Wednesday 22 March 2017

Champions concept needs to justify hype

Ascot's big season finale has to learn its lessons quickly to seal its future, says Ian McClean 'Is Steve Jobs as important as Edison?" Kirsty Wark asked on Newsnight last week. It was a soundbite question that somewhat missed the point about innovation past and present. If Jobs was good at technology, he was brilliant at design. And if he was brilliant at design, he was sublime at marketing. His tagline to describe his beloved Apple products -- 'It just works' -- heralded a truth that transformed his company into the world's biggest business.

Horseracing doesn't need to be good at technology, but it does need to excel at designing the right product, and it certainly needs to learn how to market itself. And British racing's attempt to big up next Saturday's Qipco Champions Day at Ascot is a model attempt at neither.

Starting with the positive: the intent, to create a big bang grand finale for the Flat season, is both desirable and laudable. However, the strategy for accomplishing it, ever since its inception, has more holes in it than a Swiss cheese.

Starting with the title. Champions Day. As opposed to Future Champions Day, the label for yesterday's reshuffled Newmarket card. No, Champions Day should be more accurately described as 'Champion's Day' as the only champion on display (as far as we know at this stage) is the unbeaten Frankel. His presence alone has probably earned a stay of execution for the concept but the organisers are mighty lucky to have him.

Having been on the go since the Greenham in April, his last race came in the Sussex in July. What were the chances of Frankel (pictured) being let down at that stage and brought back for barely 100 seconds of racing in the Flat twilight of mid-October? Ascot and middle-eastern sponsors Qipco can be thankful to whatever forces prevailed upon Prince Abdullah to choose such a path, but more have opted to eschew the challenge than to avail of it -- Dream Ahead, Goldikova and So You Think are three that come instantly to mind.

The biggest discomfort for most commentators rests with the timing and positioning. Hosting a championship event on mid-October ground for horses ostensibly celebrated for speed is dubious at best. Choosing to position it between the glittering attractions of Prix de l'Arc day and Breeders' Cup in an increasingly globalised world smacks more of blinkered arrogance. Any rookie marketing executive is familiar with the Law of Leadership, which declares that it is "better to be first than to be better". Champions Day is neither first nor better.

The marketing blurb leads with the "richest race-day ever staged, £3m in prizemoney". Great. But one single race on Arc day was worth more than the entire Ascot card. Champions Day features two Group Ones (curiously for the same target age/gender group with only a quarter mile of a distance difference: QEII at a mile; Champion Stakes mile and a quarter) and finishes with a class 2 apprentice handicap. Arc day had seven Group Ones over a variety of distances from five furlongs to two and a half miles for a variety of age and gender groups.

A valuable test case is this year's undisputed sprint champion, Dream Ahead, which could have waited to find an easier opportunity over a more suitable distance on more suitable ground at Ascot next Saturday than he encountered in Paris last weekend. Yet connections went to France instead. Explaining the rationale, trainer David Simcock said: "We wanted to keep him to Group One company".

Champions Day organisers have already modified downwards their attendance expectations from 30,000 to 25,000 -- which is about half of the numbers attending Arc day.

No more than Steve Jobs who had a vision to create a $10bn company that still retained its soul, Ascot's organisers have a laudable aim. Jobs failed and adapted his company many times along the way. It seems already, even amongst those in charge and before the inaugural event is launched, discussions over the positioning of Champions Day are afoot. Ascot boss Charles Barnett said recently: "Ascot sits on the board of Champions Day and we all believe it should move to mid-September, but that cannot happen before 2013 and remains a very complicated issue."

In one sense comparisons between Ascot's nascent Champions Day and Arc day are unfair in that Longchamp's blockbuster card has matured over the last decade whilst Ascot's is still in its infancy.

However, British Champions Day -- sponsors Qipco are signed in for just a two-year deal -- will need to learn its lessons quickly and adapt if it is to succeed in having the store to match the story. All Apple users and converts love the brand because they recognise above all else the truth in the slogan 'It just works'.

Right now Champions Day just doesn't.

Sunday Indo Sport

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