By Kevin Blake
In life, sometimes our most valuable commodities are right in front of our noses, but remain underappreciated and underutilised such is our familiarity with them.
Horse racing can often seem like a sport that is quite insecure about its own value. Many of the marketing and promotional methods used by racing authorities around the world focus on attracting new fans to the sport using non-racing-related events and gimmicks such as post-race concerts, best-dressed lady competitions and student racedays, the hope being that those that attend for those sideshows will enjoy the horse racing experience and return under their own steam in the future.
Of course, such methods have some merit and have certainly helped improve attendances on racecourses, but one wonders is horse racing failing to appreciate the value and merits of what our industry has to offer in attracting a mainstream audience?
Horse racing as a sport is a visual feast. Away from the racecourse, the breeding sector is another vast source of visual and emotional stimulation, with the sight of young foals and yearlings playing in the fields being something that appeals to most people regardless of their level of knowledge of horses. This is before one delves into the people that work with the horses at all stages from foaling to the racecourse, with the horsemanship and expertise possessed by those that work in harmony with such powerful and flighty creatures being awe-inspiring to those that couldn't imagine handling them. All of this is wrapped in a sporting history that trumps that of any other sport for length and depth, with Thoroughbred horses having been raced and trained on the same patches of turf and stabled in the same yards for hundreds of years.
For the vast majority, the only opportunity of a glimpse into this incredible world is by viewing the finished product on the racecourse.
Some avenues that allow such access have already been explored in Europe. In Ireland, the Stallion Trail and the Thoroughbred Trail have been created in recent years to give enthusiasts a once-a-year opportunity to get behind the scenes of stud farms, training yards and other equine facilities in a series of organised and guided tours that have proven to be a great success. The French racing authorities have introduced a similar once-a-year event called La Route Des Etalons in which stud farms open their doors to showcase their stallions. In Great Britain, training centres such as Newmarket, Lambourn and Middleham hold once-a-year open days in which trainers open their doors to the public and Discover Newmarket which runs a wide variety of tours to various racing-related attractions in the town and has been well received in the short time it has operated.
For all the positivity of these events, they are in the main focused on attracting existing supporters and professionals within the horse racing industry. One can't help but wonder if they are missing a trick in not expanding their focus to showcasing the behind-the-scenes beauty and intricacies of the sport to the mainstream public and tourists.
The potential for horse racing to tap into the substantial tourism sector in this part of the world is perhaps best illustrated by the Irish National Stud. Featuring an abundance of attractions such as stallions, mares and foals, a horse racing museum and a number of retired superstar horses, in recent years it has become a major tourist attraction in Ireland, appearing in the top 50 fee-charging attractions in the entire country in 2015 with just over 120,000 visitors. It acts as a wonderful showcase not just for the Irish National Stud, but for the horse racing industry as a whole.
What the success of the Irish National Stud as a tourist attraction should tell us is that there is serious potential for horse racing to showcase what it has to offer to a wider audience. The model for how all of this potential can be exploited can be found in Lexington, Kentucky in the shape of Horse Country Tours. Much in the style of the Thoroughbred Trails in Ireland, they offer customers a chance to take a guided tour around various stud farms, training facilities and other racing-related venues, except they offer it on a year-round basis. The success of this organisation was covered on these pages in recent weeks (click here) and it should be held up as an example of what could be achieved in Great Britain and Ireland if similar regular tours were set up and appropriately promoted.
One can't help but feel that such tours would have particularly significant potential in Ireland. Over seven million tourists flock to Ireland every year in search of picturesque countryside, history, culture and a friendly welcome. Horse racing ticks all of these boxes and Irish horse racing has genuine claims of being a world leader in the sport. If it is packaged the right way and had the widespread cooperation of the racing industry, a year-round version of the Thoroughbred Trails would have great potential to be a major tourism success story, which would be of great benefit to the horse racing industry and the professionals within it.