Monday 29 December 2014

Goodwood's naming and shaming opens up wider debate

The heritage of racing and sponsors' wishes make uneasy bedfellows

Ian McClean

Published 06/07/2014 | 02:30

The view as runners near the finish at Goodwood racecourse
The view as runners near the finish at Goodwood racecourse

Adam Smith, commonly credited as the first free-market capitalist, would have rubbed his hands with glee. For a few pieces of silver an internet bookmaker last week persuaded Goodwood's racecourse management to dispose of 174 years' worth of tradition by dispensing with the title of one of the most recognisable names on the racing calendar, the Stewards' Cup.

So, by this time next month, on the final day of Glorious Goodwood, you will already have experienced the delights of the 32Red Cup with not a hint or mention of a Steward, although at least the Cup is still in the title. Smith's philosophy was founded on an absolute belief in the hand of free-market economics, wherein the private self-interested actions of private individuals, mediated through free markets, generate results that are good for all. The subsequent outcry strongly suggests the result is not exactly 'good for all' in this instance.

There is a statue in London's Cavendish Square of the man who in the mid-19th century hatched the idea for the Stewards' Cup. In 1839 Lord George Bentinck decided to formalise an arrangement for the senior steward at Goodwood to present a cup to a winner of his choice, and a year later a race known as the Stewards' Cup was run for the first time. Over the years the race has become a stepping stone to subsequent Group One success for a number of its winners, including Patavellian, Coastal Bluff, Borderlescott and Lochsong.

The race and title has endured ever since without modification until, at a stroke after nearly two centuries, the name disappears entirely. On the surface this can simply be viewed as the old chestnut of traditional heritage clashing head-on with commercial interest but there are a few elements that are more puzzling.

For a start, a basic feature of a free-market economy is that everything has a price. So, in a sense, if you are going to agree to forfeit 174 years of tradition you may choose to do so, but at a significant price. The perplexing thing about the Goodwood episode is that the forfeit was made in exchange for just a £5,000 increase not even in the Stewards' Cup itself (which remains at £100,000), but in the consolation handicap to be known as the 32RedSports.com Handicap. It gets even more incomprehensible when you discover that it is only a one-year deal.

It gives credence to the idea that if you send a bookmaker into the den with a racecourse executive there is really only ever going to be one outcome. You cannot blame the bookmaker; he went in to get the best deal possible and boy did he succeed.

Many have accused the bookmaker of pulling a cheap publicity stunt but miss the point that in order to pull it off 32Red needed Goodwood's apparently collapsible negotiating model to accommodate it. Even the new sponsor's commercial director Matt Booth pinpointed as much. "It has got people talking about our brand but that was not the rationale for the sponsorship. I don't believe all publicity is good publicity."

Goodwood's only rationale for the largesse on the name change was for managing director Adam Waterworth to comment: "It's something that was very important to the race sponsor in this case. Part of the negotiation with these sponsorships does involve the race names." Indeed.

It is plausible and understandable that Goodwood, under pressure of time and without a queue of suitors exactly lining up for their premier handicap, operated on the premise of something being better than nothing. However, palpable desperation doesn't rank particularly highly as a negotiating strategy. As any decent poker player will tell you: never play with scared money.

Goodwood is entitled to do its own bidding as a stand-alone commercial entity, but it is significant the BHA wasted no time in stepping in the next day to safeguard the names of all other heritage handicaps (pattern race names are already protected).

With curious predictability, Lucy Humble, Goodwood's PR manager, does not see the BHA's move to protect heritage handicaps as an implied criticism. "We want to keep the heritage of racing going on for many more years, we are just trying to work with our sponsor, who wanted to change the name. That's what we also have to do, work with sponsors to deliver commercial success."

For a PR manager, she could be better served by employing Denis Healey's First Rule of Holes: Stop Digging. Final observation is the silent reconciliation by the Racing Post in its headlining of the story on Thursday with the fact that the Mildmay of Flete disappeared after some 50 years at the Cheltenham Festival back in 2006 - supplanted by the new title: Racing Post Plate.

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