Article Date: 09-July-2012
Blake’s Blog: Time For Irish Racecourses To Shape Up
One of the better pieces of advice I have received as a racing analyst was to “put yourself in the trainer’s shoes”. The point was, if one thinks like the trainer of the horse in question and tries to assess the bigger picture, potential expectations and objectives can become much clearer on any given day.
With that in mind, I can’t help but feel that Irish racing would be a lot better off if racecourse managers began to put themselves in the punter’s shoes. The actions of racecourse managers have a massive impact on the actions of punters, yet they seem to be largely oblivious of this duty to racing’s most important customers.
Just how important punters are to racing cannot be understated, with €27m of the €56m that funded racing in Ireland this year coming from betting tax alone. As well as that, the additional influx of funding that will be generated by bringing offshore betting revenue into the tax net has been cited by almost every interest group in the industry as being the key to the financial security of Irish racing going forward.
Yet, the punters that generate this revenue and are the reason why the SIS money that racecourses gladly accept is so lucrative still seem to be at the very bottom of many racecourses priority lists. Their focus is often on the short-term profitability of attracting blow-in customers to sideshows and novelty events rather than looking after the true racing fans, with their attitude towards the latter group seeming to be one of “We’re happy to take your money, but you can keep your opinion”. However, given that the modern sports betting market is so competitive, that attitude is going to need to change if Irish racing is to keep its existing customers and indeed, attract new ones.
In fact, the racing industry as a whole needs to recognise that times are changing. We are now well into the age of broadband internet and round-the-clock racing coverage on television. In-depth information and knowledge that would have taken racing fans years to acquire in decades gone by is now available to anyone that seeks it out on the internet. As a result, the new generation of racing fans, which the industry will depend on for its future, are generally much more informed than previous generations and they expect higher standards of information to feed this knowledge base.
There is no point in mincing words, while there have undoubtedly been improvements in recent times, the current standard of information that Irish racecourses provide their customers with just isn’t good enough. Irish racecourses lag behind British racecourses in this regard, which doesn’t reflect well on them at all, given that British racecourses remain a long way behind the Hong Kong and Australian tracks.
The current tendency for Irish racecourses is to update their ground/local weather prior to declaration time and again between 8:00am and as-late-as-they-dare on the day of racing. With Ireland’s infamously changeable weather, this is deeply inadequate, especially for Sunday meetings for which 48-hour declarations apply.
If the racecourse managers put themselves in punter’s boots, they would know that many racing fans do their form study the evening before racing. They would also know that the betting exchanges and some bookmakers open their betting markets the day before racing and the majority of bookmakers will have priced up most Irish races by 10am on the day of the races.
As has been mentioned on this blog before, any remotely competent punter will put great emphasis on the underfoot conditions, thus will not be in a position to bet or make betting decisions until up-to-date ground/weather information is available. The lack of said information from racecourses is undoubtedly the cause of lack of early liquidity in the betting markets and indeed has a negative effect of overall turnover, with racings finances being the ultimate sufferer.
Recent meetings at Kilbeggan and Wexford have shown just how ridiculous these situations can be, with both of them failing to update their ground/weather until well into the afternoon (2:55pm at Kilbeggan and 1:50pm at Wexford) on the day of their evening meetings, despite very inclement weather forecasts.
Indeed, the meeting in question at Wexford was abandoned without any prior suggestion of doubt less than an hour after the ground was belatedly updated from good-to-yielding (yielding places) to yielding (soft places) at 1:50pm (which was almost 30 hours after the previous ground update). The biblical rain that fell could not be prevented, but more regular weather updates and a warning of a potential abandonment would not only have saved punters time, but it may have saved some trainers and owners the significant expense of sending their horses down to the track.
Ideally, racecourses would issue an update the evening before racing and again early on the morning of racing to avoid the risk of racing fans and punters wasting time and/or money studying or betting based on inaccurate information. Even if the ground hasn't changed, an update should be sent out so that the public know it hasn't changed. This really isn’t much to ask.
