Racing, Speaker's Corner,

Turfed Out

First, may I declare an interest: in 2020 the perceived wisdom within the racing bubble that the BBC had all but fallen out of love with the sport became stark reality for me when I was given my marching orders by the corporation – news delivered by a Mr Gallop, ironically – after just short of 30 years reporting and writing on its radio and online platforms.

It was a massive change for me; apparently I told a newspaper that to be “let go” after so long was like “having my insides torn out”, which I don’t actually remember saying but exactly described how I did feel.

Hopefully one or two listeners and readers missed me, and there was certainly a flattering number of sympathetic noises from every corner on the racecourse, though they perhaps varied in sincerity.

But was it all a surprise? Not really. The reasons given by way of explanation for my departure were of the cost-cutting variety, and it is probably fair to say that the value I was providing was down – not, I might say, through lack of enthusiasm from this quarter, but because of a dearth of eagerness from some BBC editors for news or for what might be called ‘good’ stories ahead of a stellar race or a festival fixture.

More negative headlines around horse welfare or corruption allegations or failed drugs tests were not necessarily guaranteed any airtime either.

Elsewhere in the mainstream media, The Times had already become a non-runner in terms of a racing correspondent, while since my exit it has become more and more apparent how fewer and fewer column inches, or their modern-day equivalent, are dedicated to what is the second biggest spectator sport in Britain, even in what would once have been considered hardcore supportive areas of the media.

So why, when racing has enough about it to sustain a portfolio including a daily trade newspaper, weekly terrestrial TV coverage plus two specialist channels, aren’t newspapers/websites providing the type of priceless editorial that helped to get me and so many others hooked?

It’s because racing’s position in society is sadly nowhere near where it used to be, and I’m not just talking about centuries ago when you were not considered any sort of mover or a shaker unless your silks were seen regularly being worn by a jockey riding your horse against the equally magnificent steed of one of your peers, with a generous purse and even larger side bets riding on it.

Fewer and fewer column inches are dedicated to what is the second biggest spectator sport in Britain.

Of course that sort of thing is the stuff of history lessons, but, well within living memory, Aintree hero Red Rum and Desert Orchid, the extravagant grey, were literally household names as ‘Rummy’ and ‘Dessie’ – the latter famously found to be better known than the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, in a poll during the early 1990s – but, with great respect to Frankel or Kauto Star or Tiger Roll, it is pretty much impossible to imagine anything like in the 21st century.

Even during the tributes following the passing of Her late Majesty Queen Elizabeth, I’m not at all sure that her positively infectious passion for every aspect of horseracing received quite the attention it deserved, and although I am no connoisseur of The Crown, I gather that racing hardly gets a look-in there.

Quite possibly the sport did punch above its weight and has now discovered that its true place is an uncomfortably lower one than it would have liked, but that should not stop the efforts of its leaders to raise that position again or at least contain its slide.

Amid all the debate about funding, field sizes and the race programme, it is not difficult to wonder if anyone has actually recognised a situation that has become increasingly critical – or indeed whether anyone cares.

Any other major historic brand would be making a song and dance about ordering research and analysis to be carried out and strategies to be formed. There is no obvious evidence of this taking place, but maybe the well-qualified new head of communications at the British Horseracing Authority is the one to act. Because the fact is that racing’s powers-that-be can argue all they like about this, that or the other, but without engaged fans let’s be frank: the future looks depressingly bleak.

Cornelius Lysaght is a racing writer and broadcaster with more than 30 years’ experience and a Fitzdares ambassador.

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