Exploring innovative race concepts at the 38th Asian Racing Conference


Dr. Makoto Inoue, Vice-Chair, Asian Racing Federation (ARF), Presidential Counsellor for International Affairs, Japan Racing Association (JRA), opened the second Plenary Session of the 38th Asian Racing Conference (ARC) exploring innovative race concepts, with a reminder that while tradition is important, there is a need for innovation.

“A very important aspect of our sport is tradition. Tradition is seen through our time-honored races and race program. Tradition will always be important in our sport; however it is also important that racing doesn’t stand still. We must continue to innovate, to challenge and to discover new opportunities,” he said.

The Arima Kinen, while not new as it was first run in 1956, is an innovative race that has stood the test of time. Known as “The People’s Dream Race” the Arima Kinen was based on the concept of the All-Star game of professional baseball and born out of a desire for the promotion of fan involvement, explained Mr. Shuji Kashiwada, General Manager of the JRA’s International Department.

The race is now an international Grade 1 (G1) over 2500m for three-year-olds and up at Nakayama Racecourse and it is one of two ‘All-Star’ races held annually in Japan. Ten of the 16 maximum runners are selected by fans voting for their favourite horse, with the only proviso being that it must be a JRA-registered horse. The remaining runners, including National Association of Racing (NAR) runners and overseas challengers, are allocated berths according to the amount of prizemoney they have won.

Japan, which has the largest number of racing fans in the world, thus created a way for fans to have tangible involvement in the makeup of the “all-star” field, with a staggering 1,577,760 fans voting in 2019. Fans can cast a ballot at racecourses and off-course betting sites (18%), by mail (2%) or through the official website (80%), with the 10 horses with the most votes going forward to the race. In 2019 for the 64th running of the Arima Kinen, Japanese superstar mare Almond Eye garnered the most votes with 109,885, while the eventual winner Lys Gracieux was the second most popular with 94,357 votes. The fan voting system extends beyond Flat gallopers, with champion jumper Oju Chosan finishing ninth in the 2018 renewal, having come third in the public vote.

“The Arima Kinen has the largest betting turnover in Japan annually, with 43.6 billion Yen (approximately US$400 million) wagered on the 2019 race and an attendance of more than ninety thousand people on the day”, reported Mr. Kashiwada. With betting and attendance figures consistently outstripping those of the Japanese Derby, the concept of an ‘All-Star’ race such as the Arima Kinen has been hugely successful. Mr. Kashiwada also pointed out that its positioning on the racing calendar, as the final championship race of the year, the so-called “Dream Race” perfectly ends the racing season. Several past winners have in fact retired after the race, the most memorable being the iconic Deep Impact, who won the Arima Kinen on the 24 December, 2006 and then retired straight afterwards in a moving ceremony.

Promotion of the race is a year-long affair with famous celebrities featured in JRA adverts, while the race is highlighted online through YouTube and on a special website created in collaboration with a popular animation series. The print media also plays a prominent role, with newspapers, weekly and monthly magazines plus comics promoting the race. Billboards, posters in trains, street events at train stations in major cities such as Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka and the production of commercial films called “Weekend Memories”, all contribute to the buzz about the race.

With a rich history of feature races, including the “Race That Stops The Nation”, the Melbourne Cup, being run for the 160th time in November, 2020, Australia is another country where horseracing is extremely popular. However, the landscape in Australia has evolved over the last five years, with a number of new races including the country’s first slot race, the Everest, a 1200m contest, launched in 2017.

Delegates heard from Racing Victoria Chief Executive Mr. Giles Thompson who highlighted changes by the organisation, including launching a race based on the Arima Kinen. The All-Star Mile allows fan engagement with 10 of the runners selected by the public at large, with four wildcards selected by Racing Victoria. The contest, founded in 2019, is rotated across three of Melbourne’s tracks and is claimed as the world’s richest mile race. Connections pay an A$500 entry fee which is donated to charity and there is also prizemoney of A$500,000 awarded to voters, with the fan aligned with the winning horse colleting A$250,000.

Fan involvement may be a new concept in Australia, but it has been well-established internationally. Mr. Thompson explained why the All-Star Mile was selected as the way forward for Australia. “We needed something that was unique in Australia. The All-Star Mile appealed for a variety of reasons. It is a unique concept not seen in Australia before, a point of difference and it aligned with our “Racing For All” concept. It only costs A$500 to enter horses, public votes are free and it is the fans who control which horses get to run.”
While Australia cannot match the involvement of Japanese fans, the 2019 launch still attracted a solid 139,247 votes. The highest number of votes came from 25 to 34-year-olds and, with 43% of the voters being female, the race therefore enabled Racing Victoria to engage two demographics under-represented among Australian racegoers.

