Eye Of The Needle

I am the greatest, I said that even before I knew I was. One of the greatest boxers the world has ever known, Muhammad Ali, was the king of needle. If you weren’t interested, you sat up and took notice anyway. That’s the streak of human nature that horseracing doesn’t come close to. Even on a good day.

The man who said he was ‘so mean, I make medicine sick’ turned seventy this year and is the living epitome of self-promotion. To passionately and fanatically support any sporting pursuit, it is really so much more interesting and gripping if we love it, associate with the one side and preferably imagine, or even believe, that we despise the opposition.

We see that dramatic disdain for the opponent in so many successful popular sporting arenas. It’s the quick-fix of the victor and the vanquished. A  good result for one, a devastating loss for the other. An over the moon winner and a seriously pissed-off loser who is just so injured, embarrassed and bleating for the antidote of a revenge.

That is the problem with horseracing. It has become a bit of a yawn. So humdrum and routine. We battle to back the winners but can predict with reasonable accuracy precisely what is going to happen. Mike De Kock leads the national trainer log by R11 million. That’s what a leading up-and-coming young Cape trainer has grossed between two provinces in third position. We need champions but these imbalances are crazy. Where’s that competition commission when they are really needed?

And despite the fact that there are only an average of eight or nine winners’ cheques going begging at every meeting, the trainers and jockeys are so blooming sweet to each other in front of camera, it hardly creates any serious excitement.   Horses always arrive in great condition from other yards. One jockey is almost begging for the autograph of the next. But that’s the window dressing. It is not the truth. And most of us know it. But it sure as hell baffles brains, doesn’t it?

Just because you have money certainly doesn’t mean you are a gentleman, but why are we so hell-bent on trying to twist and mould this game into a gentleman’s pursuit?

Maybe we need to take a leaf out of the Americans’ book? The landmark rebranding of Hollywood Park Racecourse in Los Angeles (SP 1831) marked  the first naming-rights deal by a major racecourse in the USA. Henceforth known as Betfair Hollywood Park, it is a reflection that desperate times call for desperate measures. It could also be rather euphemistically termed ‘changing with the times.’

Betfair executives saw the gap when they were stunned to observe Hollywood Park being run by a bunch of old codgers who were doing a lot of ‘public showboating’ and making the policy decisions as to how the track should market itself to the new generation. Doesn’t that sound familiar?

But it is also a significant indication that the marriage of two complimentary talents can be of undoubted mutual benefit. Betfair has the skills and knack of marketing to a younger techno savvy extreme generation and Hollywood Park brought tradition and history to the wedding.

My suggestion to drop the syrupy ‘I’m such a gentleman’ is not intended at the expense of good fair sportsmanship. But it was maybe taken a step too far by the US Chief Executive of Betfair Stephen Burn. He didn’t get it all his own way though. Full of bright ideas, his Four B’s promotional  concept of a free beer, burger, bet and a bang with the purchase of a ticket was not surprisingly shot down in flames by the decision makers at Hollywood Park. Maybe they were against the beers?  The thick-skinned marketer, believe it or not, even tried his luck with the same promo at Ascot. Give him full marks for innovation. There are probably those that will say that it could work here.

Are we fooling ourselves? Maybe.

Yes, we do this for the love of the horse. My colleague Robyn Louw enforces that week in and week out. And it is what got us all going in the first place when the world was such a wonderfully clean cell-phone free place and when our parents still made love, not war.

But that passion is inexorably coupled with our intrinsic weakness for gambling and a lust to be entertained. Otherwise we would all be happily married family folk who take the kids for a Sunday afternoon drive to the beach, rather than sitting in a dingy tote watching  jockeys and bookmakers get richer. They may exist, but I haven’t seen many rich owners or trainers.

If luring sponsors and new patrons is the biggest challenge facing many sports in the 21st century, then racing heads that list and something needs to be done, very fast.

It is alarming to note how many of the top-class feature races run over the past few weeks from Turffontein to Kenilworth are devoid of sponsorship. But surely the sponsors will be qeueing when the public interest is there? And the public interest will be there when the needle and lure is tangible. When the contest promises that.  And when the new generation are promised genuine entertainment in return.

The thing  is that while Variety Club is probably South Africa’s champion miler today, appreciating his brilliant performances and the fact that he is a son of a former champion European sprinter, prepared in a terrific feat of horsemanship by one of our great trainers, doesn’t wash entirely with the new ‘extreme-need’ breed of patron. Pocket Power was branded the ‘peoples horse.’ So was Pierre Jourdan. Neither have made much of a difference to attendance at Kenilworth or Turffontein. Although Clyde Basel’s team have upped the ante somewhat.  But just because they are slowly edging towards a commercial solution.  Maybe the four C’s worked? Clyde, Chillis, Champions and Chicks?

The old school are the crowd that love these top horses. We compare them to great horses of yore. We can sentimentalise over a beer and banker them in a R50 Pick Six. But we have a decade or two then we are history. The real spending power and future lies in the hands of the ‘extremists’. They aren’t  necessarily taken with tradition and comparing times or gene power of Var versus Dynasty. They want I-Pads, entertainment, results and they want to side with real people in real time.

I only watch horseracing, but against my personal choice, I was recently exposed to some Mixed Martial Arts fighting held at Grandwest. This code has exploded on to the sporting scene in recent years, and has outsold traditional boxing and wrestling events and is even competing with the Super Bowl for viewership in the USA.

Believe  me, I find it quite barbaric and am not recommending cage fighting, a ‘sport’ that pits two fighters from different fighting backgrounds against each other in an octagon cage. With tattoos where it hurts most and names like The Butcher, Iron Lion, Soldier Boy and Black Panther, these are tough guys. I watched a dude (see I even speak their language) from Pretoria take ‘Submission of the Night’  honours with his guillotine choke submission victory over a guy called Martin ‘The Punisher’ van Staden.  The crowd went gaga.

But one thing I can confirm. The code is growing and the youngsters go crazy for it.

I am not suggesting  Mike ‘The Champion’ De Kock taking on Justin ‘The Blonde’ Snaith after the last race in the Greyville Parade Ring next Saturday.

But let’s stop pretending and inject a little needle  into the sport of kings. It sure seems to work everywhere else.


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