Friday, 31 August 2012

Novices (At The BHA)

My involvement in six NH horses, three of whom (Ballyboker Boy, Cross Of Honour and Kings Lodge) will be starting their chasing careers this autumn, makes me particularly interested in changes taking place from 1st October with regard to novice chasing. Alas, as with much of racing at the moment, the needs of racecourses and bookmakers seem to be at odds with those of trainers and owners.

It all probably seems pretty straightforward to a non-owning administrator, hunched over spreadsheets in BHA Towers in Holborn. Runners in novice chases have been falling over the last few years, and too many have had seven or fewer; betting turnover, and therefore levy, is declining; racecourses are naturally worried about non-competitive racing. What to do about this? Simples. Cut the number of novice chases being run in the UK (20% across novice, beginners and maiden chases); don’t allow novices to go straight into novice handicaps (it will now be mandatory that novices make their chasing debut in weight-for-age races); offer a few sweeteners to owners (three end-of-season novice handicap chases, run in April, probably at 2m, 2m4f and 3m, with a minimum of £60,000 prize money, open to horses that have run in at least two weight-for-age novice chases during the season). Problems solved.

Two obvious questions don’t seem to have been addressed by the BHA. “What is the purpose of novice chases”, and “Why has there been a decline in the number of runners?“

Surely the whole rationale of such races is to educate inexperienced horses and give them the confidence to show their potential. Evenly paced races, with smaller fields of similar standard horses, on courses and over fences that do not over-face the animal, are essential. Forcing young chasers to come up against potential superstars from the big yards strikes me as a recipe for disaster. There must be a real risk under the proposed regime that two sets of horses will be competing in the same race – a few top class, but the majority out of their depth. This will either lead to the lesser contingent being overfaced, with an inevitable increase in fallers, or jockeys being encouraged to pull up the weaker brethren as soon as possible. Especially since the new system doesn’t stipulate that horses actually have to complete their races.

The issue of declining numbers of runners is clearly complex. Doubtless one contributing factor is the lack of incentives for owners in the current racing financial model. More specifically, in the context of novice chasing, I wonder whether the BHA made any real attempt to explore longer-term incentivisation options that could address some of the root causes. Let me know what you think – just drop me an email on

Racing isn’t just about putting money into bookies’ satchels. I’ve watched all Frankel’s races this season. Small fields. Not competitive. Not a betting medium. And yet he’s drawing capacity crowds. I’ll be following Sprinter Sacre in the same way over the winter. Can’t wait! 

Wednesday, 15 August 2012

The Curmudgeon Stirs

What a magnificent fortnight of sport we’ve just experienced. Even the most cynical and sceptical of individuals must have been enthused by the Olympics. A tremendous success. I’ll definitely be following dressage horses in future after the great Valegro’s exhilarating performances. If I can find a spare couple of million, he’s mine.

Went down to Glorious Goodwood to see the equally fabulous Frankel turn in another pulsating performance in the Sussex Stakes. On the way back, popped into my local, The Pheasant at Lambourn Woodlands, only to find the Curmudgeon propped against the bar. He was not in good humour. Apparently Racing for Change (RfC) pursued another of their “ground-breaking initiatives” at Sandown recently as part of “making our sport more accessible”, with a trial of dual displays of imperial and metric weights and distances. “So tell me, Hughesie, why are all the races in the US still in good, old-fashioned imperial distances? If it’s such a great idea, do you think golf will be changing yardages any time soon? They don’t seem to have any problems with that in China and across Asia, do they? In fact why doesn’t RfC go the whole hog and recalculate the Guineas? And while they’re about it, let’s confuse everyone in York for the Juddmonte International and see if Frankel stays the extra distance, in metres not furlongs.” I knew what was coming. “Come on, you’ve got a Cambridge education. What’s the metric equivalent of one mile, two furlongs and 88 yards? And when you’ve worked that one out, tell me how that’s going to improve the racing experience.” Sometimes in life it’s better just to feign stupidity. A bit like RfC. Maybe Rod Street can convince the Curmudgeon and make it all seem necessary and relevant. I know I can’t. It was time to beat a retreat.

Let’s just hope that Frankel enjoys his next spin, over a distance of around 2100 metres. I’ll be up in York, cheering him on regardless. Can’t wait.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Greedy Managers

You may have seen the headline in the Racing Post earlier in the month, “Racing Lovers Could be Lost to the Sport by Greedy Managers”. While I didn’t come up with that title, I did write the text for the piece. After it came out, I was delighted by the large number of telephone calls I had – universal support for the sentiments expressed. So, if you missed it, here is the full article. 

“Not all is rosy with the syndicate scene, by any means. There is little or no regulation, some are badly managed, owners can easily be regarded as lambs to the slaughter, the commercial frameworks connected with ownership often lack transparency and it is easy for people to get into them without realising the open-ended commitments and costs involved. Some of them are clearly run by the syndicate managers as lifestyle businesses where the syndicate owners are in effect paying for that lifestyle. My worry is that the syndicate scene can easily be the bottom of the barrel of ownership in an industry that is prone to exploitation. I would certainly like to see syndicate owners treated with a much more positive attitude by the whole industry, rather than as easily expendable contributors to overheads. More specifically a framework / checklist is needed for syndicate owners to consider so that they know they are not going to be ripped off.

What did the syndicate horse actually cost to buy? In far too many instances the price charged to the syndicate is massively inflated to generate an easy profit for the syndicate manager. What is the term of the syndication – how long will it last and what are the precise rules for exit? Without that, it is too easy for a poor horse to be kept in training for too long and be run as a revenue stream for the syndicate manager and trainer.

How will any disagreements or potential conflicts of interest be handled? What is the appropriate annual remuneration for a syndicate manager and / or his business? In some syndicates the majority of the charges are to do with that.

What access can you get to the syndicate horse and the training yard, and is it likely to be a really enjoyable social experience? Getting into some yards is extremely difficult and syndicate members are made to feel distinctly unwelcome. Some syndicates don’t encourage visits at all.

Finally, what financial transparency will there be of all the various charges and costs associated with owning the horse?

A typical monthly fee is £275 x 12 owners. That is £3,300 per month, or £39,600 for the year – double the Racehorse Owners’ Association’s current view on the average cost of owning a horse. It can be very easy for syndicate managers to massage costs in a way that absorbs a lot of that additional payment. If they don’t provide detailed, transparent accounts then it is impossible to pinpoint exactly what happens to that money. Yes, an annual dividend may be returned to the syndicate owners but only after other charges have been taken from the balance. Please don’t read the above as the comments of a disillusioned owner – far from it. I adore racing and am expanding my involvement in it as an owner. However, since I came into ownership seven years ago, it has been a huge eye-opener to understand what I have called on my website “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” of syndicates.

Unfortunately, I know of too many instances where enthusiastic lovers of horseracing have come into syndicates, had a disappointing experience and then been lost to the sport. It would be interesting to know the statistics, not just of how many syndicate owners there are every year, but what the annual churn is – i.e. those who leave the sport never to return. It may be far higher than many would like to acknowledge.

I hope you find this perspective relevant. I for one would like to see some form of code of practice made available that would encourage the whole industry to embrace syndicate owners as a really key stakeholder that is helping to underpin racing.”