We might be struggling to shake off the shackles of bad, bottomless ground that is sucking most of the entertainment out of the Jumps game at the moment. But racing in the UK still has every reason to be wearing a smug smile of satisfaction.
While sports such as cycling, athletics, cricket and now tennis are blighted by allegations of corruption, drugs or doping, the activity so often associated most with fixes and frauds sails serenely and innocently into the sunset of 2016.
Of course, where betting is concerned, the latest scandal might be only just around the corner, so it pays not to be complacent. There will always be dodgy dealers wanting to pull a fast one. But racing can take pride in the fact that it is now arguably the most effectively policed sport in the country. Indeed it was a review conducted by two former high-profile racing officials that gave rise to the latest match-fixing claims engulfing tennis.
Inevitably, knee-jerk reactions have included that betting on sports events should be banned and the presence of bookmaking firms, through sponsorship, should be discouraged. But again, racing can provide the enlightened reality. That betting which, after all, is a legal and legitimate pastime enjoyed by millions across the country, fuelling a huge industry that is a rock of the economy, can co-exist perfectly well with sport if robustly managed and monitored.
The key to that partnership is trust in the product. The public need to be sure that what they are watching and/or betting on is above suspicion. And proof that racing has the public on its side at present is reflected in another remarkable rise in attendance figures, just released.
The economic downturn continues to linger, particularly in relation to wages, but last year, the number of people going racing at Britain’s 59 tracks topped six million for the first time since 2011. The average attendance even soared to its highest level since 2007. And all this despite competition from major events such as the Rugby World Cup and The Ashes and despite rapidly changing lifestyles that mean every race run in the UK can now be watched without leaving the comfort of the sofa, thanks to easy TV or online access.
Several reasons for the bigger crowds have been pinpointed, most notably the interest in Sir Tony McCoy’s ‘farewell roadshow’ that led to his retirement, the continued popularity of ladies’ days and the necessary evil of end-of-racing concerts.
But the much-maligned Great British Racing organisation, led by Rod Street, deserves plenty of credit too. Street and his team have worked wonders in raising the profile of the sport, by engaging more with the media, supplying them with ideas for newsworthy stories, and in helping courses step up their marketing strategies so that they stay in touch with first-time visitors.
Praise should also be bestowed on the Rewards4Racing loyalty scheme, masterminded by former amateur jockey Josh Apiafi, which has been a monumental success since its launch exactly five years ago. The scheme enables racing fans to collect points when they spend money with partner firms, who range from bookies to high street retailers and hotel chains, and then spend these points on buying tickets for the races. It now has more than 970,000 members.
Of course, the crowds wouldn’t turn up if they weren’t getting value for money, so a huge number of courses are to be congratulated for facilities that have been improved beyond recognition in recent years. The occasional boozy brawls still need to be eradicated, but the raceday experience has emerged as one of the country’s most appealing ideas for a day out.
It is also important that racegoers are not taken for granted, and that the quality of racing on offer is maintained. To this end, massive increases in prize money, announced for the top two race weeks of the year, the Cheltenham Festival and Royal Ascot, can only be applauded.
The total purse at the Festival in seven weeks’ time (yes, just seven!) will exceed £4 million for the first time. It surely can’t be long before each of the 28 races is worth at least £100,000.
Meanwhile the prize money at Royal Ascot in June is set to go through the roof of its spectacular grandstand. Up a whopping 18% to £6.58 million, with all 30 races worth at least £80,000.
It is so crucial for the sport’s development that the showcase meetings lead the way in this manner. So it was with incredulous disdain that I read of criticism along the lines that it would have been better to invest such riches at the lower end of the sport.
There is a case for boosting prize money at the smaller tracks, and it is palpably outrageous that the likes of Newbury stage a Bumper worth a tiny £3,000. But the sport must be wary of throwing good money at bad horses and bad racing, just for the sake of it. Instead it should be utilised to reward the raising of standards, which have met with the public’s approval.
Over the past week, all and sundry have queued up to welcome one such small track, Hereford, back to racing’s fold. The glee surrounding its re-opening is in stark contract to the lack of lament when it closed in 2012. Such celebration will only be justified if Hereford serves up considerably better racing than the dross that marred the last couple of years of its former life.