By Dominic Ponsford
In April 1985, established specialist betting paper the Sporting Life faced a fight for its survival when its captive market was shattered by the launch of an upstart rival daily.
Twenty years on and plus ça change.
That upstart is now the well-established Racing Post, which celebrates its birthday this week facing major competition in the sports betting newspaper market from month-old daily newspaper The Sportsman.
But though history seems to be repeating itself, Racing Post founder and jockey-turned-journalist Brough Scott, now editorial director, feels that there is little chance of his publication going the way of the old loss-making Sporting Life — which merged with the Post in May 1998.
And he points out that the Post today is in a far different situation from that faced by the Sporting Life when it launched against it.
Scott said the genesis of the Post came from fears that Robert Maxwell would close the Life. It had stood alone in its market since the closure of the Sporting Chronicle in 1983. But according to Scott, it had been reduced to "an ailing shadow" by the battle between Maxwell and the unions — and he was involved in plans to bring out an emergency information sheet if its feared closure came about.
The Racing Post came about when super-rich racehorse owner Sheikh Mohammed expressed an interest in buying monthly bloodstock magazine Pacemaker.
Scott went to meet him in Dubai and found that — against his advice — Mohammed was more interested in investing in a daily racing newspaper.
Scott said: "Maxwell was threatening at that stage to close the Life to prove that he could close a paper to show he wasn’t being bullied. It was having terrible trouble and was a very poor product for all sorts of reasons.
"I told Sheikh Mohammed if you buy this newspaper, because you’re a big player in racing, it won’t work if you interfere — fortunately he didn’t. But if owners don’t interfere then they are not really interested, and in the end it became too much hassle for him."
Scott admits, though, that Mohammed was extremely helpful financially — bankrolling it for more than a decade until in 1997, when virtually level with the Life on market share, he opted to sell it to Mirror Group newspapers for £1 on a 10-year lease.
Since then, helped by the demise of the Sporting Life and the economies of being in a large newspaper group, it has gone on to become a major cash cow for what is now Trinity Mirror.
Last year it enjoyed a healthy profit margin of 34 per cent, returning operating profit of £17.4m on turnover of £50.6m.
The Racing Post bottom line is helped by the fact that its 70,334 daily circulation fetches the highest cover price on Fleet Street — £1.40.
Scott describes the Post as "more like a tool than a newspaper", helping its readership to "solve the jigsaw puzzle" by piecing together the data that will help them pick a winner.
He says: "If you pick up the race card, it’s £2.50 — with just the prices and the names. For £1.40 you get infinitely more and we cover every race in the country. In that sense we are not expensive."
He adds: "Racing is a daily battle of hope against experience. The one thing the players need is data — you can’t play without the data. If you’re going to play racing — the more data, the more knowledge, the better."
Over the years, the Post has faced criticism for a perceived reluctance to be critical about the racing industry.
Scott describes the paper’s sensibilities as being similar to those of a local paper.
He says: "We are serving the general racing interest. We are a local paper distributed nationally. If there was a big factory in your area, which is also the source of much of your classified ads, you wouldn’t want to be critical of them without being absolutely sure you were correct."
Up for grabs?
Could the paper could be up for grabs?
Scott says: "Sheikh Mohammed still owns the title — Trinity Mirror can’t sell the title without his permission — but he doesn’t take anything out of it. It will be 10 years next year, but he can’t take it back, as he would have to start from scratch. The only involvement he has is his huge investment in the racing world."
He adds: "The whole idea when we came on the scene was to offer a service to the racing and betting customer.
There is a mission about it. People who work for us are fascinated by racing and so are the people who read it."
In recent years, that mission has arguably been somewhat tarnished by a bitter union dispute which centres on the fact that the majority of Racing Post journalists are members of the National Union of Journalists — but parent company Trinity Mirror chooses to negotiate with them through the British Association of Journalists, which has a strong following at the other Trinity Mirror national titles, but no members at the Post.
Scott says: "It’s out of our hands and a Trinity Mirror issue, but it’s obviously rather bizarre. We just have to think about getting a paper out every day and thankfully we have a very committed staff.
"We are a small part of a very large newspaper group — that’s a big help in some areas, such as distribution and that sort of thing. It’s not something that is welcome, but we can’t do anything about it."
Scott appears to be untroubled by the threat posed to the Post by rival publication The Sportsman and is sceptical about the £12m project’s place in the market.
He said that the Post won’t be changing its colours in the face of competition from The Sportsman’s more general sports coverage.
"We can’t be an authority on sports news. The Racing Post is very successful because of what it is. We can’t suddenly say we are going to be a Sporting Post."
He adds: "I don’t much accept its premise that 2.2 million people bet on sport and bookmakers want to advertise — QED a substantial number of people will buy a paper about sport betting.
All the research we have done shows that if you started a Sporting Post it wouldn’t work.
"Bookmakers hang pictures of sport outside their betting shop, but the biggest interest inside by some margin is racing, probably more than all the others put together."
He adds: "Fighting The Sportsman isn’t part of my plan at all."
Correction, 27 April 2006: Trinity Mirror does not have a lease (10-year or otherwise) on the Racing Post — contrary to the impression given in an earlier version of this article. Trinity Mirror has a licence in perpetuity to use the Racing Post name. There was a clause in teh original agreement requiring the company to make a payment to the previous owner, Sheikh Mohammed, should it cease publication of the title within 10 years of the deal.