Gen Z, spring racing and the elephant in the room

By Melissa Singer

Gen Z are being wooed to the spring racing carnival with free concerts, cheap tickets and a more inclusive fashion competition. But they’re not all rushing to join the party.Credit:Australian Turf Club/Supplied

In October 2019, racing organisers knew they had a problem. On the eve of the spring carnival, ABC’s 730 aired a segment showing alleged mistreatment of retired racehorses that rocked the industry and the wider community. The carnival proceeded as normal (attendances were down, but it’s unclear what proportion of the dip was related to the scandal), but something had shifted. Attendance at the races, especially by young people, was no longer something organisers could take for granted.

Getting Gen Z to the track is challenging on multiple fronts, and not all the pressure points are unique to racing. The 18-24 age group is discerning, has a lot of commercial clout, demands to be marketed to differently (authenticity! rawness!) and has more things competing for their time and (relatively less) money than Millennials or Gen X. And, when it comes to racing, the issue of animal welfare is never far from the conversation.

Gen Z is unlike any other cohort that comes to Flemington, and demands a range of “accessible experiences”, says the Victoria Racing Club’s Jo King.Credit:Australian Turf Club/Supplied

At a fashion lunch in Melbourne this week, one influencer in her 20s with 600,000 Instagram followers was overheard saying she’s not going to the races, paid or unpaid, more out of fear of backlash than her personal beliefs. “I don’t want to be cancelled,” she said. Another content creator, who is attending as part of a long-term contract with a sponsor, replied, “We don’t go for the gambling or the racing, we go for the fashion.”

One of the dilemmas facing Gen Z is how to separate these seemingly intertwined, yet discrete, elements of racing culture. Can you be vegan and attend the races in good conscience? Can you go to an event that, at least at some level, encourages the purchase of new outfits that may end up in landfill days later? How do you take part in one of the biggest cultural events on the calendar and not be a hypocrite, sacrifice your morals or be cancelled by your peers?

Weighing up the issues … young racing fans Tijs vande Pol (left) and Emily McQuie.

Racegoer Tijs vande Pol, 28, is slightly older than Gen Z, a catch-all term for people currently aged 10-25, but sums up the quandary when he says, “I don’t necessarily agree with all aspects of racing, but it’s just part of Melbourne, spring and everyone goes, and it’s fun. Truth be told there are lots of things I do that I don’t agree with but it’s a question of at what point do you draw the line?”

Emily McQuie, a 19-year-old university student from Wagga Wagga, says she cares about equine welfare “but [my friends] don’t really talk about it … I mean, we’re still going to go [to the races].”

McQuie, who mainly attends country meets, goes to socialise and support university club fundraisers, and to show off her collection of Zimmermann dresses (McQuie is a savvy secondhand shopper). Asked if she would consider entering fashions on the field, she demurs, saying it takes up too much time she’d rather spend with her friends. “It would be cool if it was 20 minutes,” she says.

From left: May O’Connell, Chloe Noakes and William Pointon at Randwick on the eve of the 2022 Everest carnival.Credit:Wolter Peters

The VRC’s executive general manager brand, marketing and communications, Jo King, agrees Gen Z is unlike any other cohort that comes to Flemington, and demands a range of “accessible experiences” both in terms of price and flavour, such as free concerts from top Australian acts, or “mates rates” packages on the front lawn, which sold out last weekend for Turnbull Stakes Day. Changes to the 60-year-old Fashions on the Field competition, which will dispense with ladies’ and men’s categories for the genderless “best dressed” and “best suited” are in part designed to appeal to younger people by demonstrating inclusivity.

In Sydney, the Australian Turf Club, home of the Everest carnival, has introduced a genderless “showstopper” category in its Fashion Stakes.

“There are lots of things I do that I don’t agree with but it’s a question of at what point do you draw the line?”

“You only have to look at Gen Z, at their level of diversity and feel [the Showstopper] category is a way to connect with that younger generation and say, ‘We welcome you and want everyone to feel themselves and be fabulous and not fit a mould,’” says the ATC’s executive general manager of commercial, Melinda Madigan.

The ATC has also partnered with Invades, a UK-based group that targets university campuses, to bring thousands of students to Randwick. According to its Facebook page, Invades’ mission is: “How can we reach and introduce the race to a new, younger, more diverse audience who may never have considered horse racing as an experience and sport?” Indeed, for racing clubs around Australia, this is the multimillion-dollar question.

King says capturing Gen Z is important to any business looking to the future. “We design experiences based on what our research tells us they value: affordable offerings orientated around food, drinks and entertainment. We know we’re doing something right because these products are selling out each race day, and we’ve seen a strong take-up of the new young membership category,” she says.

Most people agree Gen Z also has a finely tuned bullshit meter, one of the reasons the VRC’s lineup of ambassadors looks unlike anything it’s had before. There’s Olympic swimmers Ariarne Titmus and Cody Simpson, model and daughter of jockey Danny Brereton Demi Brereton, stylist Aaron Mitchell, whose family has a long connection to horses, and media personality Christian Wilkins, who is queer and gender-fluid. Every ambassador is a triple threat: style, substance and a connection to horses or racing. King knows what’s at stake: get it wrong with Gen Z, and they will come for you.

