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Grand National deaths: PR professional Matt Taylor on how racing’s PR professionals have reacted

I invited a few regular tweeters to offer their thoughts on the Grand National debate. First up is PR professional Matt Taylor.

I think there are a couple of very separate issues at play in the great Grand National debate. Firstly, the cause of the fatalities themselves and what can be done to address this and, secondly, the way the fatalities have been presented.

On the first issue there are people far more qualified than I to suggest causes and changes. I am a fan of the sport and love the Grand National but, without having worked in the industry, I will defer to people more knowledgeable than I on that count. Where I do feel more qualified to judge is on the presentational issue. I work in PR for a major charity and feel that the BHA’s response to the tragic events have been poor, and has failed to address some of the criticisms levelled at the race..

When a news story is likely to break, preparation is key and the BHA did not seem prepared to me. As the coverage unfolded in the newspapers and on the radio throughout Sunday and Monday, the BHA’s voice was sadly missing. This is inexcusable for a media story that is foreseeable, as the fatalities sadly were. The BHA should have had a response prepared fully explaining the nature of changes made to the course, a discussion of the benefits to racehorses of being able to race, a promise to look at what went wrong, listen to concerns etc. I saw no evidence of this preparation in the coverage of the event, throughout Sunday and Monday, with responses left to the MD of Aintree racecourse, Andy Stewart, Ginger McCain, Brough Scott and John Francome in the Mirror, Sky and BBC Radio 5 Live to name just three pieces. Where was a representative of the BHA in any of these 3 key articles? The League Against Cruel Sports and, particularly, Animal Aid, were well prepared and represented in the media, arguing their case expertly whether you agree with it or not. Why were the BHA not similarly well prepared?

On Monday afternoon, just two hours after the Radio 5 piece, the BHA’s website top story was, laughably, about the revised stalls numbering and starting initiatives. For a body whose responsibility is to “ensure the continued health and successful development of the sport” it shows a staggering ignorance of the way the general public perceive horse racing to not address the issue on its website and will certainly not help to develop new audiences for it.

The story will, of course, blow over and be forgotten about come Wednesday. It does not need to be stoked up again now by the BHA suddenly springing into action – they had their chance and missed it. The News of the World (and sister paper the Sun) and the Daily Mail, both of whom have been critical of the race, will undoubtedly cover the race next year, probably giving away free bets through a lucrative sponsorship deal with a high street bookie. The cycle will repeat itself because the GN and any post-race scandal makes for good copy, sells papers and promotes comments on website stories. Next year, the BHA needs to ensure it is a part of this cycle so it can promote the sport and defend it as needs be.

On a further presentational note, the BBC’s coverage of the fatalities – notably the overhead shot of Dooney’s Gate – was, at times, insensitive. The reason screens go up is to avoid people seeing stricken horses and it shouldn’t be the case that the screens can be rendered redundant. This is a discussion that needs to be had with the BBC. A discussion that should be run by the BHA – if they can first sort out the critical issue of stalls numbering.

BHA: Blocked Hearing Announcements please

Thoroughbreds are nervous creatures. Many are calm around the familiarity of the yard but start fretting as soon as the horsebox ramp is lowered.  At the centre of attention in the parade ring, PA announcements ringing out, music sometimes blaring from ‘on-course entertainers’,  highly strung horses can get into a lather, physically and mentally.

You need only stand by the paddock rail to see ears flicking, eyes rolling and jittery movements (and, as the old one goes, the horses are just as bad).

At the 2011 Cheltenham festival, some trainers fitted earplugs to their horses in the hope that ‘hearing no evil’ might help them remain calm and conserve energy.  Prior to the use of earplugs, there is no telling how many anxious horses left their chances (and punter’s money) behind the stands.

The use of earplugs need not formally be declared by trainers so I don’t know how many festival losers wore them.  But two winners did: Champion Hurdler Hurricane Fly and Gold Cup winner Long Run.  Both horses were well supported in the market.

Racing Enterprises Ltd CEO, Rod Street’s recent blog entry contained these words:

“On the subject of betting, whilst we’ll wait for the detailed review of our recent survey, I do sense that racing does not maximise what should be a symbiotic relationship with existing punters who have telling and knowledgeable contributions to make. Again, social media provides the platform for feedback from punters who often feel at the wrong end of the queue when it comes to representation in the industry and regularly cite a lack of transparency over the industry’s workings. This is a challenge racing must meet. We need to find a means through which those punters know that their constructive viewpoints can make a difference”

Rod has the toughest job in racing, in my opinion, but he is steering the industry in the right direction; public airing of his views on testy subjects like the importance of off-course punter are refreshing. I doubt he would have put those words down without thorough consideration.

