Sunday, 15 December 2013

Nonsense at Newbury – A Self-Inflicted PR Disaster and “The Denim Conspiracy”, Part 1

Newbury was one of the first racecourses that my wife and I visited together, back in 1978. We had just started our careers up in Liverpool and escaped the pressures of the city (this was a couple of years before the infamous Toxteth Riots – and we lived near Toxteth at the time, in Sefton Park) for a weekend in the Cotswolds and a trip to the Hennessy. We saw Bob Champion win on Approaching. Ever since then, it had probably been our favourite racecourse. We had been visiting it regularly for 35 years, and indeed lived only a few miles north on the Woolley Estate for seven years, alongside the famous Woolley Down Gallops where five Derby winners, including Generous and Morston, did their final preparations. Last year we had an Owners for Owners box at the course, and were planning another in 2014.

Notice the use of the past tense. Amazingly, we were caught up in the fiasco of Newbury’s new dress code. I’m going to examine this in some detail over the next few blogs.

On Saturday, 30th November, we held our 7th “Meet the Trainer” morning at Jamie Snowden’s in Lambourn. Lots of owners came down, we had an excellent reviving breakfast at The Pheasant and most of us then went on to Newbury for a great day’s racing. I was aware of the new dress code and had even gone to the trouble of emailing all our owners about it. In their advance publicity they had said that “racegoers are invited to prove that Britain knows best when it comes to Autumnal fashion, with fabulous hats and coats”. I put on my best tweedy outfit and my wife Jack wore a recently purchased coat of blue cotton with leather flashings (ironically bought at Cheltenham Racecourse) and a matching blue trilby (bought at Haydock Park the previous weekend when one of our horses, Quick Decisson, ran there). She was also wearing black trousers, bought specially during the week to ensure that she met the course requirements of “smart trousers, no denim”.

We had both purchased premier badges for the meeting and were admitted to the course in the normal manner. We met up with Philip and Sarah Hobbs in the main grandstand to watch on a TV monitor another of our Owners for Owners horses, Lady Charisma, winning the opening race at Towcester with a typically brave and resolute performance. She is an immaculately bred filly – by Presenting, out of a top-class Cadoudal mare – so to have a first win with her was particularly important, in view of her future breeding potential. All of us were absolutely thrilled and very excited – she got up on the line, to win by a flared nostril!

Not surprisingly, I was then in need of sustenance. I went off to the Champagne Bar in the Wine Cellar in one of the Premier stands to meet up and celebrate with another of Lady Charisma’s owners. Jack went to the paddock to look at the horses for the next race, and then tried to join me. What happened next was spectacularly embarrassing – she was not allowed back into the Premier enclosure. One of the stewards refused her entry because she was deemed to be wearing denim. When Jack protested that she took the prohibition to refer to jeans, he reiterated the refusal by stating that “it’s the rule and you can’t come in”. Unbelievable.

As far as I am concerned, this is the antithesis of everything we are all trying to do in racing. I’m very supportive of any initiatives designed to improve the racegoer experience, encourage more people to come racing and build continuous loyalty and support for our great racing festivals. For the life of me, though, I cannot understand any initiative that results in a mature woman wearing brand-new, smart black trousers, a blue cotton coat (but one that was deemed to be “denim”), with a matching blue trilby, being refused admission to the Premier enclosure and publicly humiliated in this way. Especially as in Owners for Owners we are investing significant sums in racing and doing everything we can to encourage owners to buy more horses and maximise their day-to-day racing experience.

Once I found out about this fiasco, I tracked down the steward; remonstrated with him and his supervisor; then went along to the Newbury office where I was introduced to their ironically-titled “Customer Ambassador”, Alison Brown. She explained that a briefing sheet on the dress code had been sent out by email and that all staff had had a verbal briefing, apparently from the Facilities Manager, Lesley Whittaker. I asked for a copy of the briefing sheet but was not given one. Interestingly, Alison hadn’t been present at the briefing so could not comment on how well it was done, nor whether the subtleties of dress codes were properly explained. I asked to meet Stephen Higgins, the MD of Newbury, but he was unavailable due to being “on duty with the Princess Royal”.

