Finding Owners

First Past the Post      Millennials: as the younger generation of trainers comes of age, could they teach the old guard a thing or two about attracting and retaining new owners to the sport? As the racing industry collectively seeks to recruit a younger, more diverse demographic, and trainers are having to get increasingly creative in order to entice new owners into the sport, it is the trainers of the social media generation who are taking the reins.     The best way to make a small fortune in racing, so goes the proverb, is to start with a large fortune. But how large? £22,595, to be exact. According to the Racehorse Owners Association, that was the average cost of owning a flat racehorse in the UK in 2017 (the last year for which figures are available); and that’s before entry fees, veterinary bills and insurance are factored into the equation. Based on a horse’s running an average of 7.4 times a year, that gives a ‘cost-per-run’ of £3,053—in other words, a snip at £20 per second. Translated into Millennial parlance, that’s a lot of pieces of avocado toast. In short, you don’t have to be royalty to participate in the sport of kings, but it helps. So where do trainers find a pool of people willing to submit their bank balance to this particular kind of reverse equine alchemy?     The answer—as for where you turn when you want to find out what type of sandwich you are based on, your star sign or who would play your best friend in the movie of your life—is social media. Increasingly, trainers are turning to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to advertise their wares to the wider world. These days, seemingly every trainer—Millennial or not—and his dog have a social media account (just ask the latest star of the Twittersphere, Jamie Osborne’s infamous whippet, Bad Bobby). “I think Facebook, Twitter and Instagram certainly help reach a larger audience”, says the decidedly non-Millennial Robert Cowell who, at 50, would doubtless be the first to admit that he is more au fait with winning posts than Facebook posts. “A lot of people that we have engaged with are very interested in the day-to-day life of what goes on in a racing yard. Short videos and little pictures every now and again—just giving them an update of what we do—is certainly no skin off our nose, and if it helps people to understand our industry, then I think it’s a very good thing”.     But though the tools at today’s trainers’ disposal may be relatively new-fangled, it remains to be seen just how novel this approach is in reality. From social media to syndicates, trainers have always sought new avenues to bring racehorse ownership to a wider public and diversify their portfolio of owners. Now a common sight on racecourses throughout Europe and, indeed, the world, the first syndicates in the UK were set up by Kennet Valley Thoroughbreds and then Highclere Racing more than 20 years ago. Today, Highclere is one of the largest manager of syndicates in Europe, where syndicate ownership is increasingly popular even as sole ownership is declining. In the UK alone, 5,447 people participated in ownership via syndicates or other shared ownership schemes in 2018—an increase of 6.2% year-on-year. Compare that with a 1.4% drop in sole ownership over the same period. So what is it about the communal approach that appeals to owners? The most obvious answer is the price: for a fraction of the cost of owning a racehorse outright, a syndicate member can rub shoulders with the Queen and Sheikh Mohammed in owners’ enclosures from Ascot to York. Yet the calibre of some of the celebrity clientele (high-profile syndicate members have included Sir Alec Ferguson, Elizabeth Hurley and Carol Vorderman, who can surely be counted upon to have done the math) belies the theory that cost alone is behind syndicates’ popularity. Indeed, research shows that the satisfaction rating for syndicate members is 8.2 out of 10, compared to 7.5 out of 10 for sole owners, according to a 2016 survey undertaken by sports marketing agency Two Circles on behalf of the ROA and the BHA. Instead, the suggestion is that syndicate ownership appeals to civilians and celebrities alike because it confers a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself; of belonging to a community with whom to share in the highs and lows—in other words, that sounds rather a lot like a social network (Mark Zuckerberg, eat your heart out). So why not go all out for syndicates and the relative security they provide, rather than putting all one’s eggs in the gilded baskets of capricious individual owners?     “I think syndicates are a great thing”, says Edward Bethell who, at 26, sits squarely in the ‘digital native’ demographic. “I think trainers should do more of it. But then syndicates are a full-time job in themselves because you need someone to manage them. People need to be updated regularly”. So where does Bethell think trainers, and particularly young trainers, should focus their efforts? “I’m a big believer in social media. I think it gets you out there.  For a smaller trainer or for a young guy, you’ve got to create a niche in the market for yourself. I think social media can only be a good thing as long as you’re using it in a positive way”. Bethell, who has worked in Australia for Gai Waterhouse and sojourned for a stint in France, has overhauled his father’s social media profile and is making a name for himself as something of a social media maven.     His slick use of social media has already hooked a potential new owner from the Middle East. “They saw my father’s business, when I was working for him, through Instagram, and they got in touch with me. Whether we buy something at the breeze-up sales, I don’t know. It’s a work in progress”. Edward and his father sit at the crossroads of the generational divide. “My father hates social media. He doesn’t get it; he’s not from the social media age. I’ve grown up with it, and it’s second nature to me. Everyone checks Instagram. Everyone checks Twitter. Everyone checks Facebook. I think social media can only be a good thing”.  “We’re too old-fashioned”, agrees Edward’s father, Group-winning trainer James Bethell. “Edward has tried to bring us into the twentieth century”, he sighs. Next stop: the twenty-first.     Edward and James Bethell are not the only father-son duo to find themselves on opposite sides of the social media debate. While Aiden O’Brien’s Ballydoyle operation barely maintains a Twitter account, posting, on average, once a month, his son Joseph is embracing social media. Last year, the scion of Ballydoyle—apparently not heading the warning of the Natural Environment Research Council’s attempt to name their polar research vessel—asked the denizens of Twitter to help christen a four-year-old Presenting filly in his care. The original tweet elicited more than 3,000 suggestions (including the inevitable Horsey McHorseface) before the trainer settled on Seldom Is Precious. Joseph O’Brien was quoted at the time as saying, “We thought we'd put it out on Twitter for bit of craic. I cannot believe the reaction it got. It's definitely something I'd think about doing again, and we certainly got a nice name out of it".     While not every trainer is willing to place his or her fate in the hands of anonymous Twitter eggs quite so brazenly, it is undeniable that social platforms have allowed the racing industry to open its doors to the public like never before. It’s a similar picture in continental Europe, where the embrace of social media has allowed unprecedented levels of access to racing’s inner sanctum. “Times have changed. They [the public] need to be aware of what’s going on, which I understand very well”, says Nicolas Clement. Once a young whipper snapper himself, Chantilly-based Clement is a 30-year veteran of the industry. (“I was the youngest at the time. I’m still not the oldest”!) He uses Facebook and WhatsApp to communicate with his existing owners, as well as attract new ones. He is an advocate of the personalised approach to communication that social media allows. “We’ve got a Facebook page, we’ve got WhatsApp groups. Every owner is different. It’s a bit of a social club for some of them, for some it’s a family tradition; some it’s the love of the horses. You really want to match your service to the type of owner you’ve got”.     “You’ve just got to embrace technology”, says Edward Bethell. “I know a lot of the older trainers don’t, and I don’t see why. You’ve got to be vibrant and you’ve got to be ahead of the game and be ahead of your competition”. He may soon get his wish. Michael Behrens is the creator of MyRacehorse, an app that allows punters to buy shares of racehorses online for as little as $100 (£75). Launched in California in 2016, MyRacehorse works by establishing a company for each horse offered and then selling stock in that company. “We’ve had over 20 horses listed on our platform. We’ve had thousands of people download and register. And we’ve sold pieces of all 20 horses through the app”, says Behrens. “On top of that, you have a suite of people who will facilitate the racetrack engagements, barn tours and race days, all through the app”. It’s a model that has more in common with speculation, or even gaming, than traditional ownership. “If you think about the mass adoption [of racehorse ownership] in places like Australia, where I’ve read that one out of every seven people is involved in ownership, it seemed like a logical part of the sport was to embrace the gaming and the experiential component”. With a minimum outlay of less than the price of a plane ticket to California, MyRacehorse has the potential to democratise the industry in ways that could not have been imagined in the pre-digital age. “Our goal was to have every fan have the ability to join ownership at some level, so we tried to keep the price point in line with that mission”, explains Behrens. “There are a lot of partnerships out there across the globe that will allow you to come in for, say, $5,000. We always try to have at least one horse on the platform that you can invest in for $100. Usually that represents about 0.1% ownership. We have some horses that are a little bit more expensive, more stakes calibre-type horses, and you’ll see $200 or $300 for 0.1%. We see a lot of new people come in who buy one or two shares to have a unique experience, and we see others who are using it as a way to diversify and get a lot more action for what they used to spend on one share [in a traditional shared ownership scheme]”. Behrens’s team is in the process of bringing the app to the European market. Although initially Europeans will only be able to buy into horses training in California, eventually the intention is to bring European trainers on board. In the meantime, it’s good news for any European racing fan who has ever dreamed of owning a Kentucky Derby contender and has £75 to spare. “One of our ideas is to go in and buy a really well-bred two-year-old with that Classic pedigree and then make them available internationally”, says Behrens. Watch this space.     Yet despite the plethora of modern methods at trainers’ disposal for attracting new owners—from Instagram and apps to celebrity syndicates—there remains one tried-and-tested formula for recruiting and retaining owners: results. “Results mean everything. Ultimately the best way of attracting owners is by getting results”, concedes social-savvy Bethel fils. Bethel père concurs: “Results are important. I’ve always said that your owners come from your other owners. That’s how we’ve managed. Someone says they’re happy with us, and they put someone else your way”. On this, it seems, both the older and the younger generation can agree. And that’s one for the (Face)books.

