Today we will speak of the naming of things. If the naming of cats is a difficult matter, how much more so is the naming of racehorses. Weatherbys have a dedicated Names Team, and properly strict rules to meet practical, commercial and aesthetic criteria. No overt advertising. No filth. An 18-character maximum including spaces. No names from the Protected List (classic winners and the like). There’ll never be another Frankel. Fact. No holiday games here.
In an ideal world you’d think similarly sensible rules would apply to the naming of races, and for similar reasons. Continuity is commercial gold. Names such as The Derby, The Grand National and The St Leger resonate far beyond our island shores and lend British Racing much of the allure it has.
But ‘twas never quite thus. Sponsorship has always been a fact of life, and you can bet that the Roman Circus Maximus played host to something called the Get Your Victor Ludorum Free Abacus App on MXXVII (registered as the Pliny the Elder Stakes) just as surely as Ascot last Saturday gave us such gems as the Bet Mobile At BetVictor.com Holloway’s Hurdle (Limited Handicap) Grade 2 and – more mystically – the 1942 Was A Vintage Year Mares’ Hurdle (Registered As The Warfield Mares’ Hurdle) Grade 2 … [now what on earth was that about?]
Last week, though, came a Racing Post headline telling us that Finian’s Rainbow was being backed for the Betfair Gold Cup. Now what might that be really, thought I? A glance at the small print revealed it to be a minor West Country contest formerly known as the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Shock, horror and swift access to the smelling salts.
You don’t have to be a traditionalist to feel that something has gone wrong here, and is going wronger. Sponsorship is a fact of life, but you’d never get this sort of thing in opera or the theatre. We don’t get The Santander (registered as Bizet’s Carmen) from English National Opera, or The Laphroig 15-Year Old Single Cask (registered as Shakespeare’s Macbeth) from the Royal Shakespeare Company. We wouldn’t even (more’s the pity) get the Virgin Traviata.
I’m not having a pop at the arrogance of sponsors, but at the stupidity of racecourse marketing suits. Is a horse race any less a cultural event than a theatre performance? Aren’t the courses shooting themselves in the foot by handing over precious assets so tamely? Shouldn’t everyone know what they’re getting? It’s not as if the sponsorship money goes to boost prize funds, in the great majority of cases. It doesn’t go to the winners. It goes to refurbish the bars, or more likely straight into the till.
Names do matter. Not because of the Shibboleth of Tradition – new races have always come along as old ones fade away – but for sensible commercial reasons of continuity and brand recognition. There is also the little matter of History. It’s important for us to cherish the name of the St Simon (sorry, Worthington’s Champion Shield) Stakes and the John Porter (apologies, Dubai Duty Free Finest Surprise) Stakes because thinking about where they come from enriches and deepens what is at a primary level, whether for punters, first-time racegoers, owners or anoraks, a cultural experience.
Other countries can appreciate that History is different from Tradition, which tends to amount merely to how we remember things were when we were kids. Look across the Pond. You’d never find the Americans allowing a Yum Brands Kentucky Derby. The pro-forma there is The Kentucky Derby, sponsored by Yum Brands. Yum know full well that it this format provides much better PR for them than simply hijacking the entire race name. It makes them seem a modest, respectful and generous company rather than arrogant, greedy and small-minded parvenus. It makes Churchill Downs an equal partner in the game rather than salaried sycophants. And it makes everyone feel good about adding their brick to the wall of history.
Who here has power to remedy this ill? BHA have their hands full of … perhaps more pressing business. The RCA will not cede any control over such things unless it has to. Yet certainly in those cases – the majority – where sponsorship doesn’t add a bean to the prize fund, surely those cool cats at the Levy Board ought to have something to say about the hijacking of important race names at no gain to our sport? Because names do matter. Over to them…