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Fast track for business

Although at first glance they may not seem to have much in common, there are strong links between the worlds of racing and construction. From sponsoring race days to entertaining clients, the track can provide a wealth of opportunities to improve your bus

BUILDING and betting, bricks and bookies. At first glance, it's not the most obvious of combinations but there is, nonetheless, a surprisingly strong link between the construction and horseracing industries.

Like many other businesses, construction firms are latching on to the advantages that a day at the races can bring.

It's not just about downing champagne and ripping up betting tickets. As unlikely a platform as a racecourse may seem for negotiating contracts, catching up on industry gossip and making new contacts, it is actually one that works.

Football is frequently criticised for its devotion to corporate clients - the only noise heard these days at a lot of top stadiums is the sound of clinking cutlery.

Racing is different. For a start it provides a freedom to mix and move around that few other sports can reach.

If the chat and negotiations that swirl around the marquee are proving too much, step out, take a deep breath and enjoy the sort of sights, sounds, and smells that only racing can provide.

Go to the paddock, see the horses and jockeys, as they are led around in front of you, at a closer level than you will ever get with footballers. Stand on the rails and listen to the glorious blend of pounding hooves, cracking whips, and jockeys' urgings as a great band of colours flashes in front of you at speeds of up to 30 miles an hour.

Watch the horses unsaddle, smell the endeavour as mucky, white sweat drips off their underbellies.

Racing really is an experience to be tried at least once.

Its mix of Rolls Royces and rollmops, of top hats and rolled-up shirtsleeves is unique and refreshing.

That is why it appeals to businesses wishing to entertain clients - it's a break from the boardroom, a burst of fresh air, compared with the balance sheets.

With a little initiative, racecourses can attract businesses not just with hospitality packages, but also races to sponsor, to promote the company name.

That is exactly what Construction News is doing today at Epsom by taking over the course for the day and offering sponsorship opportunities to its readers.

And there is no better time to take the opportunity for a day at the races, as Construction News editor Aaron Morby explains.

He says: 'Business is good in the industry at the moment and a lot of firms are looking at ways of raising their profile in the market.

'An event like this is a perfect way to promote your brand and have a good day out with clients and contacts at the same time.

'We are sure this will be the first of many Construction News race days and look forward to the event going from strength to strength.'

Some of the biggest names in the business have been involved in race sponsorship, most notably McAlpine, Trafalgar House and AF Budge. Before the collapse of that company in the last recession , its founder Tony Budge was a huge player in the racing world. He owned top flat horses such as Rock City and many notable jumpers, among them Uncle Ernie.

His company added its name to one of Cheltenham's biggest steeplechases, known at the time as the AF Budge Gold Cup. Another big firm, Persimmon Homes, until recently sponsored the Nunthorpe Stakes at York, which is one of the top sprints in Europe and therefore features some of the fastest horses in the world.

Crowther Homes backs the Swinton Hurdle at Haydock; the last big race of its kind in the jump season and Pillar Properties sponsors the Pillar Chase at Cheltenham, one of the most important trials for the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the most prestigious race of the jumps season, ahead of even the Grand National, which may be the housewives' choice but at the end of the day is a handicap.

Another big Gold Cup trial, the Charlie Hall Chase at Wetherby in November, is sponsored by Crowther Homes. St Modwen Properties is another big player in racing, with its chairman Stan Clarke owning several racecourses, which he has transformed from down-at-heel unadventurous tracks into successful entities, particularly Uttoxeter and Brighton.

But it is not just the nationwide companies that get involved in racing. Nottingham, one of Britain's 59 racecourses, latched on to the demand for sponsorship in the construction industry by organising a special race day last October - one which was so successful it will be repeated again this month.

The course's manager, Sally Wescott, explained: 'We put on six races, which were specifically sponsored by major players in the construction industry, such as quantity surveyors and contractors. They weren't just random companies - they were all specifically involved because they were part of the construction industry in the north-east Midlands.

The reason why it worked so well is because everybody knew each other and they all wanted to invite the same sort of people.

'Those who hired their own tables found themselves invited along by other people.'

Companies involved in the day included Norwest Holst Construction, Metropolitan Developments, and Hilton Building Services, as well as lawyers, bankers, and land agents.

So why do these companies - large or small - turn to racing in a bid to boost their profiles ?

For the big races there is an obvious plus - television. Horse racing is a major televised sport with extensive coverage that leaves it second only to football in sports coverage on terrestrial television.

Last year there were 398 hours of terrestrial TV, covering more than 650 races. Sky TV showed more than 450 live races during the 417 hours it devoted to racing.

Newspaper coverage is also in-depth, with all sports sections carrying the day's cards, while racing is the only sport to boast a national daily newspaper - The Racing Post.

Another boost for race sponsors comes from the exposure provide by Satellite Information Services, which shows live racing to nearly 9,000 betting shops.

The traditional image of horse racing is changing, too. Going quickly is the vision of ignorant, ginswilling aristocrats, determined to conduct their own private race days with members of the public only reluctantly allowed in.

It's a people's game now. It can be an expensive day out - a lot depending of course on how successful your punting is - but crucially it is an accessible one.

One of the more surprising statistics in racing is that 40 per cent of race-goers are female. Racing has come a long way since the early days of dingy back street bookies and seedy gangs on courses such as Alexandra Palace or the Brighton chain gangs written about so vividly by Graham Greene.

In tune with this sea change, the race sponsorship market has grown from £8.8 million in 1993 to more than £14.5 million in 1999, with major sponsorship deals attracting six-figure sums.

A big factor is that VAT charged on race sponsorship can be reclaimed, assuming your business is able to recover fully under the normal VAT rules. Racing, like the construction industry, can attract big business. That's why the two work so well together.