Leading racing journalist and a published author of repute, West Coaster Charl Pretorius was seen mixing it with the high rollers at Royal Ascot recently. We asked the deep-thinker to give us his observations of the there and here of racing, and what they are doing right, where we maybe aren’t.
I returned recently from a short trip to the United Kingdom, taking in the Friday meeting at the 2023 Royal Ascot Festival and a Saturday meeting at Newmarket.
I have thoughts to share. In drawing comparisons between the UK and South African racing industries, I have discussed my observations with industry players here and abroad, emphasising the future of our local racing industry.
I have drawn conclusions which may be, or may not be, on the mark. But they are worth noting.
Royal Ascot is best described as a Right Royal Rave.
It surpassed my expectations in all respects – a lavish blend of luxury and tradition grounded on, dare I say, a decadent celebration of elitist high society.
Moët & Chandon, that symbol of flamboyant opulence, was poured and spritzed around the manicured lawns and at champagne counters as if it was water; there were more cigars lit than on a good day in downtown Havana; the cuisine came from culinary craftsmen and the atmosphere was electric.
Fashion fans from around the globe arrived in their finest formal attire – the ladies spectacularly sexy in colourful outfits and hats adorned with feathers, flowers and ornaments.
If you’re in the main and royal enclosures, top hats, tail coats and dress pants are mandatory. Strictly collar-and-ties elsewhere.
Entry tickets cost between £50 and £150 (R1,175 to R3,525 per person), depending on your chosen day membership and enclosures visited. And that’s without food and beverages. Sold out for five days, solid.
Having arrived in London on the morning of the race day, but without a pair of smart black pants and a waistcoat, I had to urgently go gear-hunting in the Ascot-adjacent town of Slough (or ‘ISloughmabad’ as some of the locals call it now). But shops on the Farmham Road were closed for Friday prayers with an hour to go to the first race.
Fearing embarrassment at the Royal Ascot turnstiles I pressed on, and away, to another destination.
I followed a time-consuming trial of one-way streets and cul-de-sacs, prompted by the rented MG’s GPS System, itself confused and delayed by my impulsive U-turns and strings of expletives.
Eventually, I came across upper ISloughmabad’s Observatory Mall, a shopping complex reportedly battling with business due to the cheaper family shops trading in Farmham Road.
All the same, waistcoats and dress pants shouldn’t be purchased in Rands in the UK, even at clearance sales.
The pants, a select brand in the £100 (R2,300) range, later simply refused to hug my waist. Made for fashionistas with six-packs, sales to endomorphs should not be legally concluded without the addition of super-stretch trouser braces.
I made the third race in the nick of time, shuffling duck-like through the security checkpoint in narrow, pointy shoes.
It was on to the parade ring and the statue of Frankel en-route to the Royal Enclosure, shirt-tucking and pants-pulling without pause, but I was glad I’d gone for a kit-out.
Royal Ascot’s security detail looked like body guards from a John Wick movie and, as far as dress code goes, not a carpenter’s inch was given.
All the pomp and sparkle aside, I was struck by the lack of people of colour on the Royal Ascot premises.
The affable ITV sports presenter, Rishie Persad, was there, perhaps also my good acquaintance Brian Finch, the Chairman of Epsom Downs. Brian, the polished man-about-town that he is, would have been rubbing shoulders up on the grandstand near the King’s suite.
But other than that, I could literally count faces of colour on the hand that wasn’t holding a glass of bubbly.
The British Horseracing Authority (BHA), via a programme called ‘Industry Commitment’, in May 2021 announced that they were putting in place foundations for a longer‐term sustainable recovery for the sport through engaging new and diverse audiences in all aspects of the racing industry. I’m not sure how far they’ve come with all that.
The British Government has been frenetic in pursuing Boris Johnson for having a couple of whiskeys with some close friends during Covid time, and with telling gamblers how much they can spend and with off-loading illegal immigrants to Rwanda.
Perhaps they haven’t had the time to assist or put pressure on the Diversity Commitment Group, but I suspect their all-round progress has been limited.