As well as the ground and weather, racecourses should feel obligated to their customers to report when they make alterations to running rails that affect race distances. Rail movements are an essential part of racecourse maintenance, but when the details go unreported it plays havoc with the official times and can cause immense frustration and confusion for the vast number of professional and indeed casual analysts that put great emphasis on race times.
While the likes of the Curragh, Fairyhouse and Leopardstown seem to “get it”, it seems that the majority of Irish racecourses are stuck in the dark ages and have no intention of upping their standards to the required level. With that in mind, perhaps the Turf Club/HRI should be proactive and issue a directive to the tracks that instructs them to issue a ground/weather update on the evening before racing and again prior to 9am on the day of racing, as well as reporting rail movements. It won’t cost anything to do this, yet it will unquestionably increase betting turnover and thus, increase the financial return to racing through betting tax, not to mention providing a better service to non-betting racing fans and trainers/owners.
Given that it is in the direct financial interest of Irish racing for punters to bet more on our sport, it is a disappointing and puzzling state of affairs that it is the customers themselves that are having to continually go to the authorities with suggestions of how to make Irish racing more attractive to punters.
With that in mind, considering the size of financial contribution that punters make to Irish racing, it makes one wonder why they are not directly represented on the board of Horse Racing Ireland, which already includes representatives of the racecourses, racehorse owners, trainers, breeders, bookmakers and racing staff. Food for thought, perhaps.
Last Thursday, racing returned to Dundalk for what is the only fixture at the Co. Louth track between May 18th and August 18th. While Irish racing took a big step in the right direction last year when creating a winter season to make more use of what is one of Irish Flat racing’s most valuable assets, this corner suspects that our only all-weather track still isn’t being used as extensively as it should be, particularly during the aforementioned May-to-August period. One presumes the reasoning behind not having any fixtures there during that time is that the perception is that there is more than enough Flat racing on turf to accommodate everyone during that time. However, it isn’t necessarily as simple as that.
The consistency of the surface is Dundalk’s main asset and that can be a very attractive feature when extremes of weather prevail during the turf season. The best working example of this comes in Great Britain, whereby when the turf either gets too firm or too soft, the strength and depth of maidens at the all-weather tracks tends to shoot upwards, with a multitude of top trainers making use of the artificial surfaces rather than risking their young horses on extremes of ground. Given the weather we have had in recent weeks, one can be sure that many of Ireland’s top trainers would have leapt at the chance to run their two-year-olds at Dundalk rather than on bottomless ground.
As well as races for young horses, one imagines that low-grade handicaps would be very well supported by trainers during the summer months. In addition to the aforementioned changeable ground on turf, the majority of low-grade handicaps take place at country tracks, many of which are tight and/or undulating in nature. Considering that low-grade horses generally have a narrower set of track/ground preferences than their more talented peers, such variability in track characteristics makes placing them effectively a very difficult task for their trainers.
Dundalk is a much fairer and consistent test of a horse than many of the country tracks and while not all horses thrive on all-weather surfaces, the majority do, thus the attraction of low-grade handicaps there during the summer months would be high. In support of this theory, it is worth noting that the only 47-65 handicap on Thursday’s card at Dundalk attracted no less than 61 entries.
The case for adding more Dundalk meetings to the fixture list during this time makes plenty of sense to this corner, but given how flexible and adaptable Irish racing is when it comes to rearranging abandoned fixtures, it would also make sense to consider putting on short-notice fixtures at Dundalk in times such as now when meetings are being lost due to rain and when unseasonably heavy ground is commonplace. Irish racing has the facility to make the best of unexpected weather situations, so perhaps it should make use of it.
UPDATE: HRI have added an additional fixture at Dundalk on Monday that contains two maidens for two-year-olds and three 47-65 handicaps.
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