SHOULD NON-FUNGIBLE TOKENS AND VIRTUAL HORSE STABLES CONCERN THE CONVENTIONAL RACING ENTERPRISE?

If you have been reading financial news, you may have come across stories about Non-Fungible Tokens (NFTs). Concisely put, an NFT can be described as a record of ownership of something digital, usually a piece of online art.

More precisely, NFTs are little bits of digital art bought and sold like tangible art.  They are recorded on a blockchain ledger linked to the cryptocurrency Ethereum.

Just as a physical piece of paper with the signature of a famous person would be considered valuable, so too are certain digital items. The initial tweet—by Twitter founder Jack Dorsey—was recently sold as an NFT, with the buyer paying a hefty $2.9 million.

So, what in the world has this to do with horse racing? Well, a few weeks ago, news broke that a company, Zed Run, had secured $20 million in funding for its virtual horse racing game.  Calling it a “game” is a little bit of a misnomer, however.   It is more like a virtual stable, where people can buy horses, race them, breed them, and sell them to other buyers.

As you might have guessed, the horses in question are NFTs that potentially sell for a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars. A person could invest in a real racehorse for that kind of money, so why do people bother with NFTs?  For the same reason they invest in cryptocurrency or buy a digital record of a tweet: they think it will appreciate.

It’s too soon to tell whether NFTs pose a threat to the racing industry.  While digital alternatives to actual racing are already available, ranging from Virtual Grand Nationals to Frankie Dettori’s Magic Jackpot 7 slots, NFTs are altogether different. Dismissing them as a fad could be an error similar to what transpired in Bitcoin trading a few years ago.  One might think Bitcoin is fake money, or a Ponzi scheme, but millions of others do not.

It is imperative that a company be ever vigilant about the purchasing behavior of people, particularly those in younger generations, who are comfortable operating within virtual worlds.  For many of them, the idea of spending thousands of dollars on a digital racehorse may feel more natural than investing in the genuine thing. The risk of losing younger fans to the virtual world is not unique to racing, of course–virtual offerings are a phenomenon that should be taken seriously by any sport.

Zed Run may turn out to be just another example among many of a niche product that received millions of dollars of venture funding but was a commercial bust.  On the other hand, plenty of established industries have been digitally disrupted in the past, and many more will be in the future.

The popularity of events like the Virtual Grand National has demonstrated that there is an appetite for the dramatically new in horse racing, even among traditional enthusiasts. Will there eventually be auctions for lines of computer code that constitute a legendary digital racehorse–a Secretariat or Frankel–in the same way that yearlings are bid for today?  Don’t rule it out.

Horse Racing Business

GRAND NATIONAL FESTIVAL BACK TO BOOST UK RACING IN 2021

Not having the Grand National and its three-day Festival at Aintree outside Liverpool left a reported hole of £500,000,000 in the finances of British horse racing and related businesses in 2020.

That is proof, as if it were needed, that the world’s most famous steeplechase remains a huge part of the international program of this global sport.  Around two-thirds of adults in the UK are thought to place a bet on the Grand National each year, most of whom don’t normally follow horse racing.

Absence may make the heart grow fonder.  With a worldwide TV audience in the hundreds of millions, the Aintree 4-mile 514-yard marathon handicap is the highlight of a three-day jumps horse racing festival that returns in 2021 after being cancelled in 2020 owing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Grand National meet starts on Thursday, April 8 and there are 19 graded races across the three days.  Of those, 11 hold Group 1 status, so this is a major festival in its own right and not just following on from Cheltenham in March.

Here is what horse racing fans have to look forward to at Aintree, though sadly dual winner Tiger Roll won’t be among runners for the Grand National day 3 and bidding for a third win in the race as his owners felt he was excessively weighted in the handicap.  The first day sees four consecutive Grade 1 races kick the meeting off with a bang. 

They include the Aintree Bowl over 3 miles and the Aintree Hurdle over 2 1/2 miles.  Those horses that competed in the Champion Hurdle, plus Paul Nicholls’ McFabulous could tackle the latter on a card that also contains a Group 2 National Hunt Flat race for fillies and mares.

