The ‘Black Caviar era’ of racing, as I’d like to call the last three years, has been a bonanza for race clubs lucky to have her in attendance.
The flow-on effect has reached almost every part of the industry. She has become a household name, gracing both the front and back pages of newspapers, headlining news bulletins and even stopping the Australian Open last January.
Most importantly, though, she has managed to attract people to the track outside of the Spring Racing Carnival.
In an era of declining attendances, where more attention is placed on getting people to the track as a one off event rather than fostering an interest in the sport, this is some feat.
However, the news is not all positive. It has also exposed a lack in understanding as to how we keep people interested in racing.
How do we get the once-a-year racegoer to have more than a fleeting interest in horse racing? How can we ensure racing becomes a sport which draws in people outside the spring carnival?
Racing is not like the AFL or NRL, in that its main participants, the horses, come and go. It’s not like a team you can support for your entire life.
You might be on the Black Caviar bandwagon, but even she has had a rather long career compared to most stallions or mares, especially one as valuable as her (geldings, with no stud value, tend to race longer). After five years, she’s gone. You can follow her progeny, yes, but the tribal atmosphere that is created by the football codes is lacking.
Trainers and jockeys are more enduring faces, but still, supporting them is not the same as barracking for a team.
So how do we convert casual racegoers into our new participants – our next generation of owners, administrators and punters?
It is a question about which many people will have different opinions – and I highly doubt there is one right answer. And I doubt there is anyone in the industry that has an effective answer.
However, this led me to think about how I came into racing. What was it that enticed me to this great sport?
I could say I was born into the industry, as many people are. But that’s a lie. I don’t come from a racing background. And it might surprise you to know that I’ve only come into racing in the last seven years.
In fact, as of the autumn of 2006, I’d only been to one race meeting – a sleepy off-season meeting in 2000.
I’m proud of my background, because it gives perspective.
My parents had a limited interest in racing. Dad knew enough about racing to help him at Melbourne Cup time, and one of his first roles as a cadet journalist in New Plymouth was to record positions in running. But that was where the racing association ended.
As for Mum, I never forget the story I’m always told about my mother’s first foray on a racetrack.
It was Derby Day at Flemington in 1985, when Handy Proverb won the Victoria Derby. Earlier that day, Mum had arrived on track just in time for the first race. She was taken by a beautiful grey galloper and she asked my dad to put a bet on the grey for her.
Dad leaned over to Mum and whispered, “That’s the clerk of the course.” No, it definitely wasn’t a family path which saw me end up in racing.
I could say it was the great horses that attracted me to the sport and to an extent, this is true.
I came into racing at the time of Makybe Diva’s three Melbourne Cups. I was in awe at the immense press coverage leading up to her third Melbourne Cup. However, the most remarkable image in my mind doesn’t come from her Melbourne Cups – it comes from her Cox Plate.
That is the image of the “wall of horses taking off at the 550m mark,” as Bryan Martin so described it. As someone learning about racing, that was as good as it got.
I know I didn’t appreciate the dynamics of “the wall” at the time (as in, why it was so significant around Moonee Valley and the fact they took off to get a break on Makybe Diva), but it was riveting to watch.
I’d been in awe of horses before though. The first horse I truly appreciated was Sunline. I still remember being gobsmacked after her 2000 Cox Plate win.
And, as I was becoming a serious form student, I was lucky enough to witness Takeover Target – the $1250 bargain buy from an Inglis sale – showing that racing provides some of the most remarkable stories and some incredible theatre.
So the horses themselves had something to do with becoming interested in racing.
But I would be lying if I didn’t admit that it was the lure of the punt which first got me hooked.
Although I now do work for a corporate bookmaker, I don’t consider punting to be my primary interest in the game. I like to analyse form, I’ve owned horses, I enjoy writing and reading (and Tweeting!) about racing, I love the atmosphere of a racetrack. Punting is just another facet of the sport.
However, it is the punt – the chance to analyse and back one’s own judgement, the prospect of being proven correct, the allure of winning – which attracts people to racing.
To this day, I can confidently recall my first bet. It was the 1997 Melbourne Cup, and knowing nothing of horses, I had my $2 each way on Might and Power.
