Brian O'Connor

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The Marmite Test

Frankie Dettori
© Photo Healy Racing

It is a conceit common to most sports that all they require to grow in profile is greater exposure. More coverage will equal more public appreciation if only the media would play ball. It's a theory that usually comes up against the problem of most people preferring to decide for themselves about what they like and dislike. But it's going to get put to the test with racing's return and having the major live competitive sporting stage to itself for a while.

The terrestrial television boat is ready to be pushed out in Britain by ITV. Extensive coverage of the Guineas festival will be the first of a series of programmes being planned for schedules starved of sport for months. Irish racing returns next week with an arrangement that will see RTE cover the Curragh Guineas weekend and then broadcast new one hour magazine-type shows every Friday, Saturday and Sunday evening in the weeks up to mid-July.

It's a win-win for all concerned. RTE fills air-time and Irish racing gets a rare run at a sustained period of domestic racing coverage. Everything can seem inevitable in hindsight but Horse Racing Ireland deserve credit for making the most out of the unfortunate public health circumstances that apply.

Inevitably the deal is being portrayed as a rare opportunity for racing here to show its wares to a wider public that mostly rubs along quite happily without paying it much attention beyond Cheltenham and an annual Grand National flutter. Headlines have cropped up about RTE giving racing a chance to win new fans. That's despite racing's usual terrestrial coverage and general media profile being the envy of most other sports.

How best to convince that public of the merits of paying attention beyond Cheltenham and the National is a conundrum that has puzzled a lot of very clever minds down the years. Well, if it really is just a matter of coverage then there will be no excuses over the coming weeks. It is a rare profile opportunity in an unprecedented context where there has been nothing for months and no prospect of the GAA summer behemoth getting in the way.

Sure enough the characterisation that huge audiences desperate for live sport will pounce on racing as a competitive godsend, in the process discovering what we have long known, and being converted to its merits through mass exposure is being made already. So it will be let-down if it doesn't actually happen.

First of all a definition of what exactly will constitute success is problematic.

What exactly constitutes a new 'fan.' Is it viewership figures? Well, they're usually best viewed comparatively. Except there's no comparison for these circumstances. Is it betting turnover? Or streaming revenue? Trending on social media? Inches in old-school print media? Or will it be judged more long-term in bigger attendance figures when crowds return? Or rising ownership levels, maybe RTE maintaining its new-found enthusiasm when the GAA and rugby are back up and running?

Hopefully for everyone's sake it can be judged a success on every level. But adopting a simple 'show it and they will come' attitude appears naive. Magazine style programmes have been in play for other sports such as League of Ireland football and there's been little impact in terms of major shifts of public interest as a result. Proselytizing may be fun to do but being told what's best for you can a real pain in the posterior.

The importance of a recognisable touchstone can't be overstated when it comes to grabbing the interest of the uninitiated. Even those most ambivalent about racing recognise Frankie Dettori and what he's about. It means a lot of coverage gets done through the Frankie prism which is often a pain for the knowledgeable but a boon for keeping floating viewers engaged. In the US even Bob Baffert and his distinctive white thatch has become such a touchstone for casual fans.

Irish racing struggles for the same sort of name recognition now that Ruby Walsh is retired from the saddle. Walsh was hardly Dettori-like but is still recognisable to the whole country. The same can hardly be said for say Colin Keane or Shane Foley. They are at the top of their game and thankfully don't indulge in the sort of fake-Frankie showboating that's frankly grisly to behold. Nevertheless they're hardly recognisable to the majority of the public.

As for any Baffert-style readiness to supply quotable streams of 'good bullshit' it's fair to say the country's top flat trainers are a more reserved bunch, some might even say Trappist. All of which is fair enough. Their speciality is in a different branch of the entertainment game. But it can be a problem in spinning a narrative for a broader audience.

So while the coming weeks represent a valuable profile opportunity for a sport whose reputation has had a rocky time of it in recent months, it may be unwise to expect some vast wave of new public appreciation. For many racing remains very much a marmite offering. Many love it with a passion. Others flicking through the channels will always see an amorphous blob of mostly brown animals running around a field and switch away faster than you can say Ryan Tubridy.

It doesn't matter how much special pleading goes on, a lot of people simply aren't going to get it. And telling them how wrong they are will only reinforce their reluctance. Besides trying too hard is never a good look. Expectations need to be reasonable. Advertising is often directed not so much at increasing sales but maintaining them. Making the effort to keep the customers you have can be much more important than encouraging new ones.

Speaking of Bob Baffert his name has cropped up again in another drugs controversy in the US after two of his horses, including the Arkansas Derby winner, Charlatan, tested positive for Lidocaine. The pain relieving substance is allowed in horses but can't be in their system on race day. It is used for suturing but can also mask lameness in unsound horses. A split sample has to be examined before any ruling on the matter is considered.

Coming on the back of last year's revelation of how Baffert's 2018 Triple Crown hero Justify tested positive for a banned drug less than a month before the start of that Triple Crown campaign, such headlines involving Amercia's best known trainer are indicative of US racing's broader and systemic issues involving medication. Baffert is operating in the system that applies. It is a rotten system that continues to fundamentally rob the industry of credibility. Yet inertia still largely seems to prevail.

Finally, the first of Europe's major classics begin in France today, the same day as racing resumes in Britain. Considering the impact of Covid-19 in England in particular it is a head-scratcher how the sport there can start before it does in Ireland next week. But it will be fascinating to see the outcome of the Guineas at Newmarket this weekend. With the Irish Guineas less than a week later, and the Irish Derby just a fortnight after that, the classics are set to come thick and fast.

Much will centre on what sort of Pinatubo emerges from the winter. If he's as dominant as he was at two then one of the great classic campaigns could be ahead of us. If he isn't then purists might look east and ponder how a rare three year old talent has already emerged in Japan in the shape of Contrail.

The son of Deep Impact was a two year old champion too but has palpably progressed from that. At the weekend he won the Japanese Derby with stunning ease. He best his old rival Salios much easier there than he did in the Japanese 2,000 Guineas. This season's Triple Crown looks his for the taking. Japan is producing some of the best horses in the world. As of today Contrail is starting to look like the best of the best three year olds in the world right now.

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