Racing is in a fairly healthy position in the UK right now, particularly given the challenges of running a sport without spectators for large chunks of the last couple of years. Even allowing for a spate of small fields exacerbated by the low rainfall over the past few months, the sport retains a broad appeal across over 1,400 fixtures each year. But last month, the Racing Post launched a series of special reports under the banner, How Can Racing Broaden Its Appeal? And one of the key takeaways from the series of articles was that “Getting people involved is a major challenge for the sport.”
Of course, we have been here before. Each time there is a momentous performance on television – say, Rachael Blackmore’s heroics at Cheltenham and the Grand National – analysts talk about how it can drive engagement and appeal. Of course, it’s all well and good when saying these things after the Festival or Royal Ascot, but does it encourage people to attend the racing on a cold December night at Chelmsford? Or Stratford, for that matter, on the infrequent occasions when the sun is not warming our backs?
All-Star Mile has driven fan engagement
But there are ideas from outside the box that can drive fan engagement. An example is the All-Star Mile, which had its inaugural running in 2019 at Flemington Racecourse, the iconic home of Australian racing. If you aren’t familiar with the All-Star Mile, the main thing to know is that participation is largely decided by racing fans. To be exact, ten places in the races are allotted to horses who are voted in by fans. Five wild cards make up the rest of field. Of course, a bumper purse is offered to ensure owners are persuaded to let their horses run.
Now, if you really know your international racing, you might be aware that the Aussies nicked this idea from the Japanese. The fan-voted Arima Kinen race has been operating in Japan in some form or another since 1956. But the reason we chose the Australian version is that it shows how a good idea can ferment into popular culture quite quickly. Indeed, we would argue that the All-Star Mile has become a more engaging spectacle than The Everest, which was created in 2017 and is now the world’s richest turf race.
Perhaps our point is that the All-Star Mile is an example of where ingenuity trumps money. The Everest is a brilliant event, and it attracts some of the best sprinters in racing who look for a share of the £10million+ purse.
Race is rotated around Victoria
But the All-Star Mile attracts the casual fan, and one way it does this is through astute use of social media campaigning. The campaign reaches out to casual fans and potential fans, encouraging them to feel like they have a stake in the event. Indeed, before the 2022 race, TAB (Australia’s version of the Tote) ran a competition where one voter could become an “ambassador owner” of one of the horses selected for the race.
Another thing we like about the All-Star Mile is the fact it rotates. We mentioned Flemington earlier, but it will also go to Victoria’s other great venues, Moonee Valley and Caulfield. If such a principle was applied to the UK, there is no end of worthy venues that could host fan-voted races, including, of course, Stratford Racecourse. Imagine a concept like this through the Summer Jumps calendar at Stratford, Worcester, Perth and Newton Abbot.
Now, none of this is to say that UK racing should simply borrow the idea from the Australians (and Japanese), but it is the kind of concept that could yield dividends. One of the barriers to engagement with horse racing is the feeling that it is remote, particularly for those from urban areas. Campaigns like the All-Star Mile tear down those barriers through digital access on social media. The connection is there between fans and the selections in the race.
Something to think about.