Tony Keenan: Making Racing Better in 2018

When I interviewed Ian Marmion last month, he put forward the view that racing may not have a betting product to sell punters from Monday to Friday, writes Tony Keenan. In Ireland, racing doesn’t even try to offer this at least at this point of the year when the best meetings are concentrated towards the weekend with moderate fare midweek and an all-weather card on Friday. Still, it’s disappointing for the sport as Marmion is as pro-racing as you’ll get in the bookmaking business but perhaps we have to deal with the new reality that racing is now a Festival and big day sport with day-to-day stuff being ever more marginalised.

Certainly that seems to be the idea around the inaugural Dublin Racing Festival next month but the sport’s popularity does abide as you can see from attendances at the recent Christmas meeting at Leopardstown; the challenge is getting those people following and betting on the sport in the weeks between Christmas and the next big event. The Irish racing authorities have not shown much initiative in that regard with entitlement often their default mode; that sense of ‘what are you doing for me?’ could fill an article in itself but suffice it to say that their central political objective at the moment is increasing betting tax (to be paid for by the punter, the people who you want to bet on your sport) at a time when only between 12-15% of Irish betting turnover is bet on Irish racing.

It is easy to get defeatist about all this but perhaps it is better to look for ways in which the sport could improve interest levels and in turn betting volume. In my mind, there are two standout changes that need to be made in the short-term: improving the quality of in-race viewing for TV viewers and the provision of sectional times at all tracks. The former is one for the masses, the latter more for the hard-core.

Both of these things will take money – what doesn’t? – but prizemoney is due to rise again in 2018, by €2.2 million, and one wonders if those funds might be better spent elsewhere; this is not to say that prizemoney is unimportant, on the contrary it is a tool to improve and maintain integrity, but one sometimes wonders if it is the only issue that HRI thinks matters.

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Picture the scene: you’re at Leopardstown for one of their summer Thursday meetings, the evening sun is setting and there are a bunch of two-year-old fillies going to the start for a maiden. Among them are jockeys in Magnier navy, Godolphin blue and Abdullah green, pink and white, trained by O’Brien, Bolger and Weld, and there may be a 1,000 Guineas winner in amongst them. For those on the track, this is a rich visual experience with even a touch of romance to it but the problem is it doesn’t look like that at home on TV.

Instead, you have to watch the action in standard definition which will never capture the essence of the race. Sports coverage now – and I’m talking purely in terms of picture quality – needs to be of a certain standard and racing doesn’t meet it; viewers coming from other sports expect higher definition and they aren’t getting it. There was a time when we were delighted just to be able to watch every race on what is basically a free-to-air channel in AtTheRaces but there has been enough back-slapping about this and it is time to progress the raw visuals of the sport. This will cost money, likely quite a bit of money, but it would be well-spent and it should be a priority for AtTheRaces, HRI, SIS and the various tracks to work on this.

Another area of the Irish racing televisual experience that could be improved are the camera angles. My wife jokes that I spend an awful lot of time looking at horses’ arses but little does she know that is literally true when watching coverage from most Irish tracks!

It would be bad enough if we had to put up with bad angles at provincial tracks like Tramore and Sligo alone but it is also the case when watching action from premier jumps courses like Leopardstown, Punchestown and Fairyhouse. You simply cannot gauge what is happening in the race properly when they go past the stands at Leopardstown with the way the angles are currently set up.

I admit to a complete bias towards all things time-related in racing as sectionals and time-figures are my thing, at least at the moment, as I think they provide an edge. I’m less interested in information on wind operations and horse weights but as a punter you should never be against more data. Racing is a sport that is simply made for new data points with so many novel areas that are yet to be explored. To paraphrase a commenter on a recent article on this site (Scott Ferguson), more data would lead to more systems and analysis techniques which should lead to a broader spread of bets and risk being diversified.

It was disappointing to see the reaction of a number of racing people to the decision that wind operations should be declared as their responses seemed to be self-serving, perhaps wanting the information for themselves, perhaps not wanting their star stallion prospect to be tarnished by having to declare a wind problem, perhaps simply not wanting the hassle of having to do more administration. Then there were those who argued that punters wanted the silver bullet of a wind operation declaration to solve all their betting woes, as if bettors are simply looking for a letter that points to a winner; the reality is that all information points are only part of the puzzle with the challenge becoming one of analysis more than anything.

To return to the main point, it is important to remember that sectional times were promised at all Irish tracks from January 2017 onwards and over a year on we have barely heard a thing about them. HRI could argue that there has been no clamour for them but people are not known to argue for something they don’t understand and it is only by instituting them that the understanding will come. Furthermore, this would not be a laborious process and does not necessarily need extensive GPS technology. Timeform do them manually (albeit not furlong-by-furlong) and while that may bring in some human error, staffers can get up to speed quite quickly, doing a full meeting in less than an hour, and the Irish racing calendar is hardly an arduous one. That might be a job for an intern or a new entrant at HRI though it could shine some unwanted light on rail movements that seem to appear without any details of how they affect race distances.

Anyway, those are my two, not unrealistic, hopes for Irish racing in 2018; what about yours? Leave a comment below with your own thoughts.

Tony Keenan                                                  Follow Tony on twitter at @racingtrends

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