Sheikh Fahad Al-Thani, the driving force behind British Champions Day at Ascot, was a student when he fell in love with racing and it is students he and his brothers see as the sport’s future lifeblood, said David Redvers, Manager of Qatar Racing AFP.
Some 26,000 spectators – including 600 students paying £15 (US$17) – are expected to attend Champions Day on Saturday, with headline attraction Baaeed looking to end his career unbeaten with an 11th win in 11 races.
That’s a far cry from the 32,000 who were on parade when another superhorse Frankel retired in 2012 with his 14th win in 14 races.
The number of students is significantly fewer than the 3,000 who have taken part in the past and while the talking Redvers praises the work of Great British Racing – the sport’s official marketing and promotional organization – he admits that “more is being done could” to promote the event the figures.
Crowds will more than attend Europe’s most prestigious race, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, earlier this month – estimated at between 22,000 and 25,000 – which Redvers says is “fantastic”.
“It’s still not good enough,” he told AFP at the Newmarket yearling sales.
“We have to stay innovative as much as possible.
“The most convincing argument is that you don’t see so many high-class horses anywhere else.
“We need to spread the message a little bit better, there’s still more we can do and I’m a little frustrated that we haven’t done more.”
– ‘Traumatic Time’ –
Convincing students to race or get involved seems increasingly urgent as race participation falls sharply – numbers were down 27 percent in August from a year earlier.
Redvers says it’s a “core belief” for Sheikh Fahad and his brothers why their Qatar Investment and Project Development Holding Company (QIPCO) has supported Champions Day since the inaugural meeting in 2011.
“Sheikh Fahad was a student in London and when he turned on the TV and watched races he got hooked, thank God for us,” said Redvers.
“He loved the banter, loved the story and the solving of the mysteries.
“When we are students, that is the time when people’s minds are most fertile and open to concepts and ideas.
“So it’s our responsibility to sow the seed and attract those who aren’t already involved because of a family connection.
“Attracting the boys seems so obvious and why we should target them.”
Sheikh Fahad switched from a student to a seat next to the late Queen Elizabeth II when he told AFP she had told him he could ‘shout’ his Star Roaring Lion home to compete in the 2018 Champions Day race named in her honour to win.
Redvers admits he could easily be described as a student – his only interest, fitting for someone whose father was an artist, was art history – when he fell in love with her while working at a stud farm in Australia.
But for those students who fall in love with horse racing, Redvers serves as a salutary reminder that it’s also a hard hitting school.
In his early 20s, he ran into serious financial difficulties when he was unable to sell shares in horses he had bought.
He even sat outside his house with a shotgun one day, contemplating blowing off one of his fingers carrying a £10,000 insurance policy if he lost a finger in an accident.
He decided against it when he realized the payout would be just a drop in the bucket.
“Fortunately, there are some incredibly kind people in this industry who have helped me look forward after this traumatic time.
“My journey is amazing when I think about it, but when you go into that sales ring and you look at the people who are doing really well, most of us are risk takers.
“There’s a degree of skill in picking a champion, but there’s a greater degree of luck.
“I’m feeling well? No, because there are always people chasing you, but I’m incredibly fortunate to be doing what I love.”