Kevin Blake

With horse racing the only live sport taking place behind closed doors in Britain at the moment, leading racing writer Kevin Blake sees this as a great opportunity for the sport to grow.

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The wait is finally over. It has been a long 10 weeks without any horse racing in Britain and Ireland and it has forced many racing professionals and supporters to sit back and reflect on what they do and why they do it.  

For some, perhaps they won’t have missed it as much as they expected and the absence will have revealed that maybe it isn’t for them as much as they had previously thought.  

For many more though, one suspects that the enforced break will have made them realise just how much they love the sport and will have them bursting with reinvigorated enthusiasm for the return of it.  

All of that enthusiasm will be required for what might well prove to be the greatest opportunity for horse racing to grow its audience in a generation. The Covid-19 crisis has and will continue to have a catastrophic effect on many aspects of horse racing, but it has resulted in a situation whereby it will be one of the very few live sports taking place for the next few weeks.  

Terrestrial television has responded to this by giving horse racing an unprecedented volume of primetime coverage both on ITV in Britain and RTE in Ireland. With plenty of live action also on Sky Sports Racing, now is our time to shine.  

The importance of terrestrial coverage of horse racing as a recruitment tool for new followers in normal circumstances cannot be overstated, but the value of it in the coming weeks is going to be absolutely off the scale. We as a sport must respond to and capitalise on an opportunity that is highly unlikely to come knocking again. 

While being the only show in town is certainly a huge help in getting eyes on our sport, it isn’t going to be enough to get the result we as a sport want. We have to captivate, intrigue and educate those new viewers. Thus, it is hugely important that our racing media is fully aware that we will be preaching to a much broader church for the next few weeks.  

I am not suggesting that we dumb down our sport, but we must seek to make its wonderful complexities and quirks as accessible as possible to as many viewers as possible.  

The ITV Racing approach of seeking to explain the complexities of the sport rather than assuming the viewer is familiar with them hasn’t always gone down with the more informed members of their viewership. However, for the next few weeks more than ever, everyone in our sport needs to buy into the importance of preaching to the many rather than the few in the interests of the greater good of the sport.  

It will be a challenge for broadcasters to achieve this and indeed to convey the excitement of our sport given that the majority of broadcasters will be obliged to be based off-track due to Covid-19 protocols, but it can be done.  

While the scope for interviewing the participants will be reduced and different to what we are used to, it is so important that those trainers and jockeys that are interviewed are conscious of the wider audience they are speaking to and how big an opportunity this is for horse racing.  

There is absolutely no question that personalities can sell sport and racing is full of wonderful characters, but so many of them switch it off as soon as they are on camera. Now more than ever is the time for them to show their personalities and sell their passion for our sport to the audience.  

Not only do we have to be conscious of the broader church we are preaching to, we also need to be acutely aware that many people looking in won’t be fully aware or comfortable with racing resuming whilst other sports are left in the starting blocks. As has been seen throughout this crisis, horse racing is an appealing punch bag for many when it comes to mainstream criticism.  

Our broadcasters and journalists need to be ready to get in front of any criticisms with assertive explanations for why our sport is resuming when others are not. Horse racing has nothing to hide in this regard and shouldn’t be shy in demonstrating this to any uninformed sections of the public.  

Horse racing will have the stage to itself in the coming weeks. Now it’s up to everyone in the sport to do their best to captivate the audience and have them coming back for more.

Kevin Blake
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