What do you think to this incident? I’ve already had quite a lot of views expressed to me by phone and email. I’ll cover them in Part 2 on this subject. In a lighter moment, a couple of our owners talked of this as a “Denim Conspiracy” and suggested that Owners for Owners buy a horse, name it that, and run it in light blue silks with leather epaulettes. Ha, ha. It’s the only funny thing I can see in what was a really embarrassing experience, and one that I am still pursuing with Newbury.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

The Importance of the Owner Experience – Comparing Our Wins at Marvellous Market Rasen vs. Skinflint Southwell

By email to: Simon Bazalgette, CEO, Jockey Club Racecourses; Richard Wayman, CEO, Racehorse Owners’ Association; Colin Booth, Chairman, Pip Kirkby, General Manager and Jane Hedley, Clerk of the Course, Market Rasen Racecourse; Tony Kelly, Managing Director, Arena Racing Company and Roderick Duncan, Clerk of the Course, Southwell Racecourse.

Dear All,

Earlier in the month, Owners for Owners had horses running on two consecutive days in very similar races. Shantou Magic ran on Sunday, 10th November in the Class 4, 2m 3f BDN Construction Novices Hurdle at Market Rasen, and Houndscourt ran the next day in the Class 4, 2m 4f 32Red Casino Novices Hurdle at Southwell. Both won. All the owners present were extremely pleased, and delighted for their respective horses. We won £4,548 with Shantou Magic and £3,195 with Houndscourt. In many ways these were fairly ordinary novice hurdles, of average quality and interest. Very few people will have clocked both horses – just typical horses running in typical races. However I am writing to all of you because the overall owner experience at the two courses was completely different and I felt it would be helpful to illustrate that comment with more detail. It seemed to me that these two races, at their respective courses, encapsulate the very different approaches to owners of Jockey Club Racecourses (JCR) and Arena Racing Company (ARC).

Let’s start with prize-money. During and immediately after the race, none of us as owners were thinking much about that. We were just overjoyed for our horses. But our prize-money at Southwell was considerably lower than at Market Rasen. If you look at the total win prize-money between both meetings, it was £29,329 for six races at Market Rasen (average £4,888) vs. £18,547 for seven races at Southwell (average £2,649). A marked difference. Yet again it illustrates the comment from Rachel Hood, President of the ROA, when talking about ARC (in the context of their refusal to sign the media rights prize-money agreement), that “Their business is about running sports stadia; they are putting profit before all other considerations and will pay as little as they can get away with for what they perceive to be their raw material – the runners and riders.” So on this specific criterion, JCR (and particularly Market Rasen) should be congratulated, with all the owners involved also appreciative that they have committed to increasing prize-money over the next few years, in marked contrast to ARC who have no plans to do likewise.

While prize-money is a critical issue, the quality of the owner experience when attending a particular racecourse is clearly driven by many other factors. So let me contrast the two courses, and follow through the actual behaviours encountered when we came into contact with various personnel. Alas there was little evidence of professional owner / customer management skills that might have been expected from an organisation such as ARC whose business competence is supposed to be managing sports stadia. Positive or negative experiences in the retail or leisure industry are usually generated by interpersonal encounters at a number of staff touch points. Southwell was lamentable.

We arrived at Market Rasen, parked the car and went over to the Owners & Trainers entrance, where we were greeted by a couple of friendly and knowledgeable members of staff. They welcomed us immediately, chatted about the weather, the going and our horse, and wished us well. We were given a programme and meal vouchers, and proceeded to the Owners and Trainers bar. It was Armed Forces Family Fun Day. There was a large crowd, numerous stalls and stands and a general buzz to the whole proceedings. In the paddock before our race, there were lots of owners and also Market Rasen personnel mingling with us. Our horse won and we were delighted to meet the parents of the race sponsors, who awarded us a prize and a lovely hamper of cheese. They had obviously studied the race and chatted to us about Shantou Magic’s future. Their son, the CEO of BDN Construction, was sponsoring a number of races that day. We went across to the winners’ room, where we were plied with as many glasses of champagne as we could drink and members of the Market Rasen executive came along to celebrate the occasion with us. Our trainer, Charlie Longsdon, has done very well at this course and everyone thanked us profusely for bringing our horse to the track. A great experience.

