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Grand Designs

Organisers of next month’s Grand National horse racing festival tell Elisha Chauhan why they hope to turn it into an Olympic-style, seven-day extravaganza.

First run in 1839, the Grand National, the annual handicap steeplechase run at Aintree in Liverpool, pre-dates the modern Olympic Games by nearly 60 years.

Now as a three-day festival event that includes Thursday’s Grand Opening Day and Friday’s Ladies Day, in addition to attracting a sell-out crowd of 70,000 for Saturday’s Grand National showpiece alone, it is one of the established dates on the horse racing calendar.

However, Aintree has ambitions that are of an Olympic order to make the Grand National Festival one of the UK’s leading sports and entertainment carnival.

“We want to take a leaf out of the Olympics’ book by giving spectators an Olympic arrival to continue throughout the customer journey,” Aintree Racecourse managing director John Baker told SportBusiness International.

“My ideal scenario is to have a seven-day festival from the Sunday before the event to the Sunday after the Grand National. We have also looked to the example of golf’s Masters where we can host a behind-the-scenes day where spectators can come to watch the jockeys train.

“The day after the Grand National will possibly be turned into a family fun day, where spectators can see the track and the state the horses leave the fences in as part of a walk around the course. At the moment these are ideas that we are knocking around, however we can certainly make this happen in the next couple of years.”

In this new seven-day proposal, however, Baker says he is wary of adding another day’s racing to the festival in fear of burnout for jockeys and reducing the quality of the racing.

“We have looked at adding another raceday but, at the moment, we rival the Cheltenham Festival [in terms of racing]. Trying to stretch to a fourth day might dilute what we already have and could reduce the quality of racing a little bit. However, we will always look at the possibility and bear it in mind,” he says.

In the meantime, says Baker, his team is working towards giving the three-day festival more of an Olympic feel by briefing its volunteers and paid staff from and around host city Liverpool in a slightly different way.

“Aintree has engaged a whole new team of people who will help spectators with directions, information and guidance throughout the festival similar to the [London 2012] Olympics’ ‘Games Makers’ – except they’ll be called ‘Race Makers’. This mix of both paid staff and volunteers will help improve the customer experience because they have knowledge of the local area.

“We want people to know what Liverpool is about, so when they do leave the Aintree site they can engage in the city of Liverpool. We want people to come away from the festival thinking, ‘wow, what a fantastic experience’.”

Plans to expand the Grand National Festival also open up greater opportunities for sponsors, says Baker, that would be looking to target spectators who aren’t regular racegoers – such as women, children and first-time attendees. Local retail mall Liverpool ONE is one organisation that has signed up for 2014, agreeing to be the official style partner of the three-day event.

“The Grand National Festival is a fantastic experience for racegoers and fashionistas alike,” said Donna Howitt, marketing and business performance director at Liverpool ONE, after sealing the deal in January this year. “All eyes will be on Aintree this April and there’s no greater event that profiles Liverpool as one of the most stylish cities in the world.”

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