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New £10m competition to boost profile of racing 3/7/2008
Greg Wood

An ambitious plan designed to bring a new audience to British Flat racing was unveiled yesterday - appropriately, in view of the drama and excitement which its organisers hope to generate, at the headquarters of BAFTA. At its centre is a new competition to decide the champion racehorse of the year, starting in 2010, with the promise of £10m per year in new money to ensure the venture succeeds.

Racing UK
The idea came from within Racing UK and is being managed by the satellite broadcaster on behalf of the racecourses involved. Billed as 'The Sovereign Series', it strings together 10 Group One races, with points being awarded to the first three home in each. The horse with most points at the end of the season becomes champion, earning his connections a significant payday.

The competition will have a prize pool of £2m - it has yet to be decided whether this will be divided among the first three or handed entirely to the winner. An additional £3m in prize money will be divided among the races involved, which are already worth a collective £5m.

A further £3m will be spent on promotion, and those behind the initiative hope to give a major boost to the sport's profile. "We believe the Sovereign Series will capture the imagination of a new generation of sports fans who have never before been interested in racing," said Simon Bazalgette, executive chairman of Racing UK.

"Racing needs to evolve and appeal to a wider audience. Our vision is that, in five years, the Sovereign Series will have become established as a major sports competition in the British calendar, alongside Wimbledon, the Open and other similar events."

Bazalgette said he was assuming that the Series would be sold as a package to a single terrestrial broadcaster. It is this aim which prevents the project from starting next year - the seven racecourses involved will not all be free to negotiate new terrestrial deals until 2010.

But even if such a sale did not realise the sort of sums hoped for, Bazalgette insists that the promised prize money would still be produced. "Racing UK will be generating £4m or £5m in profits this year, so [it] is certainly big enough to be backing this competition," he said.

"It's a very exciting initiative," said Andrew Thompson, head of sport at Channel 4. "Many of us have been saying for a long time that we need a better story for the Flat season."

Though he declined to speculate on whether Channel 4 would compete for the rights to the Series, Thompson added: "We're absolutely committed to racing, we want to stay in racing and continue to provide the big audience that helps maintain racing's profile."

Had the competition been in place last year, four horses - Authorized, Ramonti, Dylan Thomas and Notnowcato - would have been in contention going into the last race, the Champion Stakes. However, only the last-named ran in the Newmarket race and therein lies a major problem for the Sovereign Series.

Its backers promise to make the Champion Stakes "one of the richest and most popular events in the British sporting calendar" but its position in the racing calendar means it must compete with the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe - now the world's richest turf race - and the Breeders' Cup.

Harry Herbert, co-founder of the Royal Ascot Racing Club and among those deployed yesterday to talk up the Series, was optimistic. "Whether you're Sheikh Mohammed or John Magnier, if it comes down to the Champion Stakes, why wouldn't you have a go?"

But when he was asked if Motivator, his club's 2005 Derby winner, would have been diverted away from the Arc if the Series had been in place at the time, his response was neither immediate nor unequivocal. After some spluttering, he managed: "I suspect we would probably have run him in the Champion Stakes."

Similar competitions have failed to work for the sport in the past. The World Series of Racing suffered a slow death through lack of interest, while jump racing's Order of Merit has embarrassingly crowned non-champions like Royal Shakespeare.

But Bazalgette was robust about the need to try something new. "Doing nothing is the worst option," he said. "There's an opportunity there to start getting the attention of general sports fans - and if we don't do that, other sports will."