HORSE racing and betting. Betting and horse racing. Inextricably linked, many say, many presume.
It used to be that neither could survive without the other, now it looks like one side is less and less reliant on the other. It’s easy to decipher which but if you don’t know off hand, you only have to read the news this week that industry leader Bet365 have enjoyed another eye-watering turnover figure of £2.72 billion in their last annual report.
Worryingly, racing seems to be going the other way. The see-saw is tipping to an uncomfortable height. It’s why everytime the budget comes out, you hear words from HRI like ‘baffling’, this with regard to the strategy of the government with regard to taxing the online arm of the betting industry.
But the betting ties run deeper than just funding. When ITV took over racing coverage from Channel 4, Mark Johnston suggested they should scrap their betting coverage altogether. He was basically laughed at from the majority of the industry, some members of the media referring to him as a dinosaur.
Is this it for racing so? A sport full of stories, rich with characters and which displays magnificent athleticism of both man and beast, but basic betting fodder when it comes to the bottom line?
Noel Hayes and Darren McGrath see the betting industry as an important aspect of attracting people to the sport and of funding, but they say it doesn’t have to be everything, that there is a gap in the market for people who want to know more than just the odds and they’re willing to put their money behind a project to prove it.
Hayes began working in corporate banking before moving to the betting industry where he worked for BetBright, Tote, Boylesports and Paddy Power. McGrath operated in the branding and marketing world, owning an advertising agency called Brando, which he sold in 2016. The pair met when McGrath was pitching a business idea to BoyleSports, and they’ve been mates ever since.
A result of that friendship is Sunday, a lifestyle brand the pair have put together and believe can be a real game-changer in attracting new fans to racing.
Meeting them this week, I asked them to explain their proposal.
“We love racing,” McGrath says. “I’m not going to tell you what to write but I’d have no objection if that was your headline. That’s basically what we’re all about.”
Hayes explains their starting point: “Substantially speaking, the media around horse racing is paid for by betting firms. At The Races, Racing UK and the Racing Post are almost exclusively sponsored by betting firms. ITV were as well, but in fairness they have taken a step back and they have less betting editorial content, though they still are sponsored by William Hill. RTÉ is sponsored by BoyleSports.
“Therefore the narrative that permeates the content, even at a subconscious level, is driven by bookmakers. So the story in the media tends to be: this horse is 4/1 from 6/1 before anything else. I’m not criticising this, it’s the bookmaker’s agenda and that’s fine, we’re just observing that this is a fact of life.
“Humans being naturally inquisitive always want to know a little bit more. I happen to be one of the lucky people in that I had a background in horse racing and so I had people to ask and so I could further my knowledge.
“But the guy who is sitting on his couch on a Saturday, betting on his iPhone, he has nowhere to further his knowledge. The resource isn’t there for him to learn more. The term we’ve come up with is access, there is a lack of access for him to gain more knowledge to the industry. Our idea is a business product that gives people access to horses and horse racing.”
Through their website, AllAboutSunday.com, Hayes and McGrath have put together a three-tiered process to bring people on a journey to get closer to racing’s core. The first step is an education package which is done through videos with “tier one” players in racing such as Hugo Palmer, Josephine Gordon, Patrick Prendergast, Bryan Cooper and jockey coach Warren O’Connor.
The second step is a digital ownership project which will encapsulate an ownership experience for the consumer, going behind the scenes to garner video, audio and editorial content with the aim of giving all the insight of the workings in a racing yard. You don’t own the horse, you don’t get to go to the races with the horse, but you get a real feel for the experience.
The third step is to directly involve people through syndication which does what it says on the tin as such but brings with it all the video, audio and editiorial content.
“Our trainers are Patrick Prendergast and Denis Hogan and both guys are really on board with this. We’re also looking to take on bloodstock syndication, buying the foal for 10k at the sales and adopting a business-applied approach.
“This is all the time designed for John, who is 25, sitting watching racing on his couch. He has never had access to this side of racing and now is on a journey of enlightenment of sorts, now able to lift the bonnet on racing and see what is behind the scenes,” Hayes explains.
“Our motivation is to do all this through digital and video content. We’re talking about putting GPS trackers on horses working out. And even the foal that was bought, the updates would be coming in through video content, instead of a lazy email that says your typical: ‘the horse is well and the stallion had a winner last week’.
“That’s not the objective. The objective is to bring people on a really involved journey and through that, it motivates them to get more involved.”
This all sounds fine, but I can’t help but think that the pair face a difficult task to attract people closer to racing without the applicance of betting.
