By Lucas Marquardt
It’s an idea that’s as exciting as it is outlandish. What if, for just a day or two, you could turn a few city blocks into racetrack? What if you could literally bring racing to the masses and send a cascade of sprinting Thoroughbreds down the Champs-Élysées in Paris, or Fifth Avenue in Manhattan?
If you are Peter Phillips, these are more than just late-night, spirit-fueled hypotheticals. Phillips, first son of Queen Elizabeth II’s daughter Anne and eldest grandson of the British monarch, has been working over these questions for some time now. And within the next year, his dreams might become our reality.
Through a partnership that includes his company, Sports Entertainment Ltd. (SEL UK), Phillips is set to launch City Racing, which will organize a day’s racing on some of the most iconic streets in the world. Or at least that’s the plan. City Racing will feature a five-furlong, synthetic straight course laid down over existing avenues. The racing will operate under the rules of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) and, it’s expected, will be sanctioned wagering events. The rest will be part block party, part afternoon at the track.
City Racing will most often be held near existing tracks. That provides a pool of local horses to draw from, and, more importantly in the eyes of Phillips, opportunities of cross-marketing with those tracks.
If all this sounds like an impossible task, Phillips, 40, has already made a name for himself as a down-to-earth, hands-on entrepreneur who embraces a challenge. His accomplishments include hosting 10,000 guests for The Patron’s Lunch in honor of the Queen’s 90th birthday in 2016, as well as organizing a major showjumping event, The Longines Global Champions Tour meeting, in the heart of London in 2014.
Another accomplishment for Phillips? Successfully balancing being member of the royal family with living out the normal life his parents aimed to give him when they declined titles of nobility for him and his sister. Fourteenth in the line of succession to the throne, Phillips bears more than a passing resemblance to his cousin, Prince William. But Phillips has eschewed many royal trappings. He played rugby in college, worked as a corporate hospitality manager for Jaguar, and spent time at the Royal Bank of Scotland. In 2008, he married a Canadian management consultant named Autumn Kelly, and four years later launched SEL UK. There, he’s been known to hop on a forklift to help out his crew.
It was during one SEL UK event, the Global Champions Tour in 2014, that Phillips began working alongside Andrews Bowen. The equine footings manufacturer was tasked with installing the competition surface, and Phillips noted how quickly Andrews Bowen personnel were able to set up and tear down. A conversation started about applications elsewhere, and before long, the idea of City Racing was born. JS Communications and The Jockey Club in Britain joined as partners. (Andrews Bowen is better known in the States as the manufacturer of the SafeTrack surface at the OBS training center in Ocala.)
Phillips will visit Saratoga in early August and hopes to attend the races and sales. Last week, the TDN talked with him by phone about the feasibility of City Racing, the engineering behind it, and what industry insiders have been saying about this unique endeavor.
LM: At its core, what idea informs City Racing?
PP: Throughout the world, the racing bodies we’ve spoken to say the same thing: they are struggling to attract an audience. We believe this is a fantastic platform for those bodies to communicate to a different, new, and dare I say, younger audience. We are here to support the industry, and we are not, absolutely not, competition to the tracks. We should be seen as a promotional platform for the tracks, and for the wider racing industry. We’ve been working closely with horsemen’s groups to make sure we deliver a genuine product. What this couldn’t be seen as is a marketing gimmick. It simply doesn’t work if it’s a gimmick. What we are trying to create is a complementary platform to enable the industry to attract new fans.
LM: The first thing that jumps to mind is the equine safety.
PP: For us, equine safety is the primary concern. We’ve been working with the British Horseracing Authority to pull together our rules and regulations, and we will abide by as many of the track rules as possible to enable us to safely put on racing in a city center. We are working with the industry, and it will need to be a collaborative effort. We don’t want, for instance, trainers to be sending us horses that have just come out of a field after six months, or who have a history of leg injuries. We need to work together to make sure it works not only for the City Racing series, but for the industry in whichever country we go to.
LM: Will these be gambling events?
PP: We are hoping so, absolutely. That’s why we’ve gone for the minimum distance under BHA rules. We want to make this as authentic as possible. And not just “as possible.” It is going to be an authentic race meeting.
LM: Would purse money be supplied through wagering?