Mitchell, whose father and grandfather have served as clerks of the course, practically grew up at Flemington. He is also 26, vegan and gay, and wants to show young people you can be all those things and participate in racing. “I’ve seen the handling of horses firsthand, I have a different opinion [on equine welfare] than some people … I see a lot of love and care,” he says.

Aaron Mitchell: “I’ve seen the handling of horses firsthand … I see a lot of love and care.”Credit:Paul Jeffers

On matters of fashion, Mitchell wants to demonstrate to a younger audience how you can be a modern traditionalist at the track. “I want my generation to see what traditional racewear looks like, where to twist it, where to stick to tradition,” he says. After all, last year’s Fashions on the Field emerging designer winner, 26-year-old Bethany Cordwell, went on to dress Beyonce. If that’s not cool, then what is?

So, why then, is there a growing view in the community that Gen Z has turned its back on racing, including one of Australia’s biggest cultural and social events, the Melbourne Cup?

Writer and host of the Culture Club podcast, Maggie Zhou, 23, says the Melbourne Cup makes her “instantly eye roll and cringe. It doesn’t appeal to a lot of my Gen Z peers. I don’t see how it adds value, especially from an animal-welfare point of view,” she says. “Every year my feed will be full of petitions condemning the races and calling it to stop.”

Not racing fans … Culture Club podcast hosts Jasmine Wallis (left) and Maggie Zhuo.

As a young Asian-Australian who identifies as queer, Zhou says she is confused by the changes to the fashion competitions. “I am for degendering fashion, but it’s almost rainbow washing because they understand being progressive and inclusive is something young people care about … and instead of facing the [welfare] issue head on they think this will appeal to the woke generation … so this feels like a strange band-aid approach.”

Zhou’s co-host, writer Jasmine Wallis, 26, acknowledges the echo-chamber effect plays a huge part in young people’s responses to racing. “[The hashtag] #nuptothecup has been getting stronger every year, and definitely social media over the past couple of years has been getting louder about it. Pretty much all my friends will post something about it,” she says.

Clare Winterbourn runs Born Bred Talent, an agency that represents about 250 influencers. She says while some of her clients will go to the races as guests or ambassadors of sponsors, “we get it in their contract that they are not photographed there because they won’t want the public association with something that’s controversial”.

“Every year my feed will be full of petitions condemning the races and calling it to stop.”

“I wouldn’t proactively encourage talent [to go] unless they had that authentic relationship to the sport,” she says. “It’s one of those topics that, love it or hate it, it’s not going anywhere.”

King stresses that the VRC works not only to ensure the welfare standards and conditions for animals racing at Flemington are world’s best but also that these messages are communicated through every available medium. “The best way to do that is to have their own age group and cohort to be part and parcel of the storytelling,” she says, referring to this year’s crop of ambassadors.

“Is there a cohort of Gen Z we can’t do anything about? Yes, and that’s OK … What we want is to give as much of the storytelling as we can, that we are deeply conscious of it, active and will do everything in our power to prevent any injury or death on course. Consciousness is collective. Social media has raised the bar. I am conscious of that and know that we can never rest.”

Despite photos like this, there seems to be a view that young people are not as interested in racing as previous generations.

Whether the opposition to racing is getting stronger, or simply louder, is a matter for debate. But what seems clear, especially since COVID-19, is that young people are valuing social experiences differently.

Student and VRC member Nikita Taylor, 20, says her friends, especially those who missed out on rites of passage in the pandemic, are excited about the races. But for others in her peer group, “COVID really put into perspective what is important on an individual level. Hence, some young individuals may not deem the races and the subsequent expenses as a priority.”

James Brownley, 19, believes cost-of-living factors are a huge influence on Gen Z’s decision to attend the races. “If they have friends who want to go clubbing versus racing, they’re going to go where their friends are. It’s very well [organisers] think it’s accessible but … if you’re going out there, and it’s $10 a beer, and it’s $50-$60 for an Uber, plus a few bets, which is part of the social experience – it all adds up.”

Nursing student Charlotte Dossetto, 20, keeps her spending in check by shopping smarter for her outfits, including from her mother’s wardrobe. “If I feel like a dress is worthwhile, I will buy it, if not I will rent it,” she says.

Thrifty races shopper Charlotte Dessotto.Credit:Simon Schluter

Brownley, who comes from a family of racing enthusiasts and works as a racing administrator part-time while studying an arts degree, says many people in his age group aren’t educated about the welfare issues and are “so easily swayed by things they see on social media”.

“I don’t know how else to show the vast majority and the ‘woke’ variety of young adults that hey, this industry is quite successful at all we do, and it’s not all the media sometimes makes it out to be,” he says. “If you look at any other sport, the AFL has its problems, the NRL has its problems. They keep emerging … the way it sometimes comes across it’s as though the majority of people in [racing] do the wrong thing.”

Says talent agent Winterbourn: “My son is 20, and he would never go to the races – I think that view and opinion is quite broad.”

But the view that Gen Z is shunning racing is not shared by the ATC’s Madigan. “You only have to look at pictures from general admission on Everest day to see half that audience is Gen Z. To say they are not into racing is difficult to understand when you can see them in droves.”

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