With Frankel’s final hurrah seemingly only hours away, his retirement will leave a big hole in the racing fraternity.
Sir Henry Cecil’s colt has captured the public imagination like no horse since Desert Orchid, transcending the barriers of the racing world to graduate to the wider consciousness.
Without doubt, horses like Frankel generate extra interest in the sport, as evidenced by the sell-out crowd expected at Ascot tomorrow.
Simon Bazalgette, chief executive of Jockey Club Racecourses, which runs major tracks including Aintree, Cheltenham and Newmarket, admits racing must look at all avenues to build on the momentum the likes of Frankel and Kauto Star have created.
And he hopes the new television deal that will see all terrestrial racing come under the Channel 4 banner in 2013 can play its part in the process.
Reflecting on the year, Bazalgette said: “Frankel has been fantastic for British racing.
“He has given racing fans performances to get really excited about and helped our sport head news bulletins and go beyond the racing pages. Once retired his legend and positive impact can continue for years to come, particularly if his progeny turn out to be stars.
“Let’s also remember though that our sport creates new champions every year in both disciplines. Only just before Frankel we were talking about the incredible Sea The Stars and every year we can get excited about whether the three-year-olds have what it takes to take on the more experienced performers, starting with the likes of the unbeaten Dawn Approach and Reckless Abandon in 2013.
“There is no question that promoting star racehorses and building up the profile of jockeys and trainers can help to capture the public’s imagination. The four QIPCO British Champions Series races that featured Frankel this year have enjoyed average crowd increases of 20.1%, so it shows the difference a star horse can make. But you have to offer something for everyone and we know that many of our customers come for a great day out with friends, such as to our racing plus music nights, or with family, given U18s go free at Jockey Club Racecourses.
“Our customer surveys show that our customers generally have a fantastic time. Is there more we can do to help newcomers to understand and enjoy racing as a sport? Absolutely. Racecourses and Racing for Change have been working on this in recent years and we’ve seen more customer-friendly experience as a result. There’s also a huge amount we can do with Channel 4 as part of our new deal even outside the core broadcast to raise the profile of our horses and characters, and build up understanding about racing. Of course it’s a little easier in the jumps season when generally we are fortunate our equine stars race for more years.”
Despite the buzz about Frankel and his unbeaten fairytale, racing has endured a tough summer with a raft of abandonments due to the wet spell of weather and the added distractions of the Olympics amongst other events.
Bazalgette said: “Attendances in 2011 reached record levels.
“We always have a responsibility to offer an enjoyable and safe environment to our customers and the feedback we received from them is that the vast majority really enjoyed their raceday experience at Jockey Club Racecourses.
“That is evidenced by crowds at all our major festivals going up this year, including a record 236,700 at the Cheltenham Festival, record 154,000 at the John Smith’s Grand National meeting and more than 130,000 on Investec Derby Day alone, making it the largest sports crowd in Britain in 2012.
“Very bad weather in July caused a large number of abandonments and affected the walk-up crowds of the meetings that went ahead. Unfortunately that means 2012 will not match the heady heights of last year for total attendance, but to demonstrate our sport’s appeal continues to grow, the average attendance at our courses is up by 2% even in spite of the weather issues, continuing economic downturn and in the face stiff competition from the Olympics, Euro 2012 and other sports and leisure events.
“For us, the future is about focusing on the customer and considering everything through their eyes.
“We support quality through our record prize-money contributions, have spent more than £150m on facilities in the last few years to enhance customers’ experience, and continue to invest in innovations from British Champions Series to our Rewards4Racing loyalty programme.
“We know to appeal to the widest audience we must continue to offer a diverse range of events for all types of people, from top quality festivals to music nights and family days, and work with our broadcast, commercial and technology partners to reach out to people in the ways they prefer and give them a reason to care about racing.”
Kieren Fallon recently hit out at the “boring” midweek action in the British calendar but Bazalgette believes it is important to build the profile of the sport through events like Champions Day.
“Offering fans high quality racing at weekends when we can attract the biggest audience to watch on TV and attend is important for the sustainability of our sport. The point here is more about demand for different racedays for different customers, whether they are on course, watching on TV, online or mobile or in the betting shop,” he said.
“It’s proven the world over you can have both quality and quantity in a given sport, providing there is the right level of demand.
“Look at all the different tiers of a sport like football. You go from the UEFA Champions League to the Premier League then through several professional levels, to semi-professional to Sunday leagues to school playgrounds and jumpers for goalposts!
“The point is about branding the different levels, just like the world-class Flat races that make up QIPCO British Champions Series and Jumps fixtures on the ’road to’ Cheltenham and Aintree.
“Working with all racing’s stakeholders and customers, including the stars and the media, there’s plenty more we can do in this regard that helps to build the overall sport.”