A splendid paper under maximum pressure

April 17th, 2020 | Ian Carnaby's Racing News

Under normal circumstances, lists of horses to follow for the 2020 Flat season would be well underway by now. Sadly, there is no telling where or when racing will start up again, or whether it will be staged behind closed doors.

I must say I can’t quite imagine Royal Ascot going ahead like that  –  we already know it won’t be taking place in front of a live audience  –  but maybe the betting offices will be open by then and the television cameras will be allowed on course. There will be very little recent form to go on but the horses will be fit enough to do themselves justice. Jim Old told me the other day that around a dozen of Nigel Twiston-Davies’ better-ground jumpers were being kept on the go in the hope of some action in May or June; Jim was up on the gallops with them and pointed out that he could supervise alone, with the horses cantering or galloping some way off. I appreciate that we’re talking about a jumping yard with no Royal Ascot involvement but the wide open spaces at Newmarket, especially, and Lambourn will make something similar perfectly possible.

I wonder if the Racing Post will be able to pick up where it left off? The print version has been suspended and some will assume that the permanent switch to on-line information has merely been brought forward by a few months or maybe a year. I’m not so sure about the timing, although the Post had made significant cut-backs well before the coronavirus struck. Several front-line staff had taken early retirement and the Sunday edition no longer looked the same without the separate pull-out section.

The fact that my column disappeared has no bearing on this piece. I often wrote articles that dealt with times gone by and I accept that the readership was probably confined to the over-sixties age group. It was an easy enough decision for the Post and I’m more than grateful for the years I spent rambling on about Piggott, Breasley, lost nights in Soho and London greyhound tracks disappearing one after the other.

Anyway, there is no angst here and I still hope to produce a collection of columns in time for Christmas this year. But I do fear for the paper itself, which has always been highly informative and entertaining. It needed to be, of course, with the retail price soaring well beyond what serious readers pay for titles such as the Times, the Telegraph and the Guardian.

I thought some of the regular items could be dropped; for example, ringing around the stables with a fancied runner in the day’s big handicap is largely pointless, since all trainers have to put an optimistic glow on things in the knowledge that the owner may well be reading their comments. That whole section became depressingly predictable. And over the past few years the Post, perhaps inevitably, has reflected the strong bias towards televised weekend action at the expense of the Monday to Thursday fare. Thus the build-up starts as early as Tuesday and there is very little to add by the time Saturday dawns.

No sport is covered in greater depth by a trade paper than racing and for that the Racing Post must take enormous credit. But how many ‘serious’ readers are there now? How many people want to know about the politics and/or the actions of the great and the good, compared with the number simply wanting their card marked? How many younger people are prepared to sit down and read 800 words of text on just about anything? How many youthful football supporters, even those with perceptive comments on their team, would think of paying for a matchday programme, even though it deals with the very players whose names they chant? Very, very few.

As for the print version of the full Racing Post in betting shops, which some managers kindly supply and leave on the table, I have hardly ever seen a punter reading one of the more interesting and entertaining articles in the inside pages. People want winners. Winners matter more than anything else and when I read articles bemoaning the fact that the betting side of things has taken over, I shake my head sadly. The racing public is not made up of Brough Scotts and Lord Oakseys. Racing is betting, and if you have any doubt about that, ask yourself how many people you know who would cross the road to watch a horserace if they couldn’t bet on it. (As for paying to get in, well…..)

Want to know how good the struggling Racing Post is? Well, going back to my days in the wine trade, when I was trundling around the country, carrying out every test market on the nascent Baileys Irish Cream known to man, the trade bible was the Morning Advertiser. If that organ had wanted, or been able to afford, in-depth articles such as the RP publishes every day, it would have had me going to see the celebrated novelist Kingsley Amis and asking him about some of his favourite alcoholic concoctions and did he have a hangover cure, by the way? (There isn’t one, incidentally, and you can take that from me. (Please note: I didn’t say you couldn’t delay it; I said there was no cure.)

In the end, the Post is bound to lose for the simple reason that it will run out of proper readers, many of whom will have dropped off the perch. At that point it may still produce a betting office version with just the runners and riders and a few form pointers. All of the more interesting material will be on-line.

I’d much prefer to be wrong and the form-book is more than encouraging in that respect. But you can’t go on charging a diminishing number of older loyalists more and more for a specialist trade paper and expect to balance the books. Never send to know for whom the bell tolls.