After staying overnight at Forest Pines Golf Resort nearby (with even a few of us braving the elements to fit in 18 holes on the Monday morning), we travelled down to Southwell, looking forward to a similarly enjoyable race-day experience. We were directed to park in a large puddle – not a good start. When arriving at the entrance, I wondered if racing had been cancelled, as staff took no notice of us and seemed in no hurry to let us in. We were completely ignored for several minutes. Grudgingly they eventually gave us an entry pass and we went off to meet up with co-owners. The Owners and Trainers bar and meal were perfectly acceptable. However, when we went into the paddock it was deserted at the start and clearly very few owners had bothered coming up to support their horse or the meeting. Houndscourt duly won (perhaps somewhat fortuitously) and we greeted him back in the winner’s enclosure. From then onwards, it felt as though everyone connected with Southwell just wanted to get us off the premises. It was the last race on the card. There was a desultory prize-giving with an individual who didn’t introduce himself, and we were ushered away for “a glass of champagne”. The one Southwell employee present could not have been more miserable if he tried. After a thimble full of champagne each, he refused to provide a top-up (“It’s against the rules”) even though three-quarters of the bottle remained (presumably he took it home?) and, as a true jobsworth, urged us to drink quickly so that he could wash up and leave. If it hadn’t been for the owners being on such a high, this would have been a dismal end to our long racing weekend.

So, Market Rasen clearly won the owner-experience race hands down. Congratulations, Mr. Booth, and please pass on our thanks to all your team. I’m sorry, Mr. Duncan, but Southwell appeared to us to be a track that is just milking the stadium asset and doesn’t really have much regard for us as owners. Obviously because ARC controls such a large percentage of fixtures we may have to return, but if we have a choice between visits to Market Rasen and Southwell, we’ll be heading to Lincolnshire every time. Increasingly, I’m sure that many owners will also feel the same about voting for other tracks rather than supporting those of ARC.

Yours sincerely,

Owners for Owners.

Reader note: the Arena racecourses are Bath, Brighton, Chepstow, Doncaster, Fontwell, Yarmouth, Lingfield, Newcastle, Windsor, Sedgefield, Southwell, Uttoxeter, Wolverhampton and Worcester. None have signed up for the prize-money agreement with the Horsemen’s Group and the BHA. Jockey Club racecourses are Aintree, Carlisle, Cheltenham, Epsom, Exeter, Haydock, Huntingdon, Kempton, Market Rasen, Newmarket, Nottingham, Sandown, Warwick and Wincanton. They have all signed up for the Premier Tier Agreement on prize-money.

Friday, 15 November 2013

More on the Prize-Money Challenge ….. and the Pleasure of Owning a Horse Such as Shantou Magic

Last Saturday, Anthony Honeyball was kind enough to host the sixth in our series of “Meet the Trainer” mornings at his yard on the Dorset / Somerset borders. Then over 20 owners met up at Wincanton Races to enjoy everything about Badger Ales day from the luxury of a private Owners for Owners box. A magnificent view, great food and an excellent opportunity for owners from various partnerships to meet up and enjoy each others’ company. Racing really is an excellent sport for bringing together people from all walks of life. The shared interest and love of the racehorse guarantees a common bond.

We had no sooner driven back from Wincanton than a number of us headed north for Market Rasen to see Shantou Magic on Sunday, 10th November, and then Houndscourt at Southwell the following day – a Lincolnshire trip that most definitely paid off. Some of us stayed up there and even managed a game of golf at Forest Pines in between the races.

The Timeform review of Shantou Magic’s race says everything: “Followed up his Fontwell success with consummate ease, value for considerably more than the margin of victory; mid-field, travelled smoothly, crept closer from 5th, chased leader approaching next, led 3 out, in command 2 out, forged clear; created a good impression, and is well worth his place in better company.” The dreams have always been alive, but have now rocketed to a different level. One of the owners sent me a smashing email describing himself as “Mr. Excited from Hampshire”. The Timeform rating is 133p – the same as Taquin Du Seuil at this stage last year, who went on to win the Challow by 9 lengths and started at 6/1 for the Neptune at the Cheltenham Festival. My response was, “I think I need to go and lie down!” Charlie Longsdon is going to let the horse have a short holiday now, having had two runs in close succession, and he will reappear after Christmas, possibly in the Challow at Newbury or the Leamington Spa at Warwick, or even a big handicap hurdle, depending on the mark.