PP: Forgive me for being slightly vague about this, but the one thing this will be is a commercially viable event. So therefore we will be sourcing funding through sponsors and through traditional means, be it gambling or ticketing or hospitality, or other revenue streams.
LM: How many races will be held during an average City Racing event?
PP: Realistically, a race card would be six races, with eight horses in a race. We’d be looking to get a pool of jockeys to ride in all of those, so that we could create a sort of jockeys’ championship within those six races. Which, once the series is up and running, could run across a number of different countries. The idea is that we’ll use local horses and top international jockeys.
LM: Have you spoken to many riders? What has their reaction been?
PP: The feedback has been very positive. The chance to race down an iconic street is an opportunity you’d struggle to turn down.
LM: Are you hoping to draw elite horses to these events? Mid-level types?
PP: These will be handicap horses, zero to 90-weighted horses. We’ll be using local horses whenever possible. We are absolutely not trying to kid ourselves that we’re going to get Grade I or II horses, and in many ways, that’s not what this is about.
LM: How many people are you hoping to draw to a typical City Racing event?
PP: I would hope the only restriction would be how many people that the city would allow us to fit into the area safely. Part of this is to attract a new audience to the sport, and we want people to walk away saying, “You know, that’s pretty exciting.”
LM: Is the idea to bring in truckloads of synthetic material?
PP: There’s a system. A layer of [Andrews Bowen’s] Equaflow goes down, then a membrane, then the SafeTrack on top. That combined surface is BHA-approved. As we’ve talked to racing jurisdictions, it’s helped tremendously to already have a product that is BHA-approved. From the horsemen’s perspective, that gives them peace of mind.
LM: Would you be shipping the surface from city to city?
PP: Not necessarily. Ideally, we’d make it as close to the site as possible to reduce costs. The SafeTrack can be manufactured in each country, and we’ll probably have to ship the Equaflow layer around, since that’s site-manufactured.
LM: What are some of the cities you’ve been in talks with. Paris? London?
PP: As you’d expect, we’ve been talking to a number of different cities. Paris is definitely one of them, as is London. We’ve been talking to some U.S., European and Far East cities, as well.
LM: Are there certain cities in the U.S. that you think would be perfect venues–a Las Vegas or New York, for instance?
PP: I don’t want to be too specific at this juncture. But part of the purpose of this series is to support the local industry. You’ve mentioned a few cities there and you wouldn’t be too far off the mark, and from our perspective, the more spectacular images we can get of horses racing down these streets with iconic backgrounds, the more the event goes beyond the racing industry. It starts to filter into the tourism industry, as well.
LM: When are you hoping to host the first City Racing event?
PP: 2019 is the goal. I’m not going to commit to any number of set races, but we’ll look to have multiple race cards in 2019. I’m a firm believer in never counting your chickens before they hatch, so until the ink is dry, I don’t want to go into much further detail.
LM: On a personal level, Thoroughbred race fans celebrate your grandmother’s love of the sport. Are you a passionate race fan as well?
PP: If I’m being honest, I was brought up around National Hunt racing more than flat racing. We live 40 minutes from Cheltenham, so that’s on my annual calendar. But so is Royal Ascot, and I’ve always enjoyed racing. It’s a fantastic day out. I rode as a youngster, and obviously my parents and sister have competed at high levels [in show jumping], so horses have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. And if there’s a way to combine business with a passion, then that ticks a lot of boxes for me.
LM: Speaking of your business, SEL UK, you’ve tackled a lot of larger-than-life projects. You’ve staged a horse show in the middle of London. You hosted The Patron’s Lunch for 10,000 guests to celebrate the Queen’s 90th. Where does this rank among the more ambitious things you’ve done?
PP: It’s up there [laughs]. Primarily because of the concerns of equine and human safety. It’s a challenge to communicate with all the city councils and authorities, and so on and so forth. But really, the thing we’re probably more diligent on than anything is equine safety. My love of the horse and all equine matters, that’s sort of built into me and this organization. When you’re talking to people who have not necessarily dealt with horses before, it’s quite an important point to get across. It puts their minds at ease. And if you can put their minds at ease, that you’re on top of the equine safety aspect of it, it relieves some pressure from their decision-making process.