At Newmarket the following day – a meeting considered ‘low-key’, but so packed with spectators that I failed to find my car among at least a thousand others halfway through the day, when I went looking for a pack of smokes – the same was observed.
There were people of colour in the car park and at the entry gates, but inside, at a gate fee of £33 (about R770) per person, the delightful Eritrean waitress, who served my Chocolate Mousse Tower, was the only of a darker shade in a 5000-plus crowd.
We in South Africa can be very proud of what we have achieved in respect of diverse participation.
The UK faces different challenges, and its ultimate objectives may be centred more around inclusivity for the LBGTQ+ community. Racing there, and elsewhere except the Far East, remains primarily a white elitist sport.
Have we been barking up the wrong tree throwing marketing money and efforts behind the idea of attracting ‘young people’ to the racetrack? Let’s take our heads out of the sand. In our land, no amount of instagraming, tik-toking, free booze or trendy bands will get a mass of young people to come racing as a habit. They do not give a damn.
Here is the upside: When today’s young reach their late 30’s, 40s and 50s – when they come into money – we should strike with a really hot iron.
Racing only becomes a status symbol and an investment opportunity or perhaps a limited tax escape when the young start coming into grey matter – later in life. We’ve been missing the targets.
Instead of marketing to the Young and the Restless, we should be laser-focusing all our efforts on the established, and emerging, black and coloured elite!
You won’t need Socio-Economics 1A to realise that thoroughbred racing in its current format, in South Africa, can only be sustained by an elite handful of benefactors who continue to throw huge and generous amounts of money at the game to sustain their passion and hobbies.
But what if we were to look four, or five, or eight years down the line? Where does racing find itself?
Actually, let’s look just a year down the line at the 2024 South African General Elections.
Rumours are rife that the Honourable Paul Mashitile is being groomed for State Presidency.
To hold on to its diminishing power, a coalition deal between the ANC and the EFF is in the offing, with Julius Sello Malema to be offered Deputy Presidency as a reward. We’ve all heard the speculation, and I have confirmed such with three high-ranking racing industry members close to reliable ANC sources. The rumours are true indeed. This is an option being strongly considered by the ruling party.
The supported rise of Malema, in the capacity of Deputy President, and hence a likely future President, will create a scenario I do not need to discuss here.
The point is, it has become a real possibility, and if it does happen the already badly cracked wall of South Africa’s Dam Of Money will burst explosively and its contents will flow right away. Racing will be back on its knees, overnight.
In this turbulent place with its zany, unconventional politics, one cannot blame those with pessimistic and even defeatists attitudes. There are racing fans who say, ‘I don’t care who rules the country, as long as we can race on, and have a bet!’ I am sorry to be the harbinger of disturbing news, but, in a worst-case scenario, those are privileges we may have to live without.
Besides voting the ANC so far out of power that not even a coalition would help them (an unlikely event), we have to embrace transformation and change more than ever. We must dedicate all our efforts to drawing in dozens, if not hundreds of influential, affluent people of colour into the fray.
Alongside that we have to develop more opportunities for people of colour to participate, perhaps via more series for Work Riders or even a dedicated Work Riders racing circuit. To start. A future Gambling Board will have a more forthcoming attitude if they see more black trainers in the fray.
The Team Racing concept is something else that should not be dismissed without thorough and open-minded consideration.
When a new government comes knocking for favours and a slice of the money pie just over a year from now, we must be ready to show that we have made rapid and tangible progress, that we can continue racing with good, inclusive leadership and the backing of new, wealthy investors of colour.
This is not an apple-with-apple comparison, but when racing became a burden for the government in Singapore, they promptly said, ‘no more’. They are in the process of shutting the industry down. The generous support we are privileged to be receiving in South Africa to keep the ship afloat cannot possibly last forever.
We have to foster active participation by the rising elite. Or face the end of thoroughbred racing as we know it.
Ed – the opinions and views expressed are those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and beliefs of the Sporting Post, or any of our affiliates.