In the glorious moments of the race and immediately afterwards, I don’t think any of us were thinking about prize-money. It was just the sheer joy of owning a potential star, and all the dreams and aspirations that flow from that. But clearly, prize-money does matter (and by the way, in the next blog I am going to compare and contrast the way in which Market Rasen treated the owners, as opposed to ARC’s Southwell).

On the bigger stage, the Australian turf authorities have acknowledged this with their recent announcement that they are going to create a £10.5m end-of-season championship meeting – appropriately enough, called “The Championships” – containing eight Group 1s and the world’s richest mile race. It will kick off on 12th and 19th April 2014 in Sydney, and follows on from the Dubai World Cup on 29th March. The goal is to make it “the greatest event for racing in the Southern Hemisphere”. Their 1m 2f race will be worth £2.3m; the 6f, £1.5m; and the Doncaster Mile, £3m. That definitely puts the poor old prize-money at Kempton and Doncaster UK, and our pathetic start to the Flat, in perspective.

While still in Australia, the Melbourne Cup on 5th November had total prize-money of almost £4m. Not bad for a 2m handicap. The winner picked up almost £2.5m, the 2nd, £0.5m, the 3rd, over £0.25m, and even the 6th, 7th and 8th each had over £80,000. These prizes really matter – I’ve already commented on the increasing disparities building up between Breeder’s Cup in the US, the Arc meeting at Longchamp and the Dubai World Cup, and Ascot’s Champions’ Day. Global owners and breeders will increasingly migrate away from the UK to these more lucrative locations – a huge concern for the UK racehorse industry.

Finally, back to the Jumps. On 6th November, there was an ARC meeting at Chepstow and a jumps meeting at Enghien, north of Paris. The total prize-money at Chepstow was £32,552. Three races had win prize-money of a mere £1,949, and a derisory £143 for 4th. By contrast, Enghien had total prize-money of £264,210. One of the more valuable races on the card – a 2m 1f chase for 4yos – had prize-money of £44,713, the winner picked up £21,463 and the 5th, £2,012. For each of six of their seven races, the single race prize-money was more than the total pot at Chepstow. I intend to discuss French jumps racing with all our trainers. Our next National Hunt purchase will be set up as a partnership aiming to go racing in France as well as the UK.

À bientôt, mes amis!

Friday, 1 November 2013

An Owners for Owners Prize-Money Challenge – Step Change in Champions’ Days with the Launch of a Triple Crown and Real Collaboration Across the Racing Territories

As you know, in the last few issues of the blog I have been examining British racing’s prize-money (or rather, lack of it, in terms of its quantum). While I congratulated the Arena Racing Company (ARC) for the launch of their all-weather series, at the end of the day it is only a drop in the ocean, and it was disappointing that they have failed to sign up to a deal sharing more of their media rights money with racing. We need to double or triple the total amount of money that is being made available for owners and through them, trainers, jockeys and stable staff. I’m also more than happy to acknowledge the magnificent contribution of Qipco and the Qataris, and the way in which Ascot’s Champions’ Day has been promoted by all the authorities. People such as Charles Barnett at Ascot, David Redvers with the Qataris, together with the Great British Racing team and the BHA, have brought in individuals of real wealth who are injecting considerable sums of both cash and enthusiasm into our sport. Hats off to all of them.

In common, though, with many of our owners, most of us were at Cheltenham for Showcase Saturday (after a particularly fine “Meet the Trainer” morning, hosted by Martin and Belinda Keighley at their yard, and fortified by a heart-stopping breakfast in the Plough at Ford) rather than at Ascot for Champions’ Day. Why on earth do we have the end of the Flat clashing with the start of the Jumps? Utter nonsense. But then, with the current structure of the racing calendar, there is not a lot that the authorities can do about it.

