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How The Racing Industry Must Change

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On 3 July 2017, Vicky Leonard, Marketing Manager at Australia’s Arrowfield Stud, published a blog, discussing the state of the Australian horse racing industry and some of the challenges it faces.  With much of the subject matter relevant to a global audience, it has been reproduced by the TDN and widely shared and discussed on social media.  Vicky has kindly given permission for the Sporting Post to reproduce a copy and share in the debate.

Ask anyone in horse racing how the Australian horse racing industry is going and they would answer ‘pretty darn well’, writes Vicky Leonard.

Our prize money is relatively sustainable across all levels, our bloodstock prices are among the highest in the world and our racehorse quality is now appropriately recognised by international standards.

Winx who?

We have Winx, Chautauqua and a national treasure called the Melbourne Cup.

However, the startling reality is that the majority of Australians wouldn’t know that Winx is a horse – let alone what a Chautauqua is, and have a waning interest (at best) in the Melbourne Cup.

The most concerning thing? Not only are we not addressing it, those of us immersed in horse racing don’t actually realise how irrelevant the industry is, especially to young Australians.

Horse racing is my life. I spend my weekends at Randwick or Rosehill (or at the pub watching Randwick or Rosehill); my Twitter feed is filled with racing journalists, my Instagram with horse photographers and Longines, and I’ve culled any anti-racing commentators from my Facebook page.


Racing is considered a controversial, antiquated industry

However around nine months ago, about the time of Premier Baird’s incredible (since reverted) decision to suddenly ban Greyhound Racing in NSW, I was forced into a fairly depressing realisation.

I’m currently studying part-time and in class we were asked to discuss our jobs. Everyone was at first surprised, then very interested, when I said I work for a horse stud – not being a lawyer, engineer or project manager like the rest of my 40 classmates, it was rather exotic, especially for a 30 year old female.

At first the questions they asked seemed innocent enough, but then things got a bit heated.

‘What do you do with the slow horses?’
‘How long do you think until thoroughbred horse racing is banned like greyhound racing?’
‘ How many horses die racing each year?’

At first I was annoyed, so I went on the defensive. I couldn’t understand their ignorance.

But their questions stemmed from genuine perplexity about why I would work in such a “controversial, antiquated industry”.


A sport for old men in dingy pubs

My classmates, comprised of a well-educated, gender and culturally diverse mix of under-35’s, simply had little to no knowledge of horse racing. When pressed on their reasons why, it was because they had limited interaction with the sport; it rarely hit their radar. When it did, the content was so negative they didn’t like what they saw. Their perception of horse racing was that it either challenged their moral compass on social issues, or they thought it was outdated: a sport for old men in dingy pubs.

I left that class rather dejected, but still hopeful that perhaps my classmates were not representative of the typical young Australian.

So I went on a fact-finding mission.

Market Research

Australia’s horse racing industry is in perception crisis and its future is under threat

First stop iSentia, a media monitoring company who have detailed access to traditional and social media content. iSentia completed an analysis to determine the attitude of young Australians toward horse racing, during the 2016 Spring Carnival when maximum attention was on the sport.

iSentia found that Australia’s horse racing industry is in perception crisis and its future is under threat. We’re losing our audience. Our supporter base is getting older every year, and the number of Australians who perceive racing negatively is increasing. Young Australians – up to 35 years old – either have no opinion about the sport, or if they do, it’s more likely to be negative than positive. A lot of their concerns relate to animal welfare.

  • Despite being the biggest Facebook users, 18 to 34 year olds were the least engaged least on horse racing topics.
  • 47.5% of horse racing social media content during the period was unfavourable in tone, while 28.7% was favourable and 23.8% neutral. In total there were 248,000 mentions of horse racing in association with animal cruelty.
  • Users aged 18–24 had the highest proportion of interactions on negative posts about animal cruelty.

When Roy Morgan Research published its annual analysis of Melbourne Cup viewership and wagering, the findings were equally concerning:

  • The Melbourne Cup audience has declined by 39%, almost 1 million Australians, over the last decade.
  • Ten years ago, one in four Australians placed a bet on the cup; today it is one in six.
  • Audience age of the Melbourne Cup flipped from majority under 50 in 2006 to a majority over 50 in 2016.
  • Fewer than one-quarter (22%) of 14 – 49 year olds are ‘occasional’ Cup viewers, down from more than one-third (34%) in 2006.

​Finally, a scan of NUVI Social Media Intelligence metrics revealed that in January 2017 alone, there were more than 9,495 negative mentions online in association with horse racing.

The horse racing industry hasn’t changed much over the years – if anything it has become better regulated, and there have been positive animal welfare initiatives of late. For example, Racing NSW and Racing Victoria have been proactive in their rehoming initiatives, dedicating significant resources to addressing this issue. But positive efforts like these aren’t shared with the right audiences beyond the industry choir.

Expectations of society have changed, whether we choose to accept that or not, it will guide our future progress.

Social media is killing us.

Smartphone, social media

Social media content is often inflammatory and not scrutinised for factual accuracy

iSentia found that as an industry, we’re good at ensuring messages are favourable (or at least neutral) when they’re promoted through traditional media outlets such as newspapers, television and radio, because historically we have been able to control the narrative.

The problem is that traditional media coverage does not reach young Australians, who are unlikely to engage with it, and are sceptical about any messaging from it. Young people are most active on social media, where content is often inflammatory and not scrutinised for factual accuracy. It’s where animal welfare groups recruit ambassadors for their cause through emotionally shocking material and largely fabricated statistics.

