Lauren and Garvan celebrating a win at the Races

Horse racing and millennials: Social frenzy vs. sporting tradition

Horse racing has been a part of Australia’s sporting culture since early settlement. But in the 21st century, a day at the races is more of a social affair enjoyed by millennials.

Like most things in Australia, horse racing started as a cultural import from England with early settlers ingraining the sport as a tradition by 1810. Horse racing soon reigned supreme. The Sydney Turf Club, now known as the Australian Turf Club (ATC), was established in 1825 while the Australian Jockey Club was founded 17 years later.

Fast forward to the 21st Century and a day at the races is no longer a tradition passed from generation to generation. Many shun the sport amid claims of animal cruelty. In fact, only 20 per cent of millennials say they follow the jockeys, trainers and horses in the industry.

It’s become an almost niche sport with the racetrack now a destination that millennials flock to in the Autumn and the Spring.

A socialite paradise

ATC Board Director and Marketing consultant, Angela Belle McSweeney, has had a major impact on the social side of the races. Over her more than 30-year career in the industry, she has delivered social and fashion coverage and led the revival of “Fashions on the Field.” Since then, race day fashion has become a popular factor with millennials – welcoming the chance to ‘dress to the nines’.

Ms McSweeney said the races have always been a very social event in Australia.

“The Races provide fun for the children, a chance to get dressed up and socialise for the women, the beauty and excitement of the horses for all, and the men have a chance to enjoy a bet and camaraderie with their mates,” she told Hatch.

With most sports in Australia, an athlete or a team will entice a crowd to its arena. With horse racing – for the majority of millennials – it is not what is on the track that counts. The culture of the sport is built around the social aspects that it has to offer; a place to have a drink and a bet.

In a survey of 72 young people, 88 per cent said they attend the races for social purposes rather than to watch the sport itself. Twenty-eight per cent of respondents said they attend the races strictly to have a bet and a drink while 47 per cent go for birthday parties or other special occasions.

The attraction of betting is one of the pillars of horse racing. In the early days of racing, the thrill of putting a bet on a race is what drove the popularity of the sport. The continuation of bookmakers – more commonly known as ‘bookies’ – at the racetrack, offers a taste of what it was like to bet in the past. However, the rise of online betting has taken a bit of that buzz away.

In the modern sporting landscape in Australia, anyone is allowed to place a bet on any sport at the event or from home. When asked about the process of putting a bet on a race, 46 per cent of millennials said they pick a horse based on its name and 42 per cent said they go by its form.

When survey participants were asked if they were satisfied after a day at the races, the responses were split in half. For those who answered yes, it was based on the atmosphere at the track and socialising with friends. The negative half talked about how expensive the day can be or were against the treatment of racehorses.

Social media in modern racing

One respondent credits social media as a driving factor in getting people back to the track.

“Our generation, through social media, has seen friends enjoying a good time and dressing up,” they said. “Without Instagram and Facebook, not as many people would be consciously aware such a great day can be had.”

Millennials celebrating a birthday at the Races (Photo: Olivia Silk)

At the track, the ATC promotes #theraces to racegoers to add to their social media photos. On Instagram, the hashtag has been used on over 63,500 posts.

From a marketing perspective, the ability to advertise racing on social platforms has boosted the coverage of the sport. Ms McSweeney said the world of social media has become a marketing bonus in the racing industry.

“The ATC is more focused now on attracting young people to the races so we provide many incentives to bring them to the sport, such as special functions and an ATC voluntary committee to give suggestions on exactly what young members want,” she said.

The marketing strategies used range from ‘Fashions on the Field’ to local and international artists performing after the last race. At the inaugural Everest race in Sydney last year, Jason Derulo performed a concert at the Royal Randwick racetrack. Australian act, Birds of Tokyo, also played a gig for racegoers at the end of the Golden Slipper Day in March.

Racing journalist Brad Davidson has been going to the track since he was a young kid. He now works as a racing analyst for The Daily Telegraph and Sky Racing. Mr Davidson believes the ATC style of advertising will potentially draw a younger crowd to the track.

