Horseracing continues to struggle to attract new fans despite being the second most popular spectator sport in the UK.
According to Deloitte, six million racegoers attended meetings in 2017, whilst more than half of the top 10 annual events throughout the year were either racing or equestrian-based.
Royal Ascot was the best-attended event of the horseracing calendar, with 294,000 people flooding through the gates over the five-day festival.
Although the industry will be buoyed by the figures published, there is still a fear within it that the sport is on the decline, particularly with an ageing demographic.
Last year, racing entered into a £40m deal with ITV to become the sport’s only terrestrial TV channel, and although viewing figures from their first year have been hit and miss, it has been the epitome of racing’s intentions to engage with a wider audience.
Speaking to Elephant Sport, ITV Racing’s lead commentator Richard Hoiles said: “It’s important that we make sure the sport is open and accessible to everyone, and that it doesn’t seem mysterious.
“As a production team, it’s our role to make sure we explain racing terminology, but without coming across as patronising to our more seasoned followers.”
‘We need to show people that racing does have wonderful people involved in it and that it’s a brilliant sport with wonderful colour’
– Oli Bell
Throughout their first year, ITV’s racing coverage has been well-received, but like other sports racing faces a battle to engage with younger audiences.
ITV have proved to be the forward-thinkers in racing coverage over the past 12 months with presenters such as Oli Bell fronting frequent Facebook live videos.
ITV Racing also launched their own Instagram account last month, providing behind the scenes footage of their weekend coverage as well as displaying the colour that comes with a day at the races.
“Racing needs to connect with a younger audience,” said Bell. “There’s a lot of ways in which young people access information, including video content and the way in which they communicate with one another via social media.”
The presenter of ITV Racing’s ‘The Opening Show’ continued: “A lot of people do attend racing which is great, but to keep them more consistently involved, racing needs to be across all forms of technology and to be up to date with the current trends.”
Racing attendances have been pleasing in 2017, but taking statistics at face value can be misleading, and it is often argued that a large percentage of spectators who attend meetings are not necessarily fans of the sport.
Throughout the summer months The Jockey Club include live entertainment following the final race on the card of a meeting and acts already booked in 2018 include the likes of Craig David and Paloma Faith.
Bell admitted that tracks do need to do more to encourage the fans who attend a day at the races primarily for the music.
He said: “I think something more could be done to improve the crossover. An example could be that if spectators arrive in time for the first race and place a bet on the first couple of races that they’re then entitled to a free pint
“We need to show people that racing does have wonderful people involved in it and that it’s a brilliant sport with wonderful colour.”
Racings welfare struggles
The British Horseracing Authority’s head handicapper Phil Smith last week revealed the weights for the 2018 Grand National, meaning the countdown to the biggest spectacle of the racing calendar had well and truly begun.
A large proportion of the public will no doubt be clamouring into betting shops up and down the country to place their once-a-year annual bets come race day, and the world’s most prestigious steeple chase provides a platform for the sport to reach out and introduce racing to potential new fans.
‘We’re not slapdash about welfare, we do care and we don’t race horses for them to get hurt and everyone to shrug their shoulders and move on, everyone cares very much’
– Richard Hoiles
However, despite the sport’s soaring attendances throughout the major meetings and festivals of last year, ITV saw a 17% decline in television viewings for the 2017 Grand National compared to that of the previous year.
This has led some to believe that there has been a shift in the public’s perception of the sport with organisations such as Animal Aid suggesting that racing along with the Grand National itself should be banned.
Following the introduction of the 2006 Animal Welfare Act, the BHA has worked closely with the RSPCA regarding the rules and regulations of the sport.
Section 9 of the Act places ‘a duty of care on people to meet the welfare needs of their animals, including the need to be protected from pain and suffering’ – a law which has to be followed by trainers and jockeys alike.
“Welfare issues such as the whip debate continues to haunt racing,” admits Hoiles who was ITV’s lead commentator for the 2017 Grand National.
“The whip in layman’s terms is an instrument that inflicts pain. However, in horse racing, the action of the whip acts as a trigger so that the horse knows it is time to go through with his effort.”
Hoiles continued: “It is also extremely unfortunate that when horses break their legs they often get put down.
“This is due to their bone structure and the fact they can’t be suspended upright without putting weight on for any considerable length of time, except for very clean fractures where they can be set right.
“But there’s a lot of care that goes into that, we’re not slapdash about welfare, we do care and we don’t race horses for them to get hurt and everyone to shrug their shoulders and move on, everyone cares very much.
“But it’s those welfare issues, the care and treatment provided before, during and after that racing needs to go on the front foot with to convince people that it is a sport worth following.”