Cheltenham as always was deeply enjoyable, although it is hard not to feel that this is a meeting that also needs to raise its game with far more prize-money. But it certainly focuses the mind on to the thrills ahead, and the dénouement of the Festival itself. I can already hear the roar before the Supreme Novices. Alas, while watching Ascot from Cheltenham, I don’t think you could ever envisage a similar roar occurring before the start of Champions’ Day. Indeed, the general consensus was that it was a fairly low-key day, with the Queen’s horse Estimate setting the tone with a most disappointing 7th place behind the Johnny Murtagh trained and ridden Royal Diamond. It is also pretty difficult to have champion sprint racing on soft ground, and Slade Power won from a seemingly weak field. Olympic Glory’s success in the QE2 Mile was a great result for Sheikh Al-Thani, and the horse obviously loved the going. But of course he had been beaten in the Prix Jacques le Marois by Moonlight Cloud.

Without any doubt though, Ascot did produce a candidate for “Race of the Season” in the 1½ mile Champion Stakes. This was Farhh’s last race, and will definitely have brought a smile to the faces of all the Godolphin connections after the torrid and controversial year they have endured – a great race, with Cirrus Des Aigles and Ruler Of The World a few heads behind.

But what really caught my eye after this race was the difference in prize-money. I thought that Treve’s performance in the Arc was the champion performance of the whole season. Simply breathtaking, and to win by 15 lengths, quite extraordinary. She won £2.25m, with superb prize-money down to 5th at £111,000. Compare that with the Champion Stakes - £300,000 to the winner and £14,000 for 5th. Says everything. Champion quality racing …… but ten times greater prize-money in France!!!

So, here is an Owners for Owners idea. Why not get all the racing authorities and the richest sponsors together and lay out a European Triple Crown? Kick it off in Ireland at the end of August / early September; move on to Ascot three or four weeks later; and then on to Longchamp for the Arc. Make it the richest sequence of racing in the world. Give the sponsors huge publicity. Tweak all the race terms so that trainers can go for at least two of the three meetings with their absolute top horses from anywhere in the world. Put massive marketing clout behind it that positions Europe in the early Autumn as the only place to be for top-quality Flat racing. Use it to capture the imagination of all the stakeholders in racing and, obviously, the general public as well as racing’s core enthusiasts. To make this work, there would need to be a transformation in collaboration and major changes in race planning. If it could be made to work, it would be absolutely magnificent.

Tuesday, 15 October 2013

2014 Prize-money – Both Good & Bad News with Arena Racing Company (ARC)

I’ve always loved Private Eye as a magazine, and have long been a follower of Lord Gnome. Much of the content has varied over the years, but as many of you will know, some themes have remained the same, with the hardy chestnuts of HP Sauce, Rotten Boroughs, Nooks and Corners, Colemanballs, Pseuds Corner …. and the immortal Glenda Slagg with her ability to argue both ways at the same time. Over the last week or two, there have been a few Glenda Slagg moments in terms of prize-money – both good and not so good.

ARC was formed from the merger of Arena Leisure and Northern Racing in 2012. They control 15 tracks and 40% of the racing calendar. The former leader of the Conservative party, Michael Howard, is chairman and Tony Kelly is the MD. The company is owned by the extremely astute Reuben brothers.

Much of the lowest grade racing in the country is under ARC’s auspices. With notable exceptions such as Doncaster, prize-money is lamentable – over 70% of the Flat races run at ARC tracks carry total prize-money of £4,000 or less. The good news though is that they have pushed up prize-money by 18% in 2013, 24% in 2014 and are now committing to a rebranding of all-weather racing, including £2m extra annual prize-money as part of an initial three-year commitment to improve the sport. 52 new Class 2 and Class 3 races are going to be included and they are launching (in conjunction with their partners Ladbrokes, Coral, 32 Red and an A/W championship series between 26th October 2013 and a new fixture on Good Friday, 18th April 2014. Horses can take part in “win and you’re in” A/W qualifiers at their Lingfield, Southwell and Wolverhampton tracks as well as at Kempton Park, owned by the Jockey Club. The Good Friday bash will have six championship categories, with each race worth £150,000, including a 7f 3yo race, 6f sprint, mile and middle distance races and a 2m marathon. It will be the richest A/W card ever staged in Europe.

Lots of people are dead against the Good Friday meeting. Traditionally there has been no racing on that day, and it is when Lambourn and Middleham hold their popular open days. Personally I thought it inevitable that this would happen, and am more than prepared to support the ARC initiative. If it raises the overall quality and prize-money throughout the winter, then that is all to the good, even though it is not a form of racing that I particularly like – not because of its being run on the all-weather so much as the dreary quality of it. I see it as just dross racing for the betting industry, but if it drives revenue and people want to support it, then why resist it? This subject will get an airing in the next blog.

