The executive summary to a review of The Cheltenham NH Festival 2023 – were anyone to ask me for an opinion – would be thus:
Brilliant racing, marred by a Customer Experience (CX) that does not encourage further returns. However, the issues surrounding the CX are quite possibly 75% out of the hands of Cheltenham Racecourse – which also suggests that the Course needs to work far harder on the remaining 25%, which might also require them to be more open and transparent.
Strange to relate, I still maintain a day job – truly. Principally I advise people on their communication strategies, and everything I try to do for them is about ensuring that the Client’s brand improves in value, perception, awareness, desirability or advocacy. And whilst this column is a cathartic means for me to let off steam about racing, sport, politics and occasionally Turnips, it isn’t very constructive or even helpful to the many (a few) people of influence who might read this particular piece and say; “Kneesup has a point – I’m sending this to Ffittingly-Jibless at HQ because he might find it useful.”
What a lovely thought that is – but then, as anyone with an historical perspective can attest, the great organs of the Racing State do not like people to question them. By way of example, both ITV’s Matt Chapman and the Racing Post have been asking to see the research paper quoted by Julie Harrington, the BHA’s head, at The Asian Racing Conference, where she continued to create further angst over the Whip debate. She suggested at the conference that Great British Racing had produced research that indicated that 35 per cent of those who disagreed with racing chose not to engage with it “…because they think racing is a cruel sport“. Sadly no one can find the research – GBR has not published it, and no one seems to have a copy to give MC or the Post. (GBR, you might remember, is the sport’s official marketing and promotional body, working with all of racing’s stakeholders, and which for the last decade has spent hundreds of thousands a year on marketing the sport to its declining audience).
Similarly, Cheltenham Racecourse (CRC) CEO Ian Renton suggested this week that, despite a crowd already down by design on the previous year, the crowd was, in fact, unexpectedly down despite being aware some weeks ago that might be the case. This downturn was, he said, essentially down to Strikes and Money and that all would be Up next year. Furthermore, early indications suggested that everyone found it super value, when compared to an evening with Sir John Gielgud singing the role of Jean Valjean in Les Mis, and yes, there was honey still for tea. Sadly, while the statistical swing is made murky by C19 – the figures below suggest a decline rather than advancement in the “All Is Well” trajectory.
CRC’s management crutch – i.e. the thing they lean on to prove the Honey for Tea and End of Foodbanks predictions for 2024 – is a marketing tool called an NPS, or Net Promoter Score. In the wrong hands, NPS can be frightfully …. what’s the word…. confusing. You will be familiar with the “On a scale of 0-10, how likely is it that you would recommend….” question. Customers that give you a six or below are called Detractors, those who give a score of 7 or 8 are called Passives, and those who give a 9 or 10 are Promoters. When used correctly, the resulting score is a leading indicator for growth because it measures loyalty and, therefore, the likelihood of repeat business and also suggests that the numbers might swell by advocacy (You should go dear – I ‘ad such a luvverly time with Doris and no one was sick on me shoes this year!) etc. Only Promoters and Detractors are essential in the NPS formula because no one is interested in converting or discovering anything about the Passives under NPS rules.
Now I’m assuming that Cheltenham/the JC, when using the NPS toolbox, asks more than one question – not of me, nor anyone I know incidentally – indeed, Ian Renton suggested as much when he said how positively Cheltenham was viewed in terms of value. But one of the (many) weaknesses of NPS is that there is little point in asking customers for their views unless you are able and willing to act upon the answers you obtain. So there is a need to ask more questions, but these are then negated by the known conflicts of asking too many research questions, minimising interview times and getting the data needed to act positively. Which is handy in some cases.
So I’ve covered my bases, and I’ve explained why it is possible – not probable – that Cheltenham’s understanding of their users’ views on the proffered product might be flawed. And again, we must briefly step off-piste. This is not a critique of the Racing but a view of the Customer Experience at Cheltenham Racecourse, which is entirely separate. The Cheltenham brand offers and delivers superb racing for which it charges a variety of fees in return for access to a provisioned infrastructure, some of which they are obliged to provide to maintain their various licences and the Racing and Local Authorities requirements for the 6-8 hours the customers are there. That’s it in a nutshell.
