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Decimal odds to get a trial as British racing bids to broaden appeal

BETTER housekeeping is the thrust of Britain's Racing for Change's (RFC) initial public pronouncement on how the sport can broaden its appeal with the wider public. The reform group charged with that task has outlined 10 initiatives to be trialled by the end of July.

On historic grounds the most controversial is the use of decimal odds, as opposed to fractions such as 11/4, on racecourses for one weekend in the spring. Fractions are alien to younger racegoers that have grown up with decimalisation.

Ostensibly, however, most of the changes (see below) will tidy up some ragged loose ends. RFC is responsible for three of them, while the other seven ask bookmakers, racecourses and racing professionals to change established habits that serve to confuse or alienate potential customers.

Some are overdue. To continue without the first names of jockeys and trainers on racecards is to suggest that racing remains locked in a time warp. This impression is heightened by formal and pedantic pronouncements made over a racecourse public address system that is also to be modernised.

More is to be made of racing's "drama" moments such as photo finishes, although consent was withheld from possibly the most dramatic of all: broadcasting stewards' inquiries on television and racecourse screens.

"It is a sensitive issue with the Professional Jockeys' Association," Nick Attenborough, RFC's consumer PR director, said yesterday. "In the first instance all we want to do is trial it. I am keen to achieve that -- even if we can only get to something in between, such as showing all the various replays available to the stewards. It is part of what television needs for analysis nowadays and it brings a degree of transparency -- especially for the betting public."

Of the RFC-driven initiatives, a website free of racing jargon is expected to be up and running within four months. RFC will also be responsible for perhaps the most welcome initiative: it is setting up a free club where individuals can follow the careers of four horses leased in conjunction with media partners. Members will be entitled to discounted racecourse admission fees.

With the exception of decimal odds, which may provoke outrage in a handful of elderly bookmakers, RFC's initiatives are likely to be given easy passage within a sport where fear of change promotes automatic resistance to it. Similar initiatives are expected to be introduced in the coming months.

However, RFC has a sterner battle on its hands over matters such as tiered racing, its strategy for premium events and defining the Flat and National Hunt seasons. "These ideas still require further debate," Attenborough said, "but we hope to announce some plans in around four weeks."

RFC officials have floated the idea of closing the Flat season in mid-September with a big-bang raceday. Asked if any progress had been made on that score, Attenborough said: "It is premature to discuss it. The debate is still going on."

RFC's brief extends to gaining coverage of racing and its participants in the non-racing media. Its officials believe that the reluctance by some of racing's bigger names to work more closely with the media is costing the sport publicity. To this end a fund has been established for media training for jockeys and trainers. They will also receive payment for giving interviews to non-racing media outlets.

Chris McFadden, the RFC chairman, said the group's research led him to conclude that there was little wrong with racing as an entertainment, leisure and betting medium. But the sport had to work harder to connect with those not already sold on it.

"What it requires is a clearer structure and better presentation of its strengths -- its drama, spectacle and heritage as well as its equine and human stars," McFadden said. "We need to promote it in a way that makes it relevant to a bigger audience. Most thriving customer-facing organisations build on their success by doing hundreds of small things consistently well. This is what racing must set out to achieve. These initiatives are the first steps in that process."

© The Times, London