So it’s time the words were backed up with action.  £20,000 is needed to fund database changes so that punters can be informed when a horse is fitted with earplugs. The fact that the information should be out there seems not to be in dispute. The problem is the admin costs in making appropriate changes to the database – put at £20,000.

Austerity is in vogue but trying to make a virtue of it for such a paltry sum in a £billion industry is plain daft.

Racing wants more from ‘the betting industry’: the betting industry is funded by the punter. He is paying the piper and is entitled to call the tune, even if an animal he bets on might be unable to hear it.

When the going gets good, do the good get the going?

Cheltenham’s clerk of the course, Simon Claisse has very shaky form with his going descriptions for day one of the festival meeting. Good to soft has been his verdict in four of the past five years (soft in 2008).

Timeform, using race times as well as other information, has disagreed with that description  four times in the same period. Simon Rowlands’, (head of research and handicapping at Timeform), article on this is here.

Many readers know that the going is the key factor for most form students. Millions will be bet on Cheltenham runners over the next four days but until we hear the verdict of the jockeys after the first race each day, no one who is serious about their betting can back a horse with any real confidence.

Accuracy advocates put plenty work into trying to get things changed.

A thread on the Betfair forum, faithfully noted official going descriptions and compared them with time-based ones, publishing the results, for two full seasons.  One of the architects of that thread voted in my blog poll and left the following comment:

“His (Simon Claisse) stick readings defy belief , He has Champion Hurdle day (2010)  as softer than when Grand Crus won the Cleeve!!!!! But until you dig around and find out when a lot of the readings were taken(up to FIVE days old!!) then you are not going to get a lot of sense out of them

Take them 2 hours before the first and an hour after the last if you want them to have ANY meaning”

So, who cares? It’s Cheltenham, the NH season’s X Factor now, with almost all other big races being treated as an extended equine ‘boot camp’ for contenders. Maybe many people don’t care. The ‘holiday’ atmosphere of the festival, tempts them to abandon discipline for the duration and treat their bank as spending money.

A week ago I opened a poll on this blog based on the question Do you agree with festival policy on producing easy ground for day one? I placed a link on my home page, inviting votes. The home page has over 2,000 views yet only 198 people chose to click through to the poll.  Of those 198, just 70 voted.  The top ‘answer’ with just over 31% was “I don’t mind, so long as the going description is accurate”

Only 10% opted for ‘Yes, it’s the best strategy for welfare and safety‘ (You can see all results by clicking here then clicking ‘View results’ on the bottom left of the panel)

I’m no pollster. I intended to be objective in compiling and wording the options though perhaps I missed in that aim thus discouraging people from voting. The result was as I expected – most of those experienced in betting on horseracing, don’t care what the going is so long as it is accurately described.

How much will be bet on the Supreme tomorrow and what percentage of that on Cue Card? He’s seen as a banker by many yet, based on Timeform’s going descriptions, his only hurdles defeat has come on good ground.

Just 70 voters would cut little ice with statisticians, I suspect, the sample size being considered too low.  But isn’t it time Racing for Change started looking seriously at this subject?  Much of RFC’s focus seems to be on attracting newcomers, yet every marketer will tell you that it is much cheaper to retain current customers than to recruit new ones.

Racing’s dilemma here: the more that people learn about horseracing, the less attractive it will seem as a betting medium compared with sports where full and accurate information is available.  A description of the going, which punters can trust, at every track, is essential to the long-term financial health of the sport.  It might not be an easy objective to achieve, but we must find a solution.

For a start, when racecourse execs sit down to compile their list of “stakeholders”, they ought to add, close to the top, “off-course punter”

35% of voters say Cheltenham’s “easy ground” policy is discriminatory. Do you agree?

Cheltenham’s declared policy of starting the Festival on ground no faster than good to soft has long been a matter of debate.  The poll on this blog offers several options in answer to the question: “Do you agree with Festival policy on producing easy ground on day one?”

At the time of writing 34.78% believe that the policy penalises horses who prefer faster ground – a self-evident conclusion perhaps, but it drew five times the number of votes than  those concerned about welfare and safety.

You can see the breakdown of percentages on the other answers, and add your own vote here.

All votes are, of course, anonymous.

You can see the current voting pattern by clicking View Results, below the Vote button.

It is a small sample at this stage, but I hope more people will add their opinion as the week progresses so that we have a robust set of figures to send to the Cheltenham management team.