Racing hopes to be in a league of its own, thanks partly to Pogba

by Pirate IRWIN
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Pogba scoring for Manchester United is the unlikely inspiration for the newly launched Racing League, founder Jeremy Wray told AFP

French football World Cup winner Paul Pogba is the unwitting inspiration for the Racing League, a series hoping to attract a fresh fanbase for horse racing, its founder Jeremy Wray told AFP.

Wray was speaking at the launch at the historic Queen's Club -- usually associated with the Wimbledon warm-up tennis tournament.

The series will see 12 teams -- each with three to four trainers, three jockeys and totalling 30 horses -- contesting 36 races all worth �50,000 ($64,000).

The races over various distances will be hosted by four UK racecourses and take place on six consecutive Thursdays beginning on July 16, with all of them televised.

Points will be allocated from the winner (25) down to 10th place (1), with the winning team scooping bonus prize money -- the amount is yet to be announced -- at the end of the series.

There will also be a "hands and heels" policy where the jockey will only be able to use the whip for safety purposes.

Wray says his "Hallelujah moment" came three years ago when he was in a sports bar in London.

"On one screen there was football and Pogba was taking a free-kick for Manchester United, you knew that because his name was on the back of his red shirt," said CEO of Championship Horse Racing Wray.

"On the other screen there was a race with the sound turned down and I was probably the only person who recognised it was Brighton.

"There was a three-way photo finish and the guy next to me at the bar asked me who are the jockeys? I said 'No idea'.

"Who is the photo between? I again said I had no idea. I suddenly realised the sport is anonymous.

"It was the Hallelujah moment. We had to do something."

Wray, former chairman of Swindon Town football club, said the jockeys will have their names on the back of their silks as they want to "showcase elite athletes".

He also said it might help to find new personalities to fill the considerable vacuum that will be left when superstar Italian Frankie Dettori eventually retires.

"If you take a straw poll of people outside the sport to name three jockeys I can tell you number three is Lester Piggott and that is 40 years out," said Wray.

"Frankie is in a league of his own and is wonderful for the sport.

"Jumps jockey AP McCoy is the second name people mention and he has also retired. There are a whole load of elite athletes on the flat that people know nothing about."

- 'Twilight horses' -

Wray says, though, a key motive is to encourage a new fanbase -- there will be a 'Super' fan chosen for each team and one of them will share in the bonus prize money.

"One can't be complacent -- the numbers of spectators are dwindling," he said.

"The average age of both owners and spectators is going in the wrong direction.

"The question is how do you engage these people.

"We are not knocking innovations out there but they are going to the top level of racing and aimed at the same people.

"I am sure a lot of things won't work but hopefully there are innovations we introduce that will work and attract people by shaping it in a different way."

Wray believes the league will also benefit trainers who are unable to compete financially at the sales when it comes to buying Group class horses.

"It is a great chance for smaller to middle ranking trainers," he said.

"It is a great opportunity to show 'I am good at this job as well'."

One of those trainers, George Baker, told AFP attracting younger spectators is crucial as the demographics when you go to a midweek meeting at Brighton are "scary".

He also said for his owners the prize money represented a sizeable improvement on an average handicap.

"These horses I would describe as 'twilight horses'," he said.

"They are not good enough to race in the big handicaps or decent non-handicaps and often we would sell them.

"However, this gives them a chance at some decent prize money."

Pogba scoring for Manchester United is the unlikely inspiration for the newly launched Racing League, founder Jeremy Wray told AFP

Wray hopes the Racing League will propel jockeys into the public consciousness

The Racing League is a boon to mid-level trainers, like George Baker, who could now compete for decent prize money