So where is the bad news? Philip Freedman, Chairman of the Horseman’s Group, and Rachel Hood, President of the Racehorse Owners Association, have been working for some time, together with the authorities, on collaborative negotiations with the racecourses to secure contractual commitments linking the rapidly increasing media revenues to prize-money contribution. These negotiations have gone well ….. or at least they were doing until ARC announced, on 9th October, that they were not going to sign up to these prize-money agreements. This is a major blow, with all the key players “extremely disappointed”.

Unless there is a change of heart, this is going to put ARC at loggerheads with the industry, and may well lead to sanctions. Race fixture allocation over time can be changed so that fixtures go to the racecourses that have signed up to the contracts; bonuses such as the European Breeders’ Fund and the Racing Post Yearling Bonus Scheme can follow suit; and of course trainers and owners can vote with their feet and not support ARC courses. Collaboration has a lot going for it, but it now seems as though ARC just doesn’t want to play ball at the moment. I’m sure there will be a lot of negotiation going on behind the scenes.

Glenda Slagg would probably say: “Hats off to ARC. Can’t wait for Hunky Howard, the man in the big Chair, to put me under starter’s orders. He’s my long shot, I can tell you!! Always welcome for some late-night negotiation round at Glenda’s gaff ….. Seen the new ARC deal. What a car crash ??! Hateful Howard. Couldn’t run the Tories and can’t run a racecourse. What a loser – all bets off for me!! Send that nice John Gosden round and we’ll soon get collaboration cooking. Byeee!!”

(Get back to your blog. You’re fired. Ed.)

Tuesday, 1 October 2013

The Prize Money Challenge – £200m by 2020 and 50% ROO

As followers of the blog know, I’ve been looking at the economics of racing, starting with the lamentable state of owner prize money in the UK. Interestingly, when I went along to a recent Racehorse Owners’ Association presentation at Newbury on 20th September, this was definitely their number one issue because it is such a fundamental part of the whole fabric of racing.

The CEO, Richard Wayman, outlined the three key priorities for the ROA: firstly the negotiations with racecourses to secure a contractual obligation to inject money from media rights into prize money; secondly, supporting the case for fundamental legislative reform of the betting industry, particularly evasion of levy through offshore operations out of Gibraltar; and thirdly, improving the quality of the owner experience on the racecourses themselves. There was a Q&A session after Richard’s presentation, and I argued for a clear goal for prize money. That whole line of thinking appeared to be well received by the owners present.

The Owners for Owners Challenge is for a clear goal to be agreed of at least £200m of prize money available for owners by 2020, thereby ensuring that British racing is at least somewhere near parity with the French and that the return on ownership increases from 20p in the pound to nearer 50p.

There were three main reactions to this goal at Newbury. Apparently some years ago a very famous National Hunt owner was well reported as saying that “Owning a racehorse is a hobby, you shouldn’t expect to cover your costs and if you cannot afford it, don’t do it”. When a member of the audience mentioned this, there was no doubting whatsoever the views of the owners present. The whole mind-set around that statement was seen as ludicrous …. and yet as I said in the last blog, it is a relatively common one. Owners are injecting almost £0.5bn a year into the industry, and without an acceptable return the base of the sport will be eroded.

Another reaction was a challenge as to whether there was really an appetite across the owner population to fight for a fair and acceptable return on ownership. Quite clearly, once there are contractual prize money agreements in place with some racecourses, it will be very interesting indeed to see what the ROA, and in turn, owners are prepared to do with the racecourses that won’t sign up for a prize money increase as a result of the revenue secured through media rights. My own position is that we should do everything possible to support the courses that are prepared to increase prize money, and vote with our horses’ feet – don’t send them to the tracks that aren’t prepared to reward owners properly.