Headlining the middle day of the Grand National Festival is the Melling Chase sponsored by Marsh & McLennan Companies, Inc.  Entries for the 2 1/2 mile feature race could include previous winners Min and Politologue.  Both are in the veteran stage of their careers as 10-year-olds, but fought out the finish of the last two editions of the Melling. There are also three Group 1 novice events on this card. 

On Grand National day, everything builds toward the big race. Supporting Aintree’s showpiece steeplechase is the Liverpool Hurdle over 3 miles that has been partnered by Irish international budget airline Ryanair in recent years.  The sponsor’s group chief executive Michael O’Leary is brother to the boss of Gigginstown House Stud.

Those racehorse owners have enjoyed plenty of success in the Grand National itself, thanks to victories for maiden Rule The World and the icon Tiger Roll.  Every race on the final day of the Aintree festival holds graded status, including two elite novice events, an open National Hunt Flat race, and a couple of handicaps.

In the Grand National itself, a massive maximum field of 40 horses are allowed to run. They face two laps of the special track, which has unique spruce-covered fences, many of which are bigger than the obstacles encountered in regulation steeplechases like those on the inner Mildmay course. 

After missing out on holding their April festival last year, Aintree will be striving to come back stronger than ever as horse racing and supporting industries in the UK cannot afford to miss out on another Grand National.

Horse Racing Business 2021

Ireland Set to Dominate at Cheltenham Festival 2021

The Cheltenham Festival is the highlight of the year for UK steeplechasing fans. The best jumpers from both sides of the Irish Sea clash over four days of top-class racing.  Competition is fierce among the leading stables, while there is also the side issue of the Prestbury Cup–the battle between Great Britain and Ireland for most winners during the meet.

Ireland currently has a firm grip on the award after winning 17 of the 28 races at the 2020 Cheltenham Festival.  Early indicators are that it will be retaining the trophy with well over half of this year’s festival favorites trained in the Emerald Isle.  The strength of the Irish challenge was underlined at the February Dublin Festival, where trainer Willie Mullins won six of the eight Grade 1 races.

Mullins is currently the most successful trainer in Cheltenham Festival history with 72 winners.  He saddled four winners on the final day in 2020, claiming the prize for top trainer at the meet for a record seventh time. His horses will figure prominently in Cheltenham day 1 tips this year, starting with Appreciate It in the opening Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.

Mullins’ stable will be represented by Energumene in the Arkle Chase, having already won the Irish equivalent at Leopardstown.  That sets up a fascinating clash with Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin, the leading British hope and unbeaten in three races over fences.  Henderson will saddle reigning Champion Hurdler Epatante in the feature race on the opening day.  The mare bids to retain her title but faces a strong challenge from Ireland’s leading mare Honeysuckle, an impressive winner of the Irish Champion Hurdle for Henry de Bromhead.

UK Bookmakers will be bracing themselves for another Mullins four-timer on day 2.  Gaillard Du Mesnil, Monkfish, Chacun Pour Soi, and Kilcruit are all expected to start as favorites.  The second day will feature a make-or-break appearance for dual Grand National winner Tiger Roll.  His connections have indicated that the horse may be retired if he does not show any sparkle in the Cross Country Chase.  A victory could trigger an attempt to equal the legendary Red Rum by securing a third Grand National triumph.

Tiger Roll is trained by Gordon Elliott, who could have the shortest-priced horse of the week on day 3 with Envoi Allen. He has not been seriously tested over fences so far and is already being talked about as a future Cheltenham Gold Cup winner.  The third day features the Stayers’ Hurdle and a duel between 2019 winner Paisley Park and market rival Thyme Hill. They have clashed twice already this season with one victory apiece.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is the climax of the Festival on the closing Friday. This is the blue riband event for steeplechasers over 3 ¼ miles.  Al Boum Photo has won this race for the past two seasons for Willie Mullins and bids to emulate Best Mate, who won in 2002, 2003 and 2004.  Mullins had been trying to win this prize for twenty years prior to Al Boum Photo’s 2019 victory.

The 9-year-old has enjoyed a perfect preparation, following the same route as in the previous two seasons. The two horses to emerge as potential threats this year are A Plus Tard and Royal Pagaille.

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By Harvey Mayson, who is a free-lance sports writer based in Scotland.

Horse Racing Business 2021