Mr. Thompson discussed how the quality of runners in the 2019 All-Star Mile has been hotly debated, with the minimum rating required to enter the race raised for the second running in 2020. However, he pointed out that the 120 rating of the 2019 winner Mystic Journey is higher than that of the winners of other well established G1 mile races worldwide. With $A66 million wagered on the race and 16,000 racegoers in attendance, with another 1 million watching on free-to-air television, the concept of an All-Star fan-selected race has clearly found resonance with the horse-loving Australian public.

The impact of new races and the quality control involved in the European Pattern system was discussed by Mr. Brian Kavanagh, CEO of Horse Racing Ireland and Chairman of the European Pattern Committee. He reminded delegates of a key mission statement of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA) - the organisation of competitions to select the best horses in order to improve the quality of breeding. He pointed out that the origins of the European Pattern Races are deeply entrenched and are ultimately used as quality control via black type in sales catalogues and thus the determination of commercial value at sales.

“The aims of the European Pattern Committee are clear”, said Mr. Kavanagh. “To provide a co-ordinated programme of quality races in each age, sex and distance category within the member countries and a balance of Group races within the European Pattern so that there are more Group 3 races than Group 2, more Group 2 races than Group 1, and the total number of Group 3 races exceeds the combined total of Group 2 and Group 1 races.”

In creating the Longines World’s Best Racehorse rankings, using the rankings of an international group of official handicappers, horse racing like other sports has its own ranking system. “We are talking here about the elite races and the best horses in the world. In 2018 only 1.5% of all Flat races worldwide were Group/Graded races” said Mr. Kavanagh. Though “innovation is good and vital and should be welcomed”, he cautioned that it must be in a controlled environment, such as established and run by the European Pattern Committee.

Mr. Kavanagh concluded by warning delegates that “new high-value special races need to complement and fit in with our well established races rather than compete or challenge existing events. Otherwise it will just lead to a dilution of the quality of the overall program.” Thus very new events such as the Pegasus Cup, the Everest and the Saudi Cup first need to prove their merits as well as establishing long-term sustainability. For example, the first Saudi Cup, which is taking place shortly (29 February), will be run without grading and once established it can then be incorporated into the black type system.

In the panel discussion that followed, the speakers were joined through pre-recorded video by Mr. Peter V’landys, Chief Executive Officer of Racing New South Wales (Racing NSW). A series of questions were posed to Mr. V’landys and to the panellists, with a number of differences coming to the fore.

Asked about the driving force behind racing developing innovative concepts, Mr. V’landys said it came down to appealing to a wider audience than the traditional fanbase: “For us, it’s about generational change. Our generation is different from the upcoming generations, and I even see that in my office with a 28-year-old very different to a 20-year-old. They are different types of customers. If we continue to aim at the existing fanbase and the older demographic, we won’t leave a future for racing. I don’t care what anyone says; by doing business the way we’ve always done it, we’ve been on the decline. You have to reassess if things aren’t going right, you have to move with the times.”

Competition has been a major driving force in Australia with Mr. V’landys’ Racing NSW and Mr. Thompson’s Racing Victoria having different perspectives. The two supremos offered contrasting viewpoints about the nature of competition, both between Australian states and other jurisdictions, but also about the real opposition to their organisations.

“Competition breeds excellence and no one should be scared of competition - it’s your friend,” Mr. V’landys argued. “When New South Wales started increasing its prizemoney, the other states followed. To its credit, Victoria raised prizemoney across the board and now Queensland is doing that too. It’s good for the participants who have to earn a living out of racing; some couldn’t sustain their business. We are seeing that with new races in Victoria, like the All-Star Mile, and also up in Queensland, where they’ve introduce a four-year-old race similar to the Golden Eagle. Competition between jurisdictions has raised our game.”

“Peter and I differ slightly in what the competition is,” Mr. Thompson countered. “I don’t think the competition is between jurisdictions or between race clubs. Instead, I think other sports and other forms of entertainment are our competition. I think, if you ask the general fan, they will see racing all as one sport and not as Victoria versus New South Wales or anyone else. We’re all racing, we are a global sport and we need to work together as a group to present it that way. If you’re not coordinating with each other, you are cutting at each other’s narratives.”

The session’s final question caused the most debate between participants as the correlation between the Pattern and new races was raised.

“I’m different to most. I think that the Pattern breeds apathy because you do things the same way,” Mr. V’landys said. “It’s like a tariff and, instead, I think you should have fair trade. The Pattern is a restraint to trade. We should all aspire to be a part of the Pattern and it does have its place, but it needs to be brought into 2020 and not 1960. The world has moved forward in terms of trade and I think the Pattern should follow.”

Mr. Kavanagh responded: “The Pattern is tried and tested over generations, it is a foundation stone. Peter is obviously shaking up racing in Australia, but throwing out the Pattern is not the answer.”

Mr. Thompson agreed: “In racing, it’s vital that we put our best foot forward. The best have to race against the best to build the narrative and the Pattern helps to deliver that. If that isn’t in place, racing itself is disadvantaged.”