Looking back now, I admire Might and Power as a horse and I know his career back to front. His Caulfield Cup demolition was sensational, his “earth starts to rumble” Cox Plate victory superb, his Queen Elizabeth Stakes victory outstanding. But it is his tenacious Melbourne Cup win which sticks in my mind.
He led all the way, considered one of the most difficult tasks in racing, and at the line little separated Might and Power and 1995 Melbourne Cup winner Doriemus.
Greg Hall thought he had won on Doriemus, but the photo proved that it was Might and Power who had clung on by a nose.
I walked away $12 richer – $8 up if you take away the stake – and I think the seed was sown then.
It didn’t flourish immediately though. I was excited around Melbourne Cup time each year, while I remember watching races like the 2000 Cox Plate.
It was strong enough, though, that come the 2001 Melbourne Cup, I feigned illness just to be able to watch the race. My mother, at some lavish lunch somewhere, was forced to come and pick me up from school. Plan successful.
In 2003, I became my school’s sweep coordinator. I actually think most didn’t pay, I was just keen to get them involved in the great race.
However, it was sometime during 2004 that the punt really drew me in – but in a rather unusual way.
The Sydney Royal Easter Show was a yearly event for my family, and 2004 was no exception. However, one of the sideshow games lured me in – a game called Monkey Raceway.
The concept was to push a lever, which made a ball jump into a hoop. Doing that quickly made the monkey climb up the pole. The first monkey to reach the top won the prize.
However, the monkeys were all named after great horses – Carbine, Phar Lap, Bernborough, Redcraze, Tulloch, Gunsynd, Kingston Town, Better Loosen Up, Let’s Elope, Super Impose, Saintly and Might and Power were among the 20 monkeys. And not only that, but there was an old-time racecaller describing the action.
At $2 per play, it was worth a go to win a big toy. However, I continually lost.
I walked home that night having spent every cent I had saved on this one game – for not one collect. Oh, the joys of the punt.
At the time, it seemed foolish. But in the years since, I think that game has repaid me over and over again. That night, I researched some of these great horses. I’d heard of many of them, but didn’t know their stories. And even though I didn’t know it then, I think racing had a grip on me from that moment on.
From that spring, I was hooked. But even then, it was only the big races. Thanks to free to air coverage of racing, I was able to take an interest and learn more about the game.
It was Makybe Diva’s third Melbourne Cup, though, which had me determined to follow a career in racing.
By the 2006 autumn, I was doing form on a consistent basis. Around this time, my mother was in a relationship with a man who was a racehorse owner. Becoming involved in this side of the industry taught me a lot and probably gave me the best grounding for following a career in racing.
In 2006, I attended my first Melbourne Cup with my father. Dad joked to me that one day I’d be a racing journalist, probably thinking it was a phase I was going through. I doubt he’s laughing now!
It may be self-centred to look at myself as a model for attracting new people to racing, but I’m someone with a very limited racing background who has managed to become enveloped by the game.
Racing is my life. I believe I am proof that it is possible for racing to attract new blood.
However, racing needs to adapt to new audiences. Administrators must realise that by focusing on the stories of our great horses and giving patrons an understanding of the nature of the game – whether through punting, ownership or other means – racing has the chance to draw new audiences.
I also think racing needs to adapt to the modern era. Attention spans are not what they used to be, and the on track experience become a long day when there is 40 minutes between each race on an eight race card.
I don’t believe the answer lies in constantly focusing on the punt. I think racing network TVN, for example, had too much of a punting focus until recently, when its programming has improved dramatically.
One step would be to have free to air coverage on Channel Seven focus less on fashion and more on the great stories of the racing. Sure, it may not attract as large an audience, but without the horses it could just be any old party. They are at a racecourse.
For me, I think the perfect time to target new audiences is during the Spring carnival, as racing has its largest audience. However, it is retaining those patrons that becomes the litmus test.
If you can get one in every 100 people interested in racing through the Cox Plate or the Melbourne Cup Carnival, surely that is a victory in itself.
Otherwise, racing is at risk of becoming irrelevant and outdated. No one wants that to happen.