Was the racing good? Yes. The entire Tuesday experience was emotionally charged and made one feel good about the sport. The quality of all four days was almost without measure; there were more Irish trainers (outside the top 3) winning; there seemed to be a lot of syndicate and club ownerships who were successful; the racing fields were pretty good if not better than say the last decade and in most cases, one would be hard pressed to find fault with the handicapping marks. Of course, there were plot horses, schemes and laid-outs and handicap-mark protection policies, but in the main, pretty well everything that surprised had an explanation (and I include Edwardstone and Favoir at both ends of the surprising scale), and the unsurprising such as Galopin and the Tuesday heroes and heroines.
Sadly, however, the Customer Experience was, I’m afraid poor.
The Traffic: The traffic will now always be dreadful – because, as I wrote before (HERE) in November 2022, the Racecourse is threatened by the machinations of the Liberal council. The neighbours (so few we later discovered that they could be individually visited by the CEO) were in a frenzy at the number of drunken yobs urinating and worse on their flower beds. (I lived near QPR, and post-match pissing was always the disgusting case – and the problem was only resolved by knocking the stadium down and gentrifying the area). The Police were concerned at the numbers (no arrests made) of confrontations between pedestrianised drunken yobbos and cars, and the pedestrians were in danger of lingering. The solution was apparently to close the roads into town and create a one-way traffic system, which was introduced in March 2020. This meant that the drunks could walk in the road, and we could be driven around a far-distant bend. Incidentally, part of this planning involved a letter from Ian Renton informing residents that to access their homes, they could ask a traffic steward who would “accommodate” them. Hmm. Brilliant strategy… solve the problem by removing the complainant.
There is, however, little practically that Renton can do. If he told the Council to naff off, they would instruct Old Bill to check for underage drinking; illegally selling alcohol to someone intoxicated; failing to provide sufficient public lavatory facilities; polluting the air with Irish sing-songs… whatever. It would take the Council less than a season to remove the liquor licence, and then no more bars or corporate hostility. Cheltenham goes bust if it doesn’t race – as does Jockey Club Racecourses, which is heavily subsidised by November and March in Cheltenham. As does racing, because we draw down so much money from The Levy. I suspect that is Cheltenham’s reality.
The Horsewalk: Cheltenham is the only racecourse I can think of that provides a catwalk for swathes of self-important people to dawdle as they discuss the contents of their over-priced salmon sandwiches. To provide a single lane off the racecourse for photographers, vets, owners, trainers, stable lads, water-sellers, badger-baiters, Welsh chicken farmers, Boys Brigade fife players, and anyone with an R in their name makes nonsense of the title Horsewalk. It effectively cuts off a third of the racecourse, and while it takes five minutes when they’re going down, it can be anything up to fifteen minutes when they’re coming back. No one should be on the horse walk until the horses are off it. Winning connections may accompany their horse (no dear, yours was 2nd, which is simply Coming Last First). Everyone else should come back in through one of two newly built side gates I would install. On Thursday night, I was further delayed access to The North Stand exit by the horses arriving for the auction from the racecourse side. Twenty minutes and when we were let through, there were probably two thousand of us on the cusp of getting jiggy. What nonsense.
Mobile Telephone Signals: No signal and a system which appears to be designed to prevent one from calling one’s own bookmaker in preference to others. In the 21st century, the absence of either telephone or data signal is yet more nonsense. However, I also know that their recent application for a 20m mobile mast in one of the car parks was turned down last month because it would spoil the look of the empty car park! The Council again. There are, however, solutions (you do not need planning permission for a 15m radio mast – and you could have a relay network), and they should be installed sooner rather than later. I also guide JCR towards 5G.
The Food: Oh please… Delicious and commendable in a box on Thursday and appalling elsewhere every day. A magical combination of being unaffordably poor value. Let people in the cheap stands bring their picnic – but no booze.
The Cost: I did a back-of-the-envelope calculation the other day. If I did one day at Cheltenham, two days watching the box and eating steak baguettes and drinking the last of the ’96 Leoville-Poyferre and on the fourth day invited a dozen chums to lunch, gave each of them a £65 ph catered spread, a bottle of £15 pb wine, and hired a TV the size of a barn door, my £1,200 bill and the other three days costs would still make for a cheaper week. For those poor souls who have come over or travelled down and stayed in town and who eat, sleep and drink there for four nights, either penury beckons, or they must have the funds to make Croesus look a pauper.
