Under pressure

In the first of a two-part series on racing’s coverage in the media, we look at how newspapers treat the sport and discuss what can be done to improve its appeal more »

Monday, March 31, 2014

The Mahmood Al Zarooni scandal. AP McCoy’s 4,000th jumps winner. Frankel’s first foal. The aim here is not to identify the odd one out but establish what they have in common.

Answer: they all appeared on the front pages of national newspapers. They offer evidence that the sport can transcend the perimeters of its devoted followers.

A champion for three consecutive seasons, Frankel was a gift to racing's marketeers

A champion for three consecutive seasons, Frankel was a gift to racing’s marketeers

The implication is that something extraordinary needs to happen before it does so. Grand National bomb scares, equine fatalities, race-fixing and arrests or promiscuous jockeys and trainers would be other examples.

Can racing’s popularity ever exceed the rarity of feel-good stories like those involving McCoy and Frankel or the scandal of drugs and corruption? Perhaps more importantly, is racing getting a fair deal from British newspapers?

Promoters of racing frequently bang the drum that it is the second biggest spectator sport in Britain, behind only the roaring beast that is football. Yet Sunday and Monday newspapers in particular prioritise football and, increasingly, rugby union.

The Sunday Times of October 13 seized on the England football team’s break between two key World Cup qualifiers to plant rugby union coverage across its feature pages. Only a very greedy racing person would, however, complain about the newspaper’s coverage, which included a Future Champions’ Day report, an assessment of the Qatari racing influence and an interview with Ryan Moore – plus a piece on Sue Smith in its Sportswoman of the Year section.

Hugh McIlvanney identified boxing and racing as the best sports to throw up absorbing characters

Racing is traditionally pegged at the back of newspaper sports coverage, but that is not necessarily a bad thing. People always know where to find it. And just like any other sport, the really big events – especially the Derby and Grand National – are virtually guaranteed star billing.

But many newspapers do not carry racecards on a day-to-day basis and neither are they employing as many racing correspondents as before. The Evening Standard, once essential reading for any Londoner wanting to know the following day’s runners and riders, has pretty much given up on racing altogether.

The racecard conundrum is unique to racing, as highlighted by Chris McGrath, the award-winning journalist who left The Independent, which meant the paper no long has a permanent racing correspondent.

McGrath, who left by mutual consent to take on a book-writing option, says: “At the best of times – a distant memory for the newspaper industry – constraints of space made it impossible for a daily paper to record everything on the trade agenda; a correspondent had to make constant editorial decisions about the stories that most merit elaboration. Yet many papers still persist in applying a different logic to racecards, which consume appalling quantities of precious space.

“The fact is an all-weather meeting at Southwell devours as much space as a card from Cheltenham or Ascot. No sports editor would dream of accommodating as much detail about a Conference-level football match as one in the Premier League. But that is exactly what is happening every day in many papers.

“There would be complaints, inevitably, if cards disappeared, but far more readers view the racecard, rather like those grids of City prices, as a picket fence to discourage amateurs from straying into a specialist field. They pass straight onto the next page.”

A sample of papers taken from Tuesday, March 18 – The Sun, Daily Mail, Independent, Guardian, Telegraph and Times – demonstrate what a divisive issue carrying racecards is.

The good, the bad and the ugly
The Sun carried cards from all three meetings: Exeter, Wetherby and Southwell. Exeter and Wetherby had ‘Sunform’ comments for half of their races, while there was a story from columnist Claude Duval about Chelmsford City racecourse, previously known as Great Leighs. All told a moderate day’s racing took up the best part of two pages in Britain’s best-selling paper.

The Mail squeezed its contents, racecards and the previous day’s results, into a single page, still a decent amount of space given the quality of racing. The Independent, somewhat confusingly, ran a pot pourri of five races – three from Exeter and one each from Wetherby and Southwell – all with a Timeform view and a 1-2-3 prediction, occupying under half a page. The Daily Telegraph, with its 20-page sports supplement, devoted a page to racing, including all thee cards (without form), results and a story on Champion Chase winner Sire De Grugy. The Times also carried three cards plus a news story over a page.

The Guardian has followed its own path and while it ran a story on Grand National contender Tidal Bay and selections for all three meetings, only two races were included, both from Exeter. (It does have an extremely detailed cards and results section online – convenient dumping ground, or sign of the future?)Should any newspaper, not just The Guardian, be obliged to carry such low-grade information?

John Cobb, another former Independent employee who worked as its racing editor for 23 years and is now associate editor at the Racing Post, thinks not. Asked how he viewed the dilemma of carrying racecards for low-grade meetings, Cobb answers: “With despair – especially on the big days. Royal Ascot would once have been allowed the stage to itself. But on Gold Cup day this year there were another five meetings. The more cards you carry, the less information you can provide that makes them useful.”

Over a decade ago, British racing tried to make newspapers pay for the privilege of carrying racecards under the leadership of Peter Savill, then Chairman of the British Horseracing Board. It did not work.

The fact that Racecourse Data Company, recently created to sell pre-race data and generate income for the sport, will only charge specialist media (like the Racing Post) for carrying details on races, signifies a realisation that racing cannot risk jeopardising its relationship with the mainstream press.

It is not a specious argument that British racing has caused resentment among sports editors because of its bloated fixture list.

Cobb describes the reaction to racing’s fixture list as one of “anger” among sports editors, saying: “The long-running argument from them was, ‘Why should we carry cards that are Conference League status, yet each takes up space that would go to a mid-division Premier League match – surely serious fans buy the Racing Post?’

“Everything else in sports pages is decided by level of interest – sometimes sports editors’ interest as much as readers’ – but racecards never had to earn their place.”

