No sport was hit harder by the Covid pandemic than horse racing, where empty courses and cancelled meetings are estimated to have cost £450 million in lost income. But Kevin Hire – the recently appointed general manager at Ffos Las Racecourse – reckons the sport is fighting back and has bold plans for the future, as he tells Graham Thomas.
Kevin Hire carries a vision in his head of what a perfect day’s racing looks like from his perspective.
The new general manager at Ffos Las wants racegoers – both new and old – to leave the course with a smile of satisfaction and an intention to come back for more.
Hire is certainly no stranger to the venue, having spent two years previously working for both Ffos Las and Chepstow as senior business relationship manager across both courses.
But after a stint working in the tech and innovation field, he has returned to his roots as a local man with a simple plan – to make Ffos Las a sporting attraction that people want to flock to again and again.
“My perfect day here,” he says, looking out of his office window across the course, “would consist of a crowd of four to five thousand, hearing loads of local accents, seeing people smiling and being happy and walking away contented after a wonderful day’s racing.
“They would thank us for hosting as they left, and we’d thank them for coming and look forward to welcoming them back.
“The infrastructure is here, the standard of racing is here, and for me now, it’s all about getting people back in here again.
“The Covid pandemic was a huge challenge for the racing industry, as it was for many others. But we got through it and now people are eager to go racing again.”
We’ve had 132 entries for our fixture on Easter Sunday 17th April. First race is 1pm. Ground currently good, Showers forecast Monday to Wednesday. Mostly dry & sunny until race day. Will water to maintain good ground if necessary – here are entries – https://t.co/Luiim14Ie6 pic.twitter.com/wgu3rqxrKp
— Ffos Las Racecourse (@FfosLasRC) April 11, 2022
With a background in newspapers and local radio, Hire has always been a natural communicator and now he feels he has an important message to tell.
His conviction is that Ffos Las has weathered some recent storms, but the 12-year-old facility is still the most modern and fan-friendly arena in the UK.
Now, he wants to re-energise what the course has to offer to local sports fans and businesses and tap the potential of a sport he feels still has so much to offer to new admirers.
“We need to always have a welcome for the traditional racing fans, who love a day’s racing, but also appeal to others, too.
“I want people to come here for the first time and feel they loved the experience and want to return. I want them to feel, ‘I really want to experience that again.’
“I also want this place to be a vibrant, exciting venue for 365 days of the year.”
That means a three-pronged strategy – to feel familiar and welcoming to local people, a magnetic attraction for those coming from further afield including holidaymakers, whilst also turning the heads of those from near or far who simply have yet to fall for the charms of horse racing.
“The sport itself has so much going for it,” says Hire, a local himself and a rugby season ticket holder at the Scarlets.
— Ffos Las Racecourse (@FfosLasRC) April 10, 2022
“Welsh horse-racing is a bit like the Welsh rugby team. We are always having to punch above our weight. There is always fantastic young talent coming through.
“I like to give people a look behind the scenes at all that talent, excitement and expertise. People forget what incredible athletes jockeys are and the dedication that goes into being at the top of their profession.”
But turning people on to some of the calendar’s major highlights at Ffos Las – such as the excitement of the Welsh Champion Hurdle in October – is not enough these days.
There has to be more to draw in crowds than simply what happens down on the track.
“One of the challenges horse racing has is that unlike football and rugby, there isn’t that tribal following of attachments to one particular club or team,” adds Hire.
“But what it does have is a unique opportunity to watch the highest quality performers within an overall enjoyable experience.
“The sporting action itself only lasts for 20 minutes or so, so we have to make sure everything else at the race course is absolutely spot on.
“We have 22 race days. If you put those to one side, then we also have a venue here which is a fantastic facility and only 12 years old.
“We can utilize it for the community and building up events that attract local people is hugely important to us. Combined with that are developing contacts with local businesses, too.
“Within the 25-mile radius catchment area, we want local people to come back to the race course after Covid and then to keep coming back.
🎵Live After Racing is back…🎵
Incredible live music from iconic music superstars will make sure a day at the races doesn’t end at the finishing post. View who we have performing across the group here 👉https://t.co/XKZcGbHEVP pic.twitter.com/Btf9RTpptL
— Ffos Las Racecourse (@FfosLasRC) April 8, 2022
“We want to build relationships with local companies and organisations. If we can get the basics right and get local people to want to come to this course in their numbers, then anything is possible.”
As for the familiar faces, at present there are around 250 annual members who buy tickets for the whole season. It’s a group the new general manager would like to grow and develop.
“It’s a mix of male and female, which is great, and it’s not the stereotype of race-goers from the past with flat caps and all the rest of it. It’s a genuine mix of different people, with different interests and it’s certainly not all about betting.
“We have special offers to visit other courses and also trainers’ yards and that’s something we want to build so those people feel part of a special community.
“Yes, racing has sometimes had a bad press in recent times and we have our share of problems like every other sport.
“But it’s a wonderful sport, too, and I want to open people’s eyes to that.”
Kevin admits the invitation he received to return and be the man at the top at Ffos Las was simply irresistible.
“My eyes lit up about three seconds after hearing the offer,” he says, but now, like any good jockey, is a time for the head to be in tune with his heart.
“There is lots to do and loads of ambition. But my role is to take things one step at a time.”