By Alysen Miller

Millennials: as the younger generation of trainers comes of age, could they teach the old guard a thing or two about attracting and retaining new owners to the sport? As the racing industry collectively seeks to recruit a younger, more diverse demographic, and trainers are having to get increasingly creative in order to entice new owners into the sport, it is the trainers of the social media generation who are taking the reins.

The best way to make a small fortune in racing, so goes the proverb, is to start with a large fortune. But how large? £22,595, to be exact. According to the Racehorse Owners Association, that was the average cost of owning a flat racehorse in the UK in 2017 (the last year for which figures are available); and that’s before entry fees, veterinary bills and insurance are factored into the equation. Based on a horse’s running an average of 7.4 times a year, that gives a ‘cost-per-run’ of £3,053—in other words, a snip at £20 per second. Translated into Millennial parlance, that’s a lot of pieces of avocado toast. In short, you don’t have to be royalty to participate in the sport of kings, but it helps. So where do trainers find a pool of people willing to submit their bank balance to this particular kind of reverse equine alchemy?

Robert Cowell

Robert Cowell

The answer—as for where you turn when you want to find out what type of sandwich you are based on, your star sign or who would play your best friend in the movie of your life—is social media. Increasingly, trainers are turning to Facebook, Instagram and Twitter to advertise their wares to the wider world. These days, seemingly every trainer—Millennial or not—and his dog have a social media account (just ask the latest star of the Twittersphere, Jamie Osborne’s infamous whippet, Bad Bobby). “I think Facebook, Twitter and Instagram certainly help reach a larger audience”, says the decidedly non-Millennial Robert Cowell who, at 50, would doubtless be the first to admit that he is more au fait with winning posts than Facebook posts. “A lot of people that we have engaged with are very interested in the day-to-day life of what goes on in a racing yard. Short videos and little pictures every now and again—just giving them an update of what we do—is certainly no skin off our nose, and if it helps people to understand our industry, then I think it’s a very good thing”.

But though the tools at today’s trainers’ disposal may be relatively new-fangled, it remains to be seen just how novel this approach is in reality. From social media to syndicates, trainers have always sought new avenues to bring racehorse ownership to a wider public and diversify their portfolio of owners. Now a common sight on racecourses throughout Europe and, indeed, the world, the first syndicates in the UK were set up by Kennet Valley Thoroughbreds and then Highclere Racing more than 20 years ago. Today, Highclere is one of the largest manager of syndicates in Europe, where syndicate ownership is increasingly popular even as sole ownership is declining. In the UK alone, 5,447 people participated in ownership via syndicates or other shared ownership schemes in 2018—an increase of 6.2% year-on-year. Compare that with a 1.4% drop in sole ownership over the same period. So what is it about the communal approach that appeals to owners? The most obvious answer is the price: for a fraction of the cost of owning a racehorse outright, a syndicate member can rub shoulders with the Queen and Sheikh Mohammed in owners’ enclosures from Ascot to York. Yet the calibre of some of the celebrity clientele (high-profile syndicate members have included Sir Alec Ferguson, Elizabeth Hurley and Carol Vorderman, who can surely be counted upon to have done the math) belies the theory that cost alone is behind syndicates’ popularity.

Indeed, research shows that the satisfaction rating for syndicate members is 8.2 out of 10, compared to 7.5 out of 10 for sole owners, according to a 2016 survey undertaken by sports marketing agency Two Circles on behalf of the ROA and the BHA. Instead, the suggestion is that syndicate ownership appeals to civilians and celebrities alike because it confers a sense of being a part of something larger than oneself; of belonging to a community with whom to share in the highs and lows—in other words, that sounds rather a lot like a social network (Mark Zuckerberg, eat your heart out). So why not go all out for syndicates and the relative security they provide, rather than putting all one’s eggs in the gilded baskets of capricious individual owners?

Edward Bethell

Edward Bethell

“I think syndicates are a great thing”, says Edward Bethell who, at 26, sits squarely in the ‘digital native’ demographic. “I think trainers should do more of it. But then syndicates are a full-time job in themselves because you need someone to manage them. People need to be updated regularly”. So where does Bethell think trainers, and particularly young trainers, should focus their efforts? “I’m a big believer in social media. I think it gets you out there.

For a smaller trainer or for a young guy, you’ve got to create a niche in the market for yourself. I think social media can only be a good thing as long as you’re using it in a positive way”. Bethell, who has worked in Australia for Gai Waterhouse and sojourned for a stint in France, has overhauled his father’s social media profile and is making a name for himself as something of a social media maven.

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All tied up?

Dr. Andreas Jacobs

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