A lack of initiative from horse racing’s administrative bodies has led them to ignorantly overlook what should be racing’s most important demographic – young people.
We often get caught up in the excitement of a young colt prevailing over the older horses or a young jockey upsetting legends of the saddle. This is because youth is the elixir of excitement and it is our youth who will one day hold the future of our sport.
But it is incredibly hard for young people to get into horse racing.
When I talk about getting into horse racing, I don’t mean the casual Joe who has a beer with his mates on a Saturday and a random flutter on his lucky numbers. I mean people who have a passion for the sport and see it through thick and thin.
Just look around on a Saturday afternoon in winter and you’ll see fans who would eagerly declare AFL as their religion. That’s the type of passion racing can strive for.
There are very few people who share this passion among younger racing circles and it is extremely disappointing.
So why is this?
Unlike other sports, getting involved in horse racing from a young age is near impossible. Where fathers might take their infant children to a football game in the hope they grow up supporting the same team, it can’t happen in racing.
If a father took his infant daughter into a TAB and taught her how to place a bet, the child services switchboard might overload.
Racing lacks family values. There will never be family days where kids can go to meet champions of the sport while partaking in activities.
Few kids will ever even ride a horse, whereas just about every kid has kicked a football. There’s no connection to the sport outside betting, or so it seems.
Horse racing is a seasonal event for most youth in major cities. The Melbourne spring racing carnival brings young people to the open lawns of Flemington for a week of partying, but the image has tainted the sport’s identity.
Racing administrators will never turn down the large influx of racegoers in spring when no other sport is on, but the revenue spike does not equate to lifelong passion for attendees.
In major cities like Melbourne and Sydney, it is incredibly hard to juggle support for racing as well as full-time work, study or other sports – especially for those who don’t have an interest in betting.
In country towns there’s a bit more passion because the towns rely heavily on the industry, and those involved are the heart of the town.
In the past, young people who have a passion for horse racing have attempted to share it with their peers, but attempts to further their influence have been quashed.
In Melbourne, Racing for the Future was established a few years ago as an organisation aimed at bringing together young racing fans in a social environment while bringing newcomers to racing.
I was fortunate to attend a few of their events and the racing passion at those events was electric. Young men and women from all over the state converged at these events and it was as close to a fraternity or sorority feeling as exists in Australia.
Unfortunately, Racing for the Future had to shut its doors at the end of 2013 due to a lack of funding.
The organisers, young people with a passion for racing, tried getting others on board but it got to the point where the organisers were forced to fund it themselves when support should have been coming from Racing Victoria.
If racing’s administrators don’t want to fund young people who are taking the initiative to grow the sport through their own social circles, new pathways to youth need to be explored.
Rather than promoting images of people having a good time punting or drinking, administrators need to look at ownership. The most passionate racing people I have ever met are owners. They love their horse and they love knowing what’s happening in the industry. But more than that, they love it when their horse wins.
Some say there is no other thrill like seeing your horse win a big race. It is often compared to the feeling one gets on their wedding day or the birth of their children.
Owners can be punters too, but they will often view themselves as owners because their bond to racehorse ownership is strongest.
Racehorse ownership, however, is extremely expensive. Beyond the purchase price – which ranges from a few thousand to a few million dollars – ongoing training fees can crucify owners. It generally costs more than $30,000 per annum to have a horse trained in metropolitan Melbourne or Sydney.
Owning a horse is probably the biggest punt a punter is going to make, but it’s one which ties them to the industry for a lot longer than the two minutes it takes to run a race..
While syndicates have made ownership easier and cheaper, it is still unaffordable for those outside of stable full-time employment. Even then, people under the age of 30 would prioritise purchasing a home, paying off student loans or planning a wedding.
Racing bodies have done wonders in their ability to bring women to the racetrack through initiatives like Fashions on the Field, but this doesn’t have anything to do with the actual sport of horse racing.
Plaudits must be given to Katie Page-Harvey, wife of Magic Millions owner Gerry Harvey. In 2012, Page-Harvey launched a women’s incentive scheme which provided an additional $500,000 of prize money for horses that raced in the Magic Millions series and were owned by women.
It led to an increase in yearling sales to all-female syndicates and saw an influx of first-time female owners.
The incentive scheme has had increasing success each year, illustrating the potential markets for ownership to appeal to people other than millionaires.
Perhaps the same model could be adopted to make horse ownership more attractive to those under 30?
Racing Victoria have already shown their support for the Super VOBIS scheme, which offers more than $18 million prize money to owners whose horses were bred through Victorian bloodstock. It is an extremely successful program which keeps money within the Victorian industry and owners love it.
A less conventional, but perhaps more effective approach may be to subsidise costs for young owners, at least until the horse wins a certain amount, in a bid to get young people involved in racing earlier.
Young people hold the key to racing’s future. So much more could be done to increase their involvement in the sport.