“We’re not ignoring betting,” Hayes points out. “In fact we are running a betting seminar in March that is focusing on betting, analysing form and the psychology of punter’s behaviours. Betting is always going to be linked to racing, we just want to open people up to more.
“Sports coverage has now changed, the consumer is demanding more insight. Remember when Sky took on the GAA coverage, some people were scoffing at what they brought forward - stats like possessions, ball retention, turnovers. But Sky basically said, ‘we’ve a template for this, and you might not like it now but it will become natural in time’.”
McGrath adds: “As Noel mentioned, the narrative is quite tight with regard to media’s approach to racing, but it’s not like that for golf, it’s not like that for rugby, it’s not like that for the premier league.
“Look at golf now on a Sunday night, Sky aren’t just giving you the score and showing you the shots, they give you insights such as club choices, what holes suit particular styles. Dustin Johnson takes a poor shot on the 12th and then you’re back in the Sky studio and Butch Harmon has a club in his hand telling you what happened.
“Racing has never changed. To give you an example, I was at Down Royal three Saturdays ago and Bryan Cooper won the first race on Coeur Sublime. For much of the way he was trapped in on the rail, he did a great job to get out, get his horse travelling to the last two flights and go on and win from there. What a great opportunity for an interviewer to ask him about that. Instead what you got was, this horse is 20/1 for the Triumph Hurdle.
“The betting product is always going to be there with racing but there are a huge number of other things to talk about. When we made the decision to go out and get video content for the website, one of our concerns was if there would be enough topics but we currently have 108 videos live and another 100 ready to go. We have a wonderful, wonderful sport. There is a wealth of topics to talk about.”
It doesn’t surprise at all that the lads report that all of the high profile trainers and jockeys they’ve approached to sell their idea in exchange for help with content have been hugely helpful and supportive of what they are trying to do.
There seem to be a few more of the so-called dinosaurs around, most notably Davy Russell, who took a similar viewpoint to Mark Johnston when interviewed on sports radio and online video broadcaster Off The Ball in April.
“I have no interest in betting,” Russell said. “I don’t regard it as it having any bearing on anything to do with racing. Only for some reason over the past 10 to 12 years it is all betting.
“I don’t know what it is about horse racing and betting but it takes a little bit away from what is the most outstanding sport for me, personally. The bookies are creating their own advertisement the whole time generated by television and I would much rather they analysed things a little bit better. There’s any other amount of things you can talk about, other than betting.”
With his background, Hayes is more than qualified to give his opinion on the larger scale dependence on betting in racing: “We are at the start of a revolution. The betting industry got there before regulation and now regulation is starting to catch up – that’s the reality of it. There are certain cases you read in the paper over the last few years and it would make me feel deeply uncomfortable. It’s not healthy.
“As an example, thank god we don’t have FOBTs (fixed odds betting terminals) in Ireland. You see in Britain the government decided to reduce the maximum stakes from £50 down to £2 but initially this was going to take 12 months to implement. I guarantee if it was happening the other way, an increase in the stake – £2 to £50, it would happen tomorrow. It took the sports minister to resign in protest before they brought forward the implementation to April, last week.
“That said, to be very fair to HRI and the BHA, their marketing budgets are tiny compared the marketing budgets of Bet365, Ladbrokes, Paddy Power, etc…
“Combined, the bookmakers have a massive marketing pool so HRI and BHA are going to struggle to get their voice heard in that. The reality is that the entrance point to horse racing is through betting and that is a pretty shakey pillar to be building your future on.”
It’s hard not to be impressed by the two lads’ enthusiasm for racing and for this venture. They’ve both left good positions to go at this and so you couldn’t fault their dedication and belief. The first thing I noticed shaking hands was that the both were wearing the same smart clothing which is all in the Sunday brand.
“We have immersed ourselves in this brand. We have the jumpers, V-necks, ties, bags… all in the Sunday brand. We’re not doing what sports fans aren’t already used to,” McGrath explains.
“Look at Godolphin. They’re getting really close to cracking it. They have the relationship with Under Armour now and they’re looking to create that sort of brand. They’re taking a very interesting view of digital and of content.
“I think it all goes back to Sheikh Mohammed, who is basically racing bonkers, he just loves it. They might have a few disadvantages because of the size of their operation but they are definitely within touching distance of getting there and I hope they do, it could be brilliant for racing.”
Finally, the name, Sunday. What’s that all about?
“The short story is Sunday is the biggest day in racing,” McGrath says before Hayes adds: “It’s the biggest day in all sports. Super Sunday football, the Sunday Game, the golf. It’s also a day of relaxation and a time to chill out on the couch.
“All roads lead to Sunday.”