Overall, just for once, I would love to see one of the JC panjandrums say:
The racing was brilliant, but we got a lot of silly things wrong and one or two things that really irritate people were as right as they could be. Sadly these are the big issues such as traffic and phone signals – and in that respect we have to work with a range of forces and law-makers that constrain our options. We will always work with those groups to get the best outcome for our customers, bearing in mind that in the end we only race with their year-round cooperation. We’ll report to you on issues such as improved telecoms before November, when we’ll run through all our improvement plans. I’m often told that our neighbours would prefer it if we stopped racing altogether, but with your help and patience, we should try to manage our presence as thoughtfully as possible – to all our and the Town’s benefit. Please be patient and do not piss on Mrs Larrikin’s Azaleas.
Talking of a poor aim with a never-satisfactory result, here are today’s racing tips…
In some eyes, the start of the Flat season as The Dubai World Cup brings the Dubai racing carnival to an end. Next week I shall give you some thoughts on the impact and benefits a UAE winter has on UK summer performances.
1:30 NEWBURY Bet In-Play On Racing With BetVictor Nov’ Hcap Hdl Cl3 (4yo+ 0-130) 2m3f 12 run
ARTISTIC CHOICE has shown some ability since stepping away from the Flat for his now-dual purpose trainer, Michael Bell. The grey showed ability when 2nd in a slowly run Newbury handicap LTO and had won at Huntingdon the time before on his handicap debut on an opening mark of 108. I think the step-up will bring more improvement. INNISTON is the obvious danger, who must improve surely from his bought-too-early ride LTO which effort perhaps cost him the race.
ARTISTIC CHOICE 3 pts e/w
1:50 KELSO BetVictor Go North Cab On Target Hcap Hdl Cl2 (4yo+) 2m5f 15 run
I fancy several in this…
SOCKS OFF 2 pts e/w
2:05 NEWBURY Run For Your Money At BetVictor Hcap Chs Cl2 (5yo+ 0-150) 2m4f 10 run
A wide-open race, where my shortlist would have to include SUPER SIX and HONNEUR D’AJONC. SUPER SIX carries another 9lbs after his 15l victory LTO in what was, on paper, a much easier race. He is unexposed with just the four races to date, and he would appear to have some work to do to reverse form with HONNEUR D’AJONC based HdA’s last run at Hereford where they met. SS is 6lbs worse off this time and has under 3L to make up on him. Dutch the pair for 10 pts (current odds would return approx 3/1)
SUPER SIX – HONNEUR D’AJONC. Dutch 10 pts
2:25 KELSO Schloss Roxburghe Hotel Hcap Hdl Cl2 (4yo+) 3m2f 7 run
FLOWER OF SCOTLAND, who returns to hurdling, would be on my shortlist, has conditions to suit, and is 3/3 on course. In a 7-runner race, he is ideal for the exotics. I also fancy INIS OIRR from Lucinda Russell’s yard. Ignore his last-of-six run in The Rendlesham LTO and instead think back to his beating of Outlaw Peter – who is now in the 130s after two subsequent wins. Lucinda is turning them out at some pace, with a strike rate, as I write, of 5 from 15 or 33% in the last 14 days.
INIS OIRR 3 pts win – FLOWER OF SCOTLAND 2 pts e/w
2:40 NEWBURY British EBF BetVictor ‘National Hunt’ Mares’ Nov’ Hdl (G2) Cl1 (4yo+) 2m4½f 18 run
AUBIS WALK is a welcome raider from the North, hailing from Nicky Richards’ yard. She had a fall last January, but judging by her recent runs, she remains undaunted. She was twice a runner-up post-fall, and looked absolutely on tip-top form when a wide-margin winner at Sedgefield LTO.