The final reaction was to do with the goal itself, or more accurately, the actions needed to achieve it. A goal of this magnitude cannot be achieved just by incremental tweaking around the margins of cost and revenue. It will need much more fundamental and transformational change. Furthermore, this will have to reflect the huge innovations under way in betting, with the migration to PC and smartphone platforms. The vast majority of the revenue needed for additional prize money has to come from betting. Either bookmakers are persuaded / forced to make a much bigger contribution, or the racing industry itself should push for changes in the betting landscape: indeed, could racing itself link up with major investors and launch its own suite of betting platforms, harnessing the most modern technologies? A number of our owners believe this is a route that should definitely be explored and evaluated. It may seem far-fetched at the moment, but step changes of this type could well be what racing needs. More about this on the next blog.

Sunday, 15 September 2013

Owners - #1 Stakeholders, #1 Economic Contributors …. But Well Last in the Economics of the Sport

I love this time of the year. Two year olds are coming out on to the track and showing us what they can do for next year; all the NH owners’ days are under way with the dreams of future Cheltenham and Aintree glories well and truly alive; and the champions’ days in Ireland, at Ascot, Longchamps and the Breeder’s Cup are still ahead of us. Lots to look forward to, and it is magnificent being an owner. Alas, the moose on the table (as one of my clients always used to say) is the lamentable return to most owners for their investment. In the last blog I was thinking of calling this one “Milking the 8,215 cash cows (owners) dry”. However, I’ve decided to stay with the facts as summarised in the Deloittes study, Economic Impact of British Racing 2013. But here is the key paragraph in the report for us:

“Owners are the single biggest contributors to the funding of British racing, both through their purchase of horses from breeders (£189m being breeders’ expenditure and commission paid on horse purchases) and ongoing training and racing expenditure paid to trainers, jockeys and supporting industries (£369m). After receipts of prize money and sponsorship of £85m, owners are estimated to have made a net injection of over £470m in 2012 (compared to £465m in 2008).”

So let’s dig into these figures as well as others in the report and highlight the key statistics and implications (bearing in mind that the key figures relate to 2012).

  • As owners, we’re putting the thick end of half a billion pounds a year into the sport. No-one else puts anywhere near that amount of money into the game. We are the #1 economic contributor, by a considerable margin. 
  • Prize money over the past decade has remained within a relatively narrow band between £94m and £110m. In 2012, it was down at £78m (although encouragingly it is rising through 2013). For every £100 an owner spent on training and racing their horse, they recovered on average £21. 
  • Cumulative inflation over the same decade has been 34%, so as an absolute minimum prize money should have gone up over that period by at least a third. 
  • Average costs per day for each horse in training rose from £54 to £62 over the four-year period to 2012.
  • Gross cost per run was £4,000 (reduced by 20% when prize money is taken into account). This is far more than virtually every other racing nation because of the low prize money in the UK. 
  • The expanding fixture list (particularly with the dross of A/W racing) has resulted in average prize money per race declining by 14% since 2003 (but of course has led to a rise in betting turnover). 
  • There were 24,000 horses in training during 2012. 17,500 appeared on the track. So over a quarter of all horses didn’t appear, and obviously made no contribution whatsoever for their owners. Of those that did appear, 6,500 won at least one race, so – big intake of breath – only a quarter of horses end up winning anything. 
  • Between 2008 and 2012, there was an 11% fall in the number of horses in training, and a 14% fall in the number of owners. 
  • 60% of all owners are involved in joint ownership in order to share the costs. 
  • The final statistic (from the ROA) is that the upper end of the ownership scale has been the most resilient. Owners with three or more horses are down 7%, whereas those with an interest in only one horse are down 16%.

Phew! At this point it’s probably best either to lie down with a large block of ice on your head, or alternatively bang said head against a brick wall. These figures just do not make any sense whatsoever. Having said that, I have no intention of decreasing my involvement, despite the economic lunacy of being an owner.

Graham Lee came out with a very interesting comment about his switch from NH to the Flat: “The jumps is about fun, but the Flat is about business.” I was talking to one of our owners and he both agreed with the statement while also thinking that it was ludicrous. Owners are being exploited because there is a view that they will carry on supporting the industry regardless because of their love for the game.

