Racing’s waters muddied by Channel 4 viewing figures, racecourse attendances, Jacob, Koukash and Curley -- as well as by the rain!

As the rain continues to beat down, it’s hard to believe an event that annually heralds the advent of spring is only five weeks away.

Thursday, 6th February 2014, 2:32 pm
FESTIVAL MEMORIES -- Alderwood, ridden by Tony McCoy, the winner of the last race at last year's Cheltenham Festival. (PHOTO BY : Barry Cronin/PA Wire).
FESTIVAL MEMORIES -- Alderwood, ridden by Tony McCoy, the winner of the last race at last year's Cheltenham Festival. (PHOTO BY : Barry Cronin/PA Wire).

That walk up the hill past a Pittville Park dripping with daffodils and towards the magnificent arena of Prestbury Park seems as distant as it did after AP McCoy had guided ALDERWOOD to victory in the final race of the 2013 Cheltenham Festival last March.

Perhaps that is the reason why racing seems so wrapped up in other matters at the moment. Such as Daryl Jacob’s jockeyship. Such as Dr Marwan Koukash’s horse-naming policy. Such as racecourse attendance figures. Such as Channel 4 Racing’s viewing figures.

OK, such topics detract us nicely from slow-motion jumps racing on deep, desperate ground, which is one of the most unedifying sights in the sport.

But bring on the merry-go-round of Festival preview nights, I say, if I am reduced to putting my oar in on subjects that have nothing to do with the quest for the winner of the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (which, incidentally, is WICKLOW BRAVE).

For the record, I rate Jacob. Of course, he is no Ruby. Who is? But he holds horses together in a similar style, and his judgement is sound. He rides too many seconds for my liking -- maybe because he can be one-dimensional, choosing to pounce approaching the last and seemingly reluctant to take races by the scruff of the neck, as on ROCKY CREEK at Cheltenham last month. But I would rather have Jacob on BIG BUCK’S than Sam Twiston-Davies, who will be top class one day but whose inexperience has already betrayed him on big days this term.

OK, that’s one topic out of the way. Now what of this edict from the BHA to stop the good Doctor naming any more of horses after his son, Gabrial?

Frankly, I cannot believe an issue of such trivia has got so many in such a tangled tizz. The argument goes that because Dr Koukash ploughs so much money into racing, he should be able to name his horses how he likes. Well no, actually, he can’t. First and foremost, he must abide by the rules of racing. The sport comes before any owner (as the Godolphin drugs scandal underlined) and if that means obeying the BHA, then so be it. After all, sponsors aren’t allowed to barge their way into the sport, waving whopping-big cheque-books and demanding that long-standing race-names are changed or defaced, are they? I quite enjoyed the Worthington Champion Shield And Victoria Club Stakes (registered as the St Simon Stakes), didn’t you?

Sorted. So let’s move on to matters of considerably higher importance and gravity -- namely the statistics that suggest our tracks are attracting fewer racegoers, but not because they’re watching on C4 instead.

In kerfuffles such as this, I have learned in recent years to make Rod Street, the admirably level-headed boss of Great British Racing, my first port of reference. And I am sure he is right when he says he doesn’t read too much into attendance-figures because there are so many vagaries (such as, no doubt, abandoned fixtures and the number of all-weather meetings that are lucky to attract one man and his dog). Similarly, when Street says that racing attendances have stood up remarkably well in the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, I am certain he is right. The average daily attendance of 3,972 for 2013 is only 57 lower than 2008.

The downturn in Channel 4’s viewing figures is rather more alarming. A near 20 per cent fall from 2012 when coverage was shared with the BBC. That equates to ten million viewers. Where have these people gone? Have they deserted the sport?

Maybe. But probably not. Whenever viewing or attendance figures are trotted out as if they are gospel, I find myself asking why no allowance is made for lifestyle changes that are rapidly and radically affecting society as we march, blindly but willingly, through The Digital Age.

Why is no-one suggesting that C4 Racing might be losing viewers to Racing UK and At The Races, the two TV channels making a superb job of dedicating themselves solely to the sport? Why is no-one pointing out that televised races from any corner of the UK and Ireland can be picked up on most laptop, tablet and mobile devices at any time on any day of the week? Planet Gogglebox isn’t just inhabited by terrestrial beings any more.

Why do so many experts and commentators fall into the trap of measuring racing’s popularity on racecourse attendance alone when the sport offers so many other ways to engage with it? Of course, we want to be there. But we don’t have to be there to enjoy it, to appreciate it, to find about it, to bet on it. We have our websites, our mobile apps, our subscription channels, our interactive formbooks, our Racing Post Members’ Club, our online betting accounts, our in-running facilities, not to mention those thingys from the past.......what were they called? Ah yes, newspapers and magazines.

I have no doubt tracks can do more to boost their crowds. Hopefully gimmick-free and racing-related, rather than music-related. Equally, I have no doubt Channel 4 can do more to boost their audiences. Once they determine where their target-market lies, realise that betting is intrinsically linked to the sport and that the prospect of winning a bit of money is the principal, initial lure for new supporters. But please, everyone else, let’s find perspective before reaching for the rant button.

And that’s enough. I didn’t think I had that much on my chest to get off. But most of it has gone and I didn’t even mention The Barney Curley Coup. Blimey, that was a laugh, wasn’t it? No? A scandal, you say? Oh for goodness sake, bring on the Festival!