back pages on a regular basis and that the Super 12 will launch across Europe. The aim is that horseracing will no longer rely solely on the big annual events, such as the Grand National and The Derby, for mass appeal because big events will take place virtually every Saturday throughout the year. Deshayes believes that the Super 12 will attract its own band of loyal supporters dedicated to the performance of a jockey or horse, just as football generates a fan base for individual teams.

Others in the industry have poured cold water on the Super 12. They argue that punters aren’t interested in a particular horse or jockey, placing bets only on the ones most likely to win.

One source says: “Dettori courts the media, he’s a flamboyant man, but most jockeys are not media-friendly. It’s not like football. As for the horses, they can’t talk and they don’t have celebrity girlfriends.”

Another insider doubts if the event will have sufficient charisma: “I don’t think it’s going to work. Horses aren’t machines. They suffer from injuries and tiredness, unlike racing cars.”

He adds: “There’ll be similar problems facing jockeys. It could turn into a logistical nightmare because they’ll be racing all over the place.”

Unperturbed by the doubters, Deshayes says: “Horseracing needs more personalities, whether they are jockeys, trainers, horses or all three.

“We want people to watch the Super 12 as it unfolds each week, and not for it just to be seen as a set of individual races.”

Teresa Cash, serving out her notice at the BHB, adds: “Even if the Super 12 just gets people talking about racing it’s got to be a good thing for the sport.”

The profile of the sport may well be raised by the Super 12, but Nigel Payne, chief executive of the Horseracing Sponsors Association, is concerned about possible sponsorship conflicts.

Super 12 races are likely to be slotted into the same meetings as big events such as Aintree’s Grand National meeting, which is sponsored by Martell, also sponsor of the other 19 races on the day.

Payne says: “Racing is not a sport used to secondary or subsidiary sponsors. My concern is that this could undermine existing sponsors.”

As well as causing friction with other sponsors, title sponsorship of the Super 12 may not provide great value for potential backers.

As one betting industry insider says: “I can’t see a corporate sponsor coming in and paying a seven-figure sum for what is effectively a secondary sponsorship.

“What will it be? Probably a couple of branding boards and a presentation ceremony at the end of each race.”

It’s too early to tell whether the BHB and the betting industry will achieve their aim of boosting visitors to race courses from 5 million to 6 million by the end of 2003. There appear to be plenty of jumps left to clear before horseracing finally gets its stable in order.

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