AUBIS WALK 3 pts e/w
3:00 KELSO BetVictor Herring Queen Series Final Mares’ Nov’ Hcap Hdl Cl2 (4yo+) 2m 9 run
The market suggests that Fergal O’Brien’s mare BONTTAY has not been troubled by the handicapper yet AND that the first-time headgear will be beneficial. She paid for her keep to date with three decent bumpers, including a Listed event, and she came 2nd on her hurdles debut at Lingfield in December, 8l clear of the third. She is a scrappy jumper, but that is exuberance, I suspect, rather than physical, which she showed at Exeter in February when winning by 7½l under today’s pilot. 2nd behind Houvari (OR 128) LTO suggests she could easily be 120s. My nap of the day
BONTTAY 6 pts win
3:10 MEYDAN Dubai Turf sponsored by DP World (G1) (3yo+) 1m1f 16 run
Panthalassa (running in the DWC) dead-heated with LORD NORTH in this last year (the Frankie/Gosden combo), who had previously won the race with no photo back in 2021. However, his hat trick won’t be easy, as he faces stiff opposition from a strong Japanese challenge. The Japanese Derby winner, DO DEUCE, is now a non-runner, which removes my only fear for SERIFOS, drawn 5, who I think is the faster horse. LORD NORTH drew three and with only one turn, he could be beset on both sides. DANON BELUGA is probably capable of more at a sensible price and might be the e/w play here. NATIONS PRIDE had a profitable US campaign in late 2022 and travels like a horse that can find another stamina gear when needed. If he stays prominent, I can see him using that gear to be placed.
For transparency, I cannot turn down Skybet’s 66/1 for 5 places for SIR BUSKER. I might have gone too early, and he’ll be 80/1 by tomorrow at around midday. C’est la vie. 5 places for this doughty soldier is too big, and he deserves compensation for his appalling handling in Saudi. Ten minutes in the stalls, having been loaded first and then having to wait for some tearaway who should have been disqualified and then a ride for which the jockey later apologised. Prize Money awaits and is due.
SERIFOS 4 pts Win – DANON BELUGA 1½ pts e/w – NATIONS PRIDE 1 pt e/w – 6 x ½ pt CFC
3:35 KELSO Make Your Best Bet At BetVictor Hcap Chs Cl2 (5yo+) 3m2f 10 run
Stepping back up in trip and looking well-treated on last season’s form, I like the look of DOYEN BREED. He’s 12lb below his peak Chase rating, and his current mark looks realistic. He is still unexposed in chase handicaps, but the bookies have priced him as the risk he is to their satchels. He is being backed as write.
DOYEN BREED 4 pts win
4:00 MEYDAN Longines Dubai Sheema Classic (G1) (Turf) (3yo+) 1m4f 10 run
The field includes REBEL’S ROMANCE, who won the 2022 BC Turf and SHAHRYAR, who won the Sheema last year. However, according to the market, SHAHRYAR isn’t the best Japanese horse, which makes EQUINOX the favourite. There is something that takes the eye about EQUINOX, an imperiousness, yet sometimes in his races, he can appear to lose concentration. He receives weight from all his main market rivals, which only strengthens his case, given he is already 4lb clear on ratings and sets the form bar pretty high. He wins if he focuses.With Ryan Moore on board, the 2022 Irish Derby Winner WESTOVER is drawn in stall 1. A disappointing Arc run LTO, but that was probably down to the ground being far softer than he likes, and if he shows his Irish Derby form, he must have a chance. Winner of The Hong Kong vase WIN MARILYN (4) looks like a decent e/w betting proposition.
WIN MARILYN 1 pt e/w
4:35 MEYDAN DIRT Dubai World Cup (G1) (3yo+) 1m2f ITV4 15 run
Last year’s winner, COUNTRY GRAMMER, who won from stall four last year, benefits from having Frankie Dettori back on board – but he’s drawn in Stall 14, surely just south of Cornwall. He had an identical prep to last year – both times running 2nd in The Saudi Cup. His fellow traveller from out in the boondocks won that race, PANTHALASSA, one of eight Japanese hopes. He is a confirmed front-runner, and knowing the poor stewarding, camber, and prestige pressure, we can expect fireworks as he travels towards the rail to get a decent position up front. And here’s where this might start to get tricky. No-hoper but confirmed front-runner SUPER CORINTO drawn 11, will also be travelling across but dropping back two out. Yutaka Yoshida has developed a fantastic partnership with the six-year-old, and PANTHALASSA’s connections decided against defending his Dubai Turf crown from last year in favour of this. Since then, he was 2nd in the G1 Tenno Sho in October, was disappointing in the Hong Kong Cup, but then bounced back when winning the Saudi Cup in impressive style. When Frankie’s clock is wound up properly, and he doesn’t have the wretched Gosden nagging away, his command of the fractions is without parallel. That is COUNTRY GRAMMER’s secret weapon.
PANTHALASSA 4pts e/w – 2 x ½ pt RFC with COUNTRY GRAMMER and ALGIERS