The dilemma over space

It would be tempting to think a reduction in racecards could lead to more stimulating coverage, but McGrath says: “There is one huge problem: if you agree to forfeit the space previously squandered on fifth-rate racecards, experience shows you will be very lucky to retain it for extra racing copy. Once you have surrendered the space, its fate is out of your hands, and it might be that a well-disposed sports editor is succeeded by one with zero interest in racing.

“This is where racing needs to stand up for itself, with the help of people like Nick Attenborough [charged by the BHA to increase the sport’s media profile]. Otherwise you can rest assured sports editors will soon pull rank on a correspondent, alone on the burning deck, whining in his ear every morning.”

Attenborough believes racecards will continue to be a part of newspaper coverage, saying: “While the broadsheets might encourage people to go online, to the tabloids, racecards are very important. If they left one out it would really upset readers, many of whom keep lists of horses to follow and look out for the ABC of runners.”

Arguing racing does “extremely well” in terms of coverage, he adds: “Every newspaper covers racing. A lot have had to come down in the number of pages they can run sport over, so all sports have suffered.”

A combination of advertising declines and high paper costs have indeed reduced space in newspapers but it is questionable whether every sport has suffered. One only needs to look at the amount of coverage given to the Heineken Cup to see rugby union kicks the backside of racing.

Ex-Observer sports editor Brian Oliver makes a valid point that racing interest is often eclipsed by success in other sports: the explosion of football; England winning the 2003 Rugby World Cup; the previous resurgence of the England cricket team; various Ryder Cup triumphs and the rise of Rory McIlroy; the awesome Grand Slam triumphs of Andy Murray; the Olympics.

Racing has had equivalent heroes in such as Frankel and Sea The Stars, but as Oliver argues: “A big problem has always been that the horses would be around for a year or two and then disappear. The public could never engage with horses, those in Flat racing anyway, because they were commodities and went off to make money. Even if you get a horse like Sea The Stars, what happens? It’s off to stud at three.”

Sea The Stars excelled at three but was retired before he had really captured the public's imagination

Sea The Stars excelled at three but was retired before he had really captured the public’s imagination

Jumping produces exceptions like Desert Orchid and, more recently, Kauto Star, but on the whole it is the human rather than the equine heroes that fuel the interest of sports editors.

“Even a horse as captivating as Frankel did not necessarily intrigue the layman as much as the man who trained him,” says McGrath. “From newspaper to newspaper, of course, much can depend on the tastes of the top brass. The most lavish sports supplement of the week is the one in The Sunday Times – where racing frequently receives little or no attention.”
Last year’s St Leger received muted coverage in that publication. A small report on Leading Light’s victory, run without a photo, was dwarfed by coverage of a minor golf tournament in Chicago and the result of a triathlon on the same page.

All is not lost
Yet, as McGrath adds: “When someone like David Walsh has the time and the theme, The Sunday Times will house the sort of exemplary racing feature you can’t find elsewhere. Racing needs to accept there’s a happy medium.”

McGrath is right. A September article by Walsh with Lady Cecil was as good an interview as you are likely to read. You just hoped that the general sports fan read it; if so, they would have been captivated by her recollections of her late husband, Sir Henry.

People matter. Oliver recalls a conversation with the legendary Hugh McIlvanney in which the writer identified horseracing and boxing as by some way the best sports to throw up absorbing characters. Oliver also believes a marginalising of TV coverage – from BBC to Channel 4 – reduces the impact of racing to the wider public, and thus newspaper interest.

John Cobb says: “Good stories sell, but first you have to sell them to sports editors. There are enough characters in racing, mainly human but some equine, to add the sort of colour and vibrancy that even anti-racing sports editors can comprehend.
“Racing journalists on national dailies seem wearied by the struggle but they should not give up.”
Cobb describes racing coverage, not just racecards, as “under real pressure”.

He says: “This is particularly so with the serious papers. When they were all broadsheets it made sense to leave a page for the racing editor to decide content, but now they have to share coverage with all sorts, and The Independent and The Guardian have downsized dramatically.

“Arguably, though, racing has had a very fair deal in national dailies for a long time. As the fixture list increased the amount given over to racing increased. It has fared better than many sports in holding on to column inches from the assault of football.”

Racing would seem an ideal sport for online expansion, something only The Guardian has seriously taken on. For all the opprobrium racing fans might feel for the lack of cards in that newspaper, there is a serious and innovative online alternative. And it’s free.

Otherwise, Cobb has a point when he says: “In fairness to the dailies, perhaps it’s because the Racing Post provides such comprehensive coverage on its digital platforms that they don’t strive harder to compete.”

Besides, racing should not limit itself to the daily sport sections in promoting itself, something Attenborough has taken on by successfully pitching ideas to lads’ mags like Nuts and Zoo and, at the other end of the scale, the Radio Times.
Describing betting as “not an essential part of what we do”, he tries to “engage the casual reader” by approaching publications with ideas and possible interviewees.

“One of the toughest jobs is to make sure connections of the best horses are willing to talk to newspapers,” Attenborough says.

From his days at The Observer, Oliver recalls: “Racing’s got fantastic stories. But even though jockeys were a source of good publicity, they couldn’t care less about that. They were bad about doing interviews. If they were strong characters, that didn’t come across and they didn’t seem to like to talk to people who didn’t know about racing, which is silly.
“Any sport that has got its brains in gear wants to be in Cosmopolitan or on cookery programmes on the telly, or all sorts of lifestyle magazines.”

Racing may sometimes struggle to capture the interest of sports editors. But, as Oliver points out, it’s not the only publicity option. Time to think outside the parade ring.

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