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Racing, Where’s The Rush?

And What's The Big Secret?


A few years ago – two years ago this July, to be exact – we saw the launch of Racing, It’s A Rush, which promised to be the all-singing, all-dancing public marketing face of South African racing. At least, I think that was the intention. It was a little hard to tell – and it’s not got any easier!

When the initiative was launched, I had misgivings, I won’t lie, but gamely decided to give it a chance. I spent several lengthy telephone conversations with the brains behind the concept, a very nice chap called Chris. He was charming, but spoke so much marketing jargon as to be barely intelligible (hands up anyone who knows what a continuity announcer is – without using Google – and has ever used that term in a conversation). We covered aspects such as corporate identity collateral, key deliverables, touch points…. It sounded like English, I just couldn’t understand a word and two hours and 5 pages of notes later, I was still none the wiser. There was talk of budgets, contributors and independent funders, but these were all confidential. “We really want to try and introduce Racing, It’s A Rush as a luxury lifestyle brand and position it so that it’s attractive to luxury lifestyle investors. Our target market is the next generation of racegoers. We want to promote it as a networking and lifestyle opportunity,” enthused Chris, although the exact nature of how this was all going to be achieved remained vague, or ‘to be announced’.

Mystery rush

Maps Maponyane, Michael Varney, Dineo Moeketsi

Dineo Moeketsi, Michael Varney & Maps Maponyane

I subsequently assisted in looking over the original website before it was launched and gave my opinions and feedback. I interviewed Michael Varney, the National Marketing Manager for Racing, It’s A Rush. I interviewed Maps Maponyane, one of the programme’s first ambassadors (whatever that means in real terms). Like Chris, he was thoroughly likeable, but coming as he did with no ostensible connection or knowledge of racing, I couldn’t help wondering why he’d been selected – particularly after he refused to engage with a punter asking some seemingly fair questions.

Nevertheless, after much drama and intrigue a few people were issued It’s A Rush badges, the exact point of which has never been made clear, It’s A Rush flags and running boards appeared on our courses, It’s A Rush hosted the Equus Awards, the Sansui Summer Cup, the jockey international and several prawn festivals. The website has been up, down and back up again and there are now also Facebook and Twitter accounts, with varying amounts of traffic, mostly of a one-way nature. A little under a year into the project, Michael Varney resigned and no announcement has been made regarding his replacement.

Poster rush

Then along came Champions Day 2016 and a rather eye-catching poster at Turffontein’s infield. It features a racing scene of a field of horses rounding a bend, overlaid with a photograph of what I presume to be our target demographic fist-pumping and striking other celebratory poses in the left hand corner. On slightly closer inspection, it turns out the photograph is of American racehorses – easily identifiable from their bridle numbers – and secondly, that the picture has been flipped as some of the bridle numbers are depicted the wrong way round.

It made my eyerolly muscles twitch, but as it’s coming up to their second anniversary I thought it a good time to drop It’s A Rush a line, ask a few questions and possibly do a little retrospective of their journey so far. Unfortunately their website doesn’t list any contact details or people, so I dialled Michael Varney’s cell number and Kenilworth Racing’s Jenna Adams picked up.

Questioning the Rush

Champions Day Poster

Who OK’d this?

I thought I’d start with something simple – like who is running the thing. I asked who was responsible for approving the billboard. Additionally I asked for a general overview of the project to date, with a few more details such as what’s it all about, who’s driving it, who’s the team, who’s in charge and more importantly, who’s paying for it? What were the original objectives? Have these been met? Where is Maps? Is the project continuing? If so, what are the current projects / objectives? Is anyone monitoring / measuring any of this? Jenna asked me to put my questions in writing and so I did. And the following day she responded.

“Racing it’s a Rush was created to bring more awareness of the game of racing to a younger market, with the intention of growing the following. RIAR is responsible for ‘hosting’ as opposed to ‘sponsoring’. Its purpose is to welcome newcomers to the game, attract more people to the events and provide an environment to nurture interest in the sport.”

“To date RIAR has hosted many events successfully, some of those mentioned by you – all of the events have been shared on our Social pages should you wish to access them.”

“From our side, we will continue to work on attracting new blood into the sport. Our Facebook page currently has 16K+ followers and Twitter has 2170. We recently started an Instagram account and have also created @RacingGuru for tips. The pages are growing steadily and our audience engage on a regular basis with positive feedback and interest on the sport and the events.”

“As with all advertising campaigns, concepts evolve based on strategy to tap into new markets. The ambassadors represented the brand successfully for the time frame we contracted them and have since redirected our focus on the racing experience itself and not on the celebrities that attend.”

“In terms of artwork, as we are a non-biased organization and as our focus is on attracting newcomers, we select imagery that is non-specific to a local track, horse or jockey where we are able. If we were to use local images we would be showing favoritism and we don’t believe this communicates the right message to the racing fraternity. For the man on the street, the images are bold, stylized and impactful which is how we attract attention.”

