Jo McKinnon Column

The new norm a challenge for race clubs

If there’s one thing the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us, it’s the importance of resilience and finding a way forward despite all the challenges and restrictions the virus has placed on our personal and professional lives for nearly two years.

Remarkably, the Australian thoroughbred racing show has been able to go on and keep thousands of people employed and entertained and, importantly, its continuation has enabled all the thoroughbreds that are bred each year a chance to live out their purpose.

Other racing jurisdictions haven’t been so fortunate. In New Zealand and in some parts of Europe, including the UK, it’s been a stop-start affair due to government protocols.

However, Australian racing has boomed through these dark times with record amounts of money being splashed around at yearling auctions and online sales figures going through the roof.

Buyer confidence in Australian bloodstock has never been stronger and this is unquestionably influenced by the extraordinary amounts of prize-money on offer.

Right now, we are in the midst of the spring carnival with millions of dollars up for grabs as horses, riders, trainers and owners race for a place in history.

With not much else to do in lockdown, we have the luxury of being able to sit in the comfort of our homes with our loved ones, or even the cat or dog, and watch all the action unfold for free on our televisions.

Last week racing fans and participants were buoyed by the announcement that the Channel 7 network will broadcast Sydney and Melbourne meetings on its free to air channels each and every Saturday until 2027.

How good is this!

They do such a top job producing the coverage that you wouldn’t even know the sport is currently being played out in front of empty grandstands.

Never before has there been a more balanced and enthralling presentation of commentary, insights and back stories encapsulating the love of the horse. 

This is a racing promoter’s dream and its positive impact will be felt for years to come.

These broadcasts actively hook new viewers and it’s these people that will turn into devoted fans and ultimately owners and investors.

With public perception, particularly from the younger generations, on the slide in recent years, the deal brokered between the industry and the Channel 7 network is just the lifeline racing needed especially in the age of the stay-at-home punter.

This month two of Australia’s biggest and most important race meetings, the Cox Plate and the Caulfield Cup Carnival, will be conducted without crowds for the second year in succession. 

Bill and Mary will have to leave their racing finery packed away in mothballs, for another year, and meantime administrators are left with the dilemma of trying to keep them engaged with the whole on-course experience. 

Having worked for a number of years in PR and marketing for the Moonee Valley Racing Club (MVRC) I know only too well the importance of major days for a club’s bottom line. 

Crowds coming through the gates and hospitality sales are, amongst other things such as wagering turnover, sponsorship and broadcast rights fees, absolutely essential indicators of a club’s annual financial performance.

Along with millions of Melburnians, Michael Browell, the CEO of the MVRC, entered his 250th day in lockdown last Friday.

Personally, he described the experience as “diabolical” but he has had to maintain strong resolve to negotiate his way through this to the other side.

“It’s a bit like Stockholm Syndrome and you get into a routine,” said Browell.

As a club leader he’s been faced with enormous challenges and is thankful that Racing Victoria has thrown funding their way to keep them afloat.

“We have been very fortunate that Racing Victoria came to the party by providing Covid grants. Without that governing body support the clubs would have been in significant distress.

“The biggest challenge is you can’t plan too far in advance. You have to keep it low-key and don’t go to great trouble investing in what a traditional race day would look like.

“Now we can just focus our energies delivering the event spectator free and coming up with a range of activities to engage an audience off course.”

The three major clubs in Melbourne, along with the Australian Turf Club (ATC), have all come up with clever home focused campaigns to engage their members and the public through their social media platforms.

They have also showcased their culinary offerings by packaging up food you might usually enjoy during a day at the races in specially home delivered boxes.

“There’s no real margin in it, we are doing it to keep engagement and our kitchens ticking over.”

There is some light at the end of the tunnel with restrictions potentially set to ease in Melbourne sometime next month.

“Our focus is now on when the calendar clicks over to 2022 and lockdowns are a thing of the past and we can get on with business.”

Crowds will be welcomed back to the Sydney races a bit sooner than that with organisers of The Everest meeting at Randwick on October 16 given the green light to usher 5,000 patrons through their turnstiles.

What will be interesting once the racetrack gates are thrown wide open again, is how many people will actually return to the track? Have we become too comfortable in our new stay at home existence?

This mentality is something Browell is well aware of and planning for.

“The great challenge clubs now face is enticing people back to the track. They are accustomed to staying at home watching racing on the multiple platforms you can tune into. 

“Wagering is as strong as ever and there’s never been more people engaged but it’s a club specific challenge getting people back to the track.

“The clubs are up for the challenge to put on a great show and the way we deliver the race experience. We will all have to get very creative,” he said.

 The new norm certainly poses race clubs with a prime opportunity to reinvent how the sport is delivered and showcased and this is a good thing.