Plan for Turf data payments is another house of cards
(Guardian (UK) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) It is easy to become a bit too cynical after a decade or two spent observing the factional friction in racing politics. You can end up seeing hidden motives and scheming everywhere, and convince yourself that someone is thinking three moves ahead when, in truth, they are probably not thinking at all. In the match-race between cock-up and conspiracy, the former is always the odds-on chance.
Even so, 4.51pm on Friday afternoon seems like a very peculiar time to push the button on an industry-related press release if you want to get it noticed. More peculiar still when it announces a brand-new business venture to help promote racing, with the approval of racecourses, owners and the British Horseracing Authority alike.
Perhaps the finger on the button was simply itching to get on with the weekend. Then again, since the press release in question contained the words "pre-race data", "overarching aims" and "marketplace", perhaps it was a little nervous too. There are still some grizzled veterans on racing and sport desks, after all, who remember the Data War of 2002.
For the benefit of younger readers, the war broke out when Peter Savill, the chairman of the British Horseracing Board, racing's ruling body at the time, tried to force newspapers to pay 100 times more than had previously been the case for the right to print racecards.
Savill's proposal was based on circulation, rather than the number of readers actually looking at the racing page, and seemed to think it reasonable that the Sun, for instance, should see its data bill increase from pounds 3,500 each year to pounds 340,000.
Across what used to be called Fleet Street, sports editors - whose only previous interest in racing outside Cheltenham and Ascot had been to wonder why the racecards had to take up so much precious space - started to look at pre-race data in an entirely different light.
They also started to wonder whether, in view of the huge amount of free advertising which racing and its sponsors received every day, the payments should not be the other way round. By the time Savill saw sense and backed down, local papers had started dropping racecards and the nationals were planning to excise sponsors' names from both data and copy.
Much has changed since then. The Guardian, clearly, no longer prints racecards on a daily basis, reasoning instead that it makes more sense to provide lifetime form for every horse in every race via www.theguardian.com/sport/horse-racing. Print as a medium is also 12 years closer to the grave, with most newspapers suffering sharp falls in circulation.
The memory of Savill's humiliating climbdown seems to be fading too, because the press release which arrived on Friday announced the formation of the Racecourse Data Company. RDC is a joint venture which includes every British track except Towcester, and has been formed to "license [the use of] pre-race data" via a "simple and coherent regime" and a "transparent rate-card utilised across all customers".
Even in corporate-speak, that sounds like fightin' talk. RDC intends to squeeze the data for all it can get and somewhere along the line, it may well try to finish what Savill could not.
But it would be every bit as short-sighted now as it was back then. The value in pre-race data derives from what people use it for, which is principally betting. The more information punters have, the more likely they are to bet on a race. Conversely, if the supply is reduced - and hiking the price of something does tend to have that effect - then so too is the inclination to bet.
Extracting every possible penny from pre-race data might look smart in the short term, but if it reduces betting turnover in the longer term, it will be pointless and ultimately counterproductive.
It has been pointed out in this column that racing is top-heavy with executives who know a great deal about exploiting media rights and the square root of nothing about betting. Which is a pity, because one of the many useful lessons to be gleaned from betting is the value of learning from your mistakes.
(c) 2014 Guardian Newspapers Limited.
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