“We openly communicate all upcoming events on our Social pages and website so you can be privy to all our upcoming activities.”

As her reply answered some of my questions partially and bypassed others entirely, I tried again, being as specific as I could. Jenna went on leave. In her absence, whoever is in charge of the Facebook feed of the South African racing’s national marketing outfit caused a ruckus by copying and pasting a post wholesale from a newly established equestrian interest Facebook page. The recriminations were long and loud, however, to their credit, whoever manages the It’s A Rush Facebook page (for this remains a mystery) did issue an apology.

Confidential Rush

I got back on the case of bothering Jenna, who assured me that she had penned a detailed reply to my second email, but was unable to send it as she’d been told not to. She could not tell me by whom though. She also couldn’t tell me who had duffed up the Facebook post (crisis management at its best), nor, it seemed, could she provide answers to any of my questions.

Not that I’m getting at Jenna of course – no point shooting the messenger – assuming she is. While admitting somewhat uncomfortably to being the ‘go to’ person for Racing, It’s A Rush, she confirmed that she is not in charge and there are clearly other, shall we call them ‘forces’ (I don’t really know what else to call them) who make decisions and presumably sign off American imagery, taken by American photographers, of American tracks, horses and jockeys, to promote South African racing.

Isn’t the point of marketing telling people who we are and what we do? If we can’t even admit to something as basic as who our marketing team is, then is it really possible to achieve any of the other lofty aspirations? We haven’t even got out of the starting gates, have we?

Attendance Rush

Spectator sport ?

Where have all the fans gone?

A Google search informed me that marketing is about developing a demand for a product and fulfilling customer needs. While it’s easy to criticise when one doesn’t have the facts, we are regularly told what the attendance is on flagship race days, but rarely, if ever, on the bread and butter meetings that fill our calendars for the other 360 days of the year. I attempted to find out and either It’s A Rush don’t know, or they aren’t telling. Without official numbers, it remains speculation of course, but attending an ordinary race meeting will generally lend credence to the belief that our fan base is not only aging, but threatening to disappear altogether.

In order to gauge whether Racing, It’s A Rush has had any impact during its tenure, I conducted an (admittedly) amateur straw poll among some young(ish) luxury lifestyle investor types. More specifically, to give them a head start, I chose as my subjects people living in the Western Cape, in close proximity to both Durbanville and Kenilworth racecourses as well as to Milnerton training centre which houses in excess of 800 horses. Somewhat surprisingly (or perhaps not so), they were unaware that racing is conducted almost every day of the year and wondered out loud why we don’t tell anyone who we are, what we do and when we do it. Good questions indeed.

Sacred cows

Maps Maponyane

Maps Maponyane – random celebrity?

Why do we use random celebrities, random racing imagery and random marketing executives, make them somehow untouchable and unquestionable and expect the racing public to swallow it day in and day out? Why are we being so squirrely about this project, who’s in charge and who’s funding it? It feels a little like the Emperor’s New Clothes. Trying to keep eyes right, while inside your head you’re screaming, ‘but this is NUTS!’

Absurdly I still don’t know who It’s A Rush is, what it does, or who to contact to obtain any of this information. However, Jenna (who isn’t in charge) has promised to get back to me in a month or two with news of some exciting plans and developments.

Watch this space. Or don’t. There’s no rush.

Have Your Say

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13 comments on “Racing, Where’s The Rush?

  1. Ian Jayes says:

    Horseracing is all about the horses, always has been, always will be. What you put with the horses, either gives it added attraction, or turns people away. Corporatisation has not done our racing any good and it is getting tattier and nastier by the day. Larry Wainstein throwing fists on Champions Day has pushed it nearer to the gutter. If it carries on like this, the only rush will be one to the toilet in order to bring-up.

  2. Shane says:

    I was also shocked to here that Mike Varney had resigned as to my knowledge he was the only person who was in charge, no other person/s were mentioned. I believe that Mr Javet was the original person to fund the project (not sure If that’s still the case).

  3. Tian van Taak says:

    To whom it may concern : The theme “it’s a rush “is a winning concept but poorly executed . The goal or success of any actual marketing, promotional and branding excersize is an increase in interest, the activation of existing interest and a creation of a desire or need to buy participate or attend . Thus providing a platform is not enough you have to follow through , I am a business development manager by trade and have seen this happen before . The racing authorities needs to have set measurement and clearer goals as to what they desire and expect when embarking on campaigns . My first step would have been do a polling of brand ambassadors and other methods that was considered / used . I will though say racing is a sport and a big passion of mine and from a breeder to owner to the at home once a year July betting individual , we all get a rush as these amazing animals and athletes drive to the finish !

