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Last Updated: Friday, 24 March 2006, 23:34 GMT
Horseracing gallops to see off rivals
By Will Smale
BBC News business reporter

Horse racing
Some 5.8 million people went to the races last year

Kempton Park Racecourse in south-west London has reopened after an 18.8m redevelopment. The investment suggests that horseracing is now running at a gallop to retain its leading place in the UK gambling sector.

With Ascot Racecourse also reopening after a giant redevelopment in June, horseracing is upping its game to compete more effectively for the public's betting money.

In recent years, horseracing's biggest new challenge has been the explosion in internet casinos.

With an estimated $1m (574,000) in bets now being made globally every minute on online poker alone, it is not hard to see how UK horseracing has experienced a reduction in its share of the gambling market.

Over the past decade, its share has dipped from approximately 70% to 50%, according to the British Horseracing Board.

Further competitors have come in the shape of the National Lottery, automated gambling machines in bookmakers and the increased liberalisation of High Street casinos.

The government is also planning to allow the establishment of at least one Las Vegas-style "super-casino".

Compared to a decade ago, it is much easier today for punters to choose an alternative sport, game or competition on which to place their bet.

They can, for example, simply buy a scratchcard when they pop into a newsagent for their morning paper.

Leisure industry

Yet horseracing is, of course, far from just a means to place a bet. As venues rich in heritage and tradition, the UK's 59 racecourses are attractions in their own right, with more than 1,300 fixtures a year.

Women at Royal Ascot week
Going horseracing is far from just about gambling

And as gambling revenues are squeezed by increased competition, racecourses are increasingly reinventing themselves as leisure destinations, improving their facilities both to attract new visitors and to offer more comforts for their regulars.

With more facilities, such as a wider range of restaurants and bars, racecourses can substantially boost their revenue streams.

Kempton Park is reopening after its owner, Racecourse Holdings Trust, spent 18.8m building an all-weather track, installing floodlights and improving other facilities.

While not forgetting its traditional jump races on grass, Kempton Park is partially reinventing itself as an evening flat-racing venue.

With its own railway station just half an hour from London Waterloo, it hopes to attract Londoners to regular floodlit evening racing.

"Horseracing is now very much in the leisure market," says RHT spokesman Johnno Spence.

"Therefore we have to compete with competitors such as cinemas, bars, restaurants and the like.

"The growth of online casinos can be seen as a threat, but horseracing remains very popular and we are working hard to attract new customers.

"You can also argue that online casinos are helpful, as they increase the mindset of people to have a bet, and the majority of punters do bet on more than one event.

"There is room in the larger gambling industry for all to be successful."

Calendar events

Closed since 2004, Ascot Racecourse reopens in June for its famous Royal Ascot week, after its owners spent no less than 200m on building a giant new grandstand and transforming pretty much all of the facilities at the track.

Online casino
Online casinos have seen an explosion in popularity

"We wanted to produce a state-of-the-art sports stadium that matched the quality of racing we offer on the track," says Ascot's head of public relations, Nick Smith.

"Ascot is a very famous track and obviously we are confident of our ongoing popularity, but at the same time, we are not resting on our laurels.

"We are proactively marketing towards a young customer base to take over and build up our profile for the future."

Mr Smith added that while horseracing faced increased competition in the gambling market, it also had increased opportunities.

"Gambling is now much more acceptable, and while horseracing's market share may have dipped to 50%, it is 50% of a much larger pool," he says.

Giant attendances

With Doncaster Racecourse now also temporarily closed for redevelopment, this year will also see the opening of the first new racecourse in the UK since 1927 - Great Leighs, near Chelmsford in Essex.

Due to launch in the autumn, its all-weather track will provide year-round racing.

Themis Kokolakakis of Sheffield Hallam University, an expert on the gambling industry, says the giant upsurge in the popularity of online casinos could have a negative effect on horseracing, but that it is too early to say.

Artist's impression on the new Ascot
Ascot's new grandstand will have a wealth of facilities

"There is only so much the gambling sector can take [in terms of its size] and online casinos could hit horseracing," he says.

"But it is only speculation at this stage, as there is no hard data yet available."

Will Lambe, communications manager for the British Horseracing Board, said the industry was looking forward to seeing off its challengers.

"Last year, more than 11bn was bet on UK horseracing and attendances were more than 5.8 million people," he says.

"In fact, attendances at horse racing events are second only to football, as are television viewing figures.

"Some people are staggered, but the industry directly employs 60,000 people in the UK. And our meetings are world-renowned.

"A lot of people come into it from the gambling side, but others simply love horses or the great social occasion."

Royal Ascot confirms return home
11 Oct 05 |  Horse Racing
From nags to riches
04 Aug 03 |  Business
Tracking Kempton's future
24 Dec 02 |  Horse Racing

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