Over the last couple of years, we have been hearing a lot about the future of racing being digital. Various NFT racing projects have hit the headlines, although it is important to underline the fact that they remain incredibly niche. Yet, we are constantly told that they are the future of racing. Why breed horses for real when you can breed them digitally? The latter is much lower cost, satisfies welfare campaigners, and can offer a host of other benefits. However, there are many reasons why it will always remain niche.
The idea of digital horse racing has been around for a lot longer than the idea of NFTs and blockchains. You can bet on virtual sports online, including horse racing, and they have broadly been available at casinos and betting sites since the 1990s. Their graphics and gameplay have improved in recent years, though, and many bettors have a flutter outside of normal racing hours. Of course, you’ll see these virtual racing games in bookies’ shops too.
A racing simulator for enthusiasts only
But the NFT projects want to offer something different and much more substantial. The idea is that you enter into a racing ecosystem, breeding virtual animals, training them, and using your business acumen to grow your stable. In a sense, it’s a bit like the ever-popular Football Manager games. That is to say they are simulators, although the stakes are higher.
However, one of the criticisms thrown at the NFT sector – and cryptocurrency/blockchain enthusiasts in general – is that they are often trying to solve problems that do not exist in the first place. Racing, complete with its 100s of years of history behind it, is not broken. There may be flaws that pop up from time to time. But it’s fundamentally a sector that remains popular in every corner of the world. The Japanese, Saudis, Chinese, Australians, British, Americans, French, South Africans, and many other nations love horse racing – it’s a sport that transcends cultures and national borders.
Difficult to replace the raw emotion of racing
Consider this following narrative: Back in 2022, the crowds at Cheltenham Racecourse watched on with mouths agape as Galopin des Champs fell at the final fence in the Turners’ Novices Chase. Those who follow jumps racing will tell you that it was a remarkable race, with Galopin making the talented Bob Olinger look like a donkey as he trailed by a veritable country mile. The fall was a stunning reminder that anything can happen in racing. And that the best horse does not always win on the day.
Fast-forward to a year later, and Galopin des Champs lines up for the Gold Cup and delivers a thunderous performance for the ages. It was a story of redemption. The raw emotion shown by trainer Willie Mullins and jockey Paul Townend, both of whom have seen it all in horse racing, was plain to see, as was the reaction from the crowd. How could that narrative be replaced by a virtual version of Galopin des Champs? It couldn’t.
There is a place for technology in racing, and that includes blockchain technology, which could be used to help with the administration side of the industry. Blockchains will eventually be used in everything from betting to bloodstock management. However, anyone believing that digital racing, with or without the use of NFTs, will one day replace the real thing is probably not a true racing fan. NFT racing might gain popularity among digital sports fans. But in the same way that football video games never replaced soccer, racing – real racing – will continue around the globe.