It’s a given that our industry will be vulnerable to criticism from certain sectors of the population. We’re unlikely to convert animal rights activists into race-goers, punters or owners. But there are 10 million Australians who feel neutral about the industry – we just need to give them the right information to become supporters. Those who have a strong positive opinion of horse racing can influence their own social media communities if they’re given the right tools and information.

We need a new plan.

We need to work together to create a shared vision

The horse racing industry needs to show Australians how wonderful it is.

Tell the stories of the horses, and the people who dedicate their lives lovingly tending to them. Share accurate statistics on thoroughbreds being rehomed post racing. Show the farms where the horses are raised, the high level of care and attention they are given, and explain the regulation and integrity processes that protect them. Teach people about the incredible biomechanics of the thoroughbred and how they are trained like high performance athletes.

Our goal should be to give those who are indifferent to horse racing a reason to care, and to respond well to positive messages about the sport. Negative messages are currently dominating the discussion – especially where it occurs online.

We need to work together as an industry to create a shared vision that will safeguard the future of horse racing. We must achieve nothing less than a radical shift in the perception of horse racing in modern society, and we must focus our efforts on young Australians.

If you work in the racing industry and feel as I do about the horses, the racing community and the sport, then you are sick of defending racing against fabricated statistics and slanderous innuendo. It’s time we did something proactive about it.

(Reproduced, with grateful thanks, from Vicky Leonard)

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5 comments on “How The Racing Industry Must Change

  1. Ian Jayes says:

    A very good article which is pertinent to horseracing throughout the world. Like politics, opinions on horseracing are more dependent on perceptions rather than truth and facts, but the facts can sometimes be very damning. For instance, all the goodwill achieved through the establishment of the National Thoroughbred Trust (of which I was a founding trustee and executive member) was discounted when the NSPCA resigned from the Trust because of misgivings about how our racing was being conducted and controlled. I have a chapter on this in my recently published autobiography “Footsteps, Heartbeats and Hoofbeats” which is available from Amazon as an e-book or paperback.

  2. Tony Mincione says:

    I am a racing fan so much of this reaches me. If you take out how you feel about it, then it’s the same moan we have in SA just without the urgency. But we make the same mistake they do which is lumping together the racing fanatic with the gambling fanatic.

    For the longest time the income (not all the spending, to be clear) came from the gamblers, and the facilities and the sport went to the enthusiasts.

    If casinos know who their customers are, racing is still confused: is it the owner or is it the punter. And just to make things a little more insecure, our structure is centrally controlled and so we leave the “operator” to be in charge of owners, punters and NHA, and that after we have converted the operator from non-profit to listed on the stock exchange… very much leaving the fox in charge of the hen house.

    If the gambling component is not made front of house, not enhanced as the thinking man’s game, not made exciting, not made squeaky clean, not kept up with inflation where winning is meaningful…then the decline will continue to accelerate as fast as sectional timing is unrolled for the new digital age.

    Those of us infected with the bug, got infected when it was the only bug around. There will be no next generation if we don’t live up to our own idea of what this sport is. But then we need to know what this sport is. And please God, no ideas from anyone who thinks a bet is a R6 place on the tote, because then just close now.

    1. B d steele says:

      We have already lost a generation of racing/ punting enthusiasts.Charles Faull has been doing the same in Cape Town for years albeit in an informal manner in fact last Friday night in a restaurant he questioned customers about the “July” more than half had no idea what the “July” is.Racing has itself to blame ,at the rate we going in a few years time it might only be me and you that are still interested

  3. Rian says:

    Tony you spot on!! My one daughter is a hairdresser and the other one a school teacher , they werent even aware that a women had trained the July winner or if the met was run in july… They only comment at get togethers is that my dstv stuck on channel 239

  4. Graham Hurlstone-Jones says:

    It is still considered with so much mistrust as well……Doosra favourite the whole day until the off today and then changed after the race went off. I could not explain to my friends that it happens after the exotics and there is nothing you can do ( except add more horses but then they do not see any skill involved so would rather go to the casino where they know it is all chance but no manipulation ( it happens so often it has to be questioned and I can give you a whole list of practises that leave punters and owners feeling ripped off but you most probably know them but it is only mentioned at the time with a few comments and then onto the next trainsmash). I was disgusted the day they changed the venue at Kenilworth from new course to old course and no one said a thing until the Monday but nothing from the industry about how bad that is including the Post, nothing…..that is disgusting. Too many examples of punters being taken for a ride ( and owners ). Do a list of all the debacles over the last year and then you will see how bad it is here. That does not include the perception that there is another agenda. Racing is not fun any more. It is expensive and hard work with little return, except the top few of course. As a very small owner in this huge industry it is difficult to show friends who come along how it is viable. I don’t blame them. We pay in non stop but the return is minimal unless you get very lucky. Tele track is like a boy’s own club for tele track buddy’s. When was the last time punters were chatted to or included ( helicopters dropping necklaces on race day is just ridiculous ) No form grids ??? what is that about ? ( oh yes agenda’s ). Explain to people how a 40/1 shot can beat a hot favourite, explain how prices change so people know what is going on. Explain to them class and form don’t go together all the time. Show them the pitfalls so they can get a gauge as to where there money is going ( including costs to owners as well !! ). I have tried to get my friends over seas to buy here but they simply will not go near the industry. I suppose you could shoot the messenger as is done in SA or you could speak to the right people. Where does the money all go ? Who spends it ? on who or what ? i.e. tenders etc…..Durbanville racetrack will be a litmus test to see if the horrible feeling that it is all in a few peoples hands will be born out. When you cannot keep your old loyal punters what hope for new one’s ? what do you offer them that is different to what is has been the status quo for years ?? more of the same so the back slapping can continue until there are no backs to slap…..( except the few )…

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