Racing has come up against a number of hurdles in the last few years; funding cuts, racecourse closures and tax hikes are just a few of the challenges that the sector faces. But for William Woodhams, CEO of Fitzdares, one of the major obstacles that racing must overcome is the creation of stand-out experiences for punters. This, he told SBC, is where Fitzdares has been able to shine.
As we reach the halfway point in the racing calendar, Woodhams highlighted the bookmaker’s recent £1 million pledge in support of both UK and Irish racing – where he explained that ‘doubling down’ on racing was an obvious choice for the SBC Racing Sportsbook of the Year.
He said: “For us, there’s a slight existential crisis in a sense that racing is such an expensive product in the UK. Many bookmakers have started to ask whether they should try to get all of their punters to bet on sports with better margins, but for us as a business, our answer has been no. We’re going to double down on racing.
“We’re committed to racing as we truly believe it’s the best possible sports product. My view is that if you want a loyal, happy and safe punter, UK and Irish horse racing is absolutely the best product available.
“And racing isn’t going anywhere. It is the most glamorous, evocative and passionate sport around. We have all of these narratives in UK and Irish racing – the box sets so to speak. Doncaster, Ebor and Chester are all stories within themselves, they link throughout the whole racing calendar. Then for Jumps, Cheltenham is an entire box set within itself.
“So as other bookmakers may shun racing, as SBC’s Racing Sportsbook of the Year, we have to double down on racing. If there’s money to be spent in our business, let’s invest in racing. We are a racing bookmaker after all.”
Rather than taking a standard sponsorship approach, the CEO believes that the creation of exceptional race day experiences can help bring the sport to an entirely new audience. To do this, Fitzdares took the Fitzdares Club ‘on tour’ to Windsor Racecourse, Glorious Goodwood and plans to take centre stage at the Cartmel Cup in August.
Woodhams added: “The courses need money, there is no question about that. But there are also so many other parts of racing that are underfunded. So throughout Summer, we have worked with Windsor, Goodwood and the Curragh to create these exceptional experiences. We’re even going to the Cartmel Cup later this month.
“We’re a bit of a high-low bookmaker: we want to build these amazing experiences at racecourses where you can eat fine food, drink champagne and have the best views in the house. But at the same time, we want to support up and coming trainers, the British racing school and all of the other important parts of the racing industry. If one part falls down, the whole thing collapses.
“Some people might think it’s a bit snobby that we’re not a ‘pie and mash’ bookie, but ultimately if you want to attract high spenders onto the racecourses, you need to improve their overall experience. We’re on a ‘one man mission’ to improve the experience for everyone.”
Based in London’s Mayfair, the flagship Fitzdares Club allows members to watch live sports “in both comfort and luxury”. Spread over two floors, the club boasts a restaurant, bar, two private dining rooms as well as a dedicated Racing Room while members can also benefit from a weekly schedule of previews and talks by sports stars and pundits.
Fitzdares collaborated with Rosanna Bossom, a renowned interior designer, to redesign Windsor’s Winston Churchill box in addition to transforming Goodwood’s Owners’ & Trainers’ pavilion – both of which matched the idiosyncratic Fitzdares Club style.
Woodhams continued: “We wanted to build the world’s best sports bar – we’ve already achieved this in Mayfair. We did this because we felt that the experience wasn’t particularly good on course and there was nowhere nice to watch racing on the TV.
“But now, you could say we’ve got a bit carried away! We built the Club at Windsor which was located in the Winston Churchill box right on the finishing line. We used our interior designer to make it look amazing; we picked out some really nice furniture, paints, flowers and sofas. We wanted it to feel like a beautiful sitting room. Visitors could also step outside to watch horses cross the winning post.
“We did the same at Glorious Goodwood. In this case, rather than building a box for punters, we took over their owners and trainers pavilion. We thought it would be a nice way to treat the owners and trainers – because more often than not, when they arrive on course, they’re served a basic sandwich.
“Owners and trainers are the lifeblood of racing and during lockdown, they were paying training fees, race entry fees but often couldn’t go to watch their horse run. They were overlooked somewhat.
“Because of the very distinctive way that racing is constructed, without those owners there is no racing industry. So we’re on a mission to improve the owners and trainers experience at the racecourse as well. Our three-year partnership with Glorious Goodwood will definitely help us do that!”
Creating new experiences isn’t Fitzdares’ only commitment to improving the racing industry. Through its funding pledge, the bookmaker has also supported the growth of the sport from the grassroots by creating a new technology and educational centre at the British Racing School’s Newmarket base.
Young trainers can benefit from the funding through the Racing Futures fund which helps “equip the future of British racing with the right tools to succeed, whilst seeking to protect the longevity of the sport for future generations”.
Considering this to be much more than a ‘badging exercise’, the Fitzdares CEO explained that bookmakers need to look beyond the ‘endless marketing opportunities’ and rethink the ways in which they work with the racing community.
He said: “Bookmakers as a whole have just sponsored races. They’ve titled a race and advertised their betting apps – but what they have done is devalued their relationship with racing. What we want to do is re-establish that symbiotic relationship that bookmakers and horse racing had by investing in the sport – but more importantly, investing in the right way.
“So rather than just a badging exercise with little consideration of the experience, racegoers or the sport as a whole, we want to invest deeply into grassroots initiatives. We need to rethink the way that bookmakers work with the racing community.”
A fresh approach to racing ‘sponsorships’, Woodhams shared, is fundamental should operators want to ensure they do not face the same scrutiny as seen with front-of-shirt sponsorships – instead there must be a ‘unique approach’.
He concluded: “As you know, we’re in the midst of the Gambling Act review and there was a recent documentary where a politician called for a ban on all football shirt sponsorships. If all we do is sponsor races, we will go the same way. Racecourses will subsequently lose money and people will lose business.
“We need to take a unique approach to the way that we support the sport and stop thinking about sponsorships. Rather than making Nicky Henderson wear your logo on his chest, we need to consider what else we can do.
“That’s why we set up a Racing Futures fund where trainers under 45 can apply for a cash grant from us which will help support their yard. This isn’t about endless marketing opportunities; this is about supporting the racing industry.”