My wife and I were invited to the road show at Cheltenham Racecourse at the beginning of March. It was exceptionally well organised and informative, and well hosted by Lydia Hislop. I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so many of racing’s leaders at the same venue; I chatted to Steve Harman, Chairman of the BHA, and then listened to Nick Rust (CEO of the BHA), Richard Wayman (COO, BHA), Philip Freedman (Chairman, Horsemen’s Group), Stephen Atkin (CEO, Racecourse Association), Rod Street (CEO, Great British Racing) as well as the leaders of the Professional Jockeys Association and Arena Racing Company. There was also a presentation dedicated to staffing, training and welfare issues with a panel led by the Human Resources Director of the BHA and well supported by other specialists in this field. Those who know me well will know that I was not sufficiently intimidated to refrain from asking questions, which I addressed to Messrs. Rust and Atkin.
Just to summarise the key targets that the tripartite group of the BHA, Horsemen’s Group and Racecourse Association signed up to in 2015, and which still guide the industry:
- 1,000 additional horses in training by 2020;
- Betting participation levels up 5% by 2018;
- Racecourse attendances to reach 7 million by 2020;
- £120m of extra income for the sport per annum by 2018.
At the same time there was open acknowledgement of the challenges that face British Racing, particularly:
- Sole ownership in decline;
- Shortage of skilled stable staff;
- Statutory Levy forecast to drop under £50m in 2017;
- Need to develop a constructive partnership with the British betting sector;
- Low returns to horsemen at grassroots level.
Within the various presentations there was certainly plenty of encouraging news, with good progress including:
- £30-40m potential increase in revenue to be raised by the new Levy; ABP scheme expected to raise more than £10m in extra revenue in 2016/17; 2% growth in total betting activity since 2014; ITV channel.
- £8m prize-money paid to the industry via Plus 10 bonus scheme; ownership decline halted; 505 additional horses in training since 2014; 3% growth in number of syndicates and partnerships.
- In The Paddock web site launched to promote syndicates; 2.9% growth in racecourse attendance since 2014; 12% growth in prize-money to almost £138m since 2014; new approach to the Fixture List under way; 4.7% growth in races with 8+ runners since 2014; 5.4m social media followers.
Phew! Lots of statistics there. Lydia did a show of hands on “optimism” for the industry, and very encouragingly it was skewed positively. There are many initiatives under way or in the pipeline, and there was a definite feeling of momentum for the next couple of years – hence the “onwards and upwards”.
But that doesn’t mean that all will necessarily be plain sailing. The questions I raised were all to do with “Grassroots Racing”. Very encouragingly the leaders of our sport are planning to focus much more effort and money on to the base of the racing pyramid, as they need to, because the most startling figure I heard was that the average cost recovery for those at the bottom of the sport is now only 8p in the £. When you look closely at the various graphs, the horses in training figure over the last five years has barely increased (13,716 to 14,033 in five years) while ownership has actually declined, although apparently that trend has now been halted (8,215 to 7,946 registered owners in five years).
I genuinely believe that this grassroots racing focus is both long overdue and absolutely essential to the long-term sustainability of the sport. If the grassroots owner retires or leaves the sport, the economics and competitiveness crumble. When you look at a race meeting such as the Cheltenham Festival on this week, all looks exciting with prodigious prize-money everywhere, but that is most definitely not how it seems on “normal” racedays. In fact I prefaced my question to Messrs. Rust and Atkin with a statement: “With Owners for Owners involved in 23 horses, I am an archetypal grassroots owner, enjoying 8p in the £ cost recovery, the dubious pleasures of minimum value racing when the total prize-money is only £3,500, endless hassles on badges, over-crowded lounges and nowhere to sit …. and yet I still remain optimistic.” I am just hoping that we see significant improvement over the next few years to 2020 to justify that optimism.