  4. Barry Irwin says:

    Unfortunately this is not an uncommon experience worldwide.

  5. Leon Smuts says:

    I agree with Tian’s observations and further believe that racing can be very successfully marketed by changing the focus from promoting it as purely an attraction to placing the emphasis on projecting the sport as an activity.

    The two main components are punting and ownership with growth in the former required to improve funding to make ownership more attractive from a stakes perspective.

    When analysing racing one of it’s greatest strengths is that skilled players will very seldom leave the game. The challenge therefore is to ensure that it is exciting and entertaining to play to ensure an initial interest to participate, with the biggest challenge to retain the interest for long enough to ensure that a level of skill can be obtained that will ensure long term support.

    These are the most crucial objectives for a successful marketing campaign and will produce good results if backed up by products designed specifically to offer a more thrilling playing experience.

    Capacity building is a long term exercise that will gain rapid momentum along the way if the correct foundation is put into place. It is the pre-occupation with immediate bottom line gains and a general lack of belief in racing as a profit producer that has hamstrung racing for decades in it’s marketing requirements and efforts.

    “Racing, It’s a Rush” could be a tremendous asset for racing if backed up by a product driven social offering.

    Token efforts will always produce token results,

    Racing needs a committed effort by passionate and enthusiastic people to turn it’s fortunes around.

  6. Philip Goldberg says:

    Nice one Robyn.
    I do believe getting people interested in racing and going to the races is not a quick fix.
    It involves analysis of every cog in the racing wheel.
    Going back to grass routes of the industry.
    Looking at betting, honesty and integrity.
    Just to mention a few.
    Anyone can sell out a Big Day.
    A lot harder to make horseracing a household sport in every home.

    1. Don says:

      You said it Philip. A lot harder. All I can contribute here at the moment is that the horse and understanding horse racing is getting some more focus and attention. Watch the press, and get on to Twitter.

  7. Seafarer says:

    My Observations :-

    I was under the impression that this was a joint venture and that Clyde and his Phumalela team were in control .

    “so I dialed Michael Varney’s cell number and Kenilworth Racing’s – Jenna Adams picked up.”

    – Why are Kenilworth Racing doing Phumalela’s Job ?

    ” I got back on the case of bothering Jenna, who assured me that she had penned a detailed reply to my second email, but was unable to send it as she’d been told not to”
    – Who told her not to ?

    “However, Jenna (who isn’t in charge) has promised to get back to me in a month or two with news of some exciting plans and developments.”

    – A month or Two –

    Do we not have a plan here. RIAR is not a new Idea – This is two years old and hundreds of thousands of rands down the drain.

    With Fashion Shows – Braamfontien Hotels – Major Race Launches at rented venues when we have empty rooms at Turfontein .
    – Band ambassadors that have not done very well , with very little improvement in getting new owners , very little improvement in improving attendance at the races – A month or Two – I wonder what they are going to pull out of the hat -this time . Its a Joke – Not a Rush

    When I look at the Queens plate day m, it runs like clock work we should have the caliber of , Katherine Gray running this campaign.

    “Something is rotten in the state of Denmark” –

    And dont forget that a Fish always rots from the head down.

    Yet as they say ” Another good story to tell “

  8. Jimmy says:

    This just sums it up actually –

    Quote from Someone from the ABC Website – Comment ” ….see that Robin has dragged up this not so old chestnut in her most recent article in the SP……..and it still begs the question……who is running this show…..and keeping it on life support….. when will someone put it out of its misery and pull the plug…..

    … it’s no rush at all…..

    Well said

  9. Ray Curling says:

    I Tipped This 10 Years Ago. Sad The Blind Leading The Blind

  10. Warren Grobler says:

    Word of mouth is always the best method of ‘spreading the message’.

    Unfortunately,racing has for the longest time been unable to look after the customers it already has.

    The daily punter,who ultimately funds the game,spends most of his time in a hovel of a tote.Some of these types still go racing,but then get shoved aside the moment a big race day comes along so that we can showcase the game to the wider public.

    Until racing realizes that it should be doing everything to first retain the customers it already has,by treating them better,it will continue to simply be wasting money on campaigns that aren’t going to bare fruit.

    1. Jiggsy says:

      Well put Mr Grobler

  11. Ray Curling says:

    As I have said before.
    Nothing that the RA does will ever surprise me.
    As for PHUMELELA that is another story.
    I have been involved in horse racing for 45 – 50 years.
    My late Father will be turning in his grave at the thought of who is involved in the decision making process of SA HORSE RACING.
    It is a disgrace that they have been given so much power.
    Certain people that work for them have got their jobs because of who they know and not what they know.
    So much just gets swept under the carpet.
    How can any person be reprimanded if no complaint is lodged ????????.
    I would love to know who does the programming of our racing ??????
    The small trainers and punters who are there every week are ignored.

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