“They’ve just got to keep thinking outside the box and finding ways, like through music and entertainment and things like that, just to get people to the track because I think the biggest issue is actually getting people there,” he said.

Another plus of social media is the ability to interact with racing industry figures online.

Mr Davidson said that the comments can swing both ways: “That’s one way that it’s definitely a positive, the social media and people being able to talk to trainers, journalists and jockeys online.

“I suppose it’s got the spin-off as well, where we’ve seen derogatory and horrible comments to jockeys and trainers on there as well – which is unacceptable and something that we need to try and continue to stamp out.”

We’ll be riding on the horses…

In regards to the sport itself, people are increasingly talking about the real stars: the horses. Champion horses like Winx and Black Caviar have stolen news headlines and the hearts of the Australian public.

Black Caviar was unbeaten as a sprinter over her five-year career. The mare won 25 races in a row and raced both in Australia and in the UK. The undefeated stint is the second longest in the world and the next Australian horse to be even close to that record was Grand Flaneur, who raced in the late 1800s, with nine consecutive wins. Black Caviar’s most notable win is when she took on the world in the Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot in England.

Although she was beaten early in her career, Winx equalled Black Caviar’s record of 25 successive wins, in early April. She looks to go one better in the Spring. In comparison to the sprinter, Winx has won at six different distances ranging from 1400m to 2000m.

Mr Davidson believes that Winx still has the pulling power to bring crowds to the track but it comes at a price.

“When she races we generally see between 5000 and 10,000 people more at the races so that’s big. I think it comes down to a winning streak of a horse these days [more] than anything else,” he said.

“If you look at Chautauqua and even Redzel, they’re really, really good horses but I wouldn’t think any of my non-racing friends would actually know those horses. I’ve had to show videos to a couple of my mates of those horses and they go ‘wow, that’s the first time I’ve heard of that horse’ but they’ve all heard of Winx and Black Caviar and that’s down to, I think, the winning streak.”

When a group of young people were on the spot to name any racehorse, only 47 per cent could. Among the responses, Winx was the thoroughbred most millenials named.

“If Winx’s winning streak was to end tomorrow – let’s hope it doesn’t – but if it did, I think a lot of the general public attention would definitely go off her because it’s all about adding another number to the count,” Mr Davidson said. “It’s about ‘how high can she go? Can she match Black Caviar’s winning streak?

“People love a winning streak and love a horse that’s never beaten, so I think it’s harder to sell champion horses that don’t have those long winning streaks as Winx and Black Caviar have.”

So, what does the future look like?

The question of whether the sport can survive can’t be answered with absolute certainty.

Among millennials, there are mixed opinions on whether the popularity of horse racing has increased or decreased over the past 10 years.

“Gambling and drinking and the social aspect have increased. It’s almost a rite of passage for a teen to go to the races,” one respondent said.

Another respondent also mentioned Australia’s gambling culture and the temptation of going to the races to have a punt… but they also emphasised the promotion of successful horses in the industry.

“I think there’s a steady group of racegoers who frequently attend because they love the sport, mixed with those who have been drawn into coming because of the much-publicised success of horses like Black Caviar and Winx.”

On the other hand, the discussion around animal cruelty has influenced millennial opinion.

A participant in the survey said: “I wish that people would do their research before supporting such a disgusting industry that abuses animals for only one reason; money. These horses are pushed to the limit and then once they are past their ‘use by date’, they are destroyed.”

Others just think the sport has lost its ‘pizzazz’.

Mr Davidson believes the future of racing is not necessarily up to the millennials: “I think it’s up to the actual racing clubs and administrators to entice the millennials and to make sure they want to be a part of it. I think really for the future of the sport, it’s at a real pivotal point at the moment.

“Everything is simultaneous and there are so many things to choose from. Where 10 to 20 years ago, a day at the track was seen as probably something pretty special… now there are so many options for people to look at that they’re not heading to the track in droves anymore or not as interested in horse racing,” he said. – Olivia Silk