Well, my challenge to everyone in racing is let’s start looking at the whole game as a business first, and dramatically improve the total economics of the sport. That means that as owners, if we are the #1 contributor, there must be a fundamental shift in the returns. We are the #1 stakeholder, and if the economics don’t change, the whole sport is on extremely rocky foundations.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

Great British Racing – But Still Dire Returns for The Diminishing Number of Owners

Many of our owners make an annual pilgrimage to the Knavesmire for the Ebor meeting, and this year was no exception. To many eyes it is the best track in the country, fantastic racing, hugely knowledgeable crowds and without any doubt the cheapest and highest quality Champagne on any racecourse in the land. Delighted to see The Fugue bounce back in the Darley Yorkshire Oaks for her owner-breeders, the Lloyd-Webbers, and she may now be off to either the Arc, the Prix Vermeille or the Breeders’ Cup. I was always a big fan of Rock Of Gibraltar, and Declaration Of War seems to be very much in the same mould – a huge, tough horse who really dominated the Juddmonte International. He could be a great stallion in time, and is one to keep an eye on.

However, the result that really pleased me was Tiger Cliff winning the eponymous race itself. When I lived alongside Paul Cole’s gallops on Woolley Down, I often used to meet Henry Ponsonby walking his dogs. Indeed, the very first time I met him, he managed to sell me a share in Bonchester Bridge at Nicky Henderson’s, which is how I met Jamie Snowden, now one of our trainers. On occasions Henry can be an irascible devil, but if you share a magnum of claret with him he is one of the best raconteurs in the business. A typical tale involves an encounter with a naked but well-known author. She obviously forgave him because Henry makes a proud appearance in one of her recent novels – maybe surprisingly, with his clothes on. His partner, Kish, has not been at all well recently and this victory must have been a huge tonic. To land Europe’s richest handicap and bag £155,000 for the syndicate owners was a superb triumph. Apparently Tiger Cliff is due to head to Alan King, so who knows, we may see him pop up in the Supreme Novices at Cheltenham next March.

Finally on this Yorkshire theme, it was also great to welcome back Karl Burke as the designated trainer at Spigot Lodge after 1,491 days. The whole Burke family is completely dedicated to making this yard a great success, so nothing really is going to change, but Karl must have been very pleased indeed to pick up his first winner within a few days of regaining the licence. It was a long time to be on the cold list! By coincidence, Henry Ponsonby, when he lived in Wensleydale before being banished to Lambourn, used to ride out at Spigot Lodge. Our sport can be a close network.

Back though now to the economics of racing. I suspect not many of you have ploughed through the 50+ pages of the Deloittes report, The Economic Impact of British Racing 2013. I have now, and it provides a good reference point (figures relate to 2012). I’ll be coming back to it a lot over the next few blogs. Here are some facts and figures to consider:
  • Contribution of horse racing to the UK economy: it is the second-biggest sport after football. Around 6 million people go racing every year. The net worth / total economic impact of racing is £3.5bn. There are 20,000+ people employed directly in racing. If you include betting operators and other parts of our sport, there are 85,000 jobs at stake. The industry generated over £275m in tax for the Exchequer.
  • Owners’ contribution to the sport: in 2012, 8,215 owners spent £369m in direct training fees and racing expenditure. If you add in the investment in bloodstock, it was £470m. Prize money won was £78m. With sponsorship included, the return on ownership (ROO) was £85m – a miserly 20%. The number of registered owners has dropped by 14%.
  • Racecourses’ contribution to the sport: there has been £950m of unprecedented capital investment over the past decade. Media operations generated £173m in revenues. Media rights are booming and are expected to exceed £100m in 2013. Income from racegoers, sponsors and corporate customers was £371m. Prize money was lower in 2012 than in 2004.
  • Bookmakers’ contribution to the sport: their gross win in 2012, i.e. the amount lost by punters, was £710m. Racing received £75m via the statutory 10.75% levy applied to their “profits” on this sum. Levy has fallen sharply (from £150m) as bookies have gone offshore to evade tax and the levy.

I’ll come back to some of the issues that naturally flow from these figures in the next blog. At the moment I think a tentative title could be “Milking the 8,215 Cash Cows (Owners) Dry”. More on that next time.

Thursday, 15 August 2013

Curmudgeons, Grotesques …. and the Economics of Racing

Well the middle of this month has been very enjoyable, particularly with a fantastic retirement bash at Windsor Racecourse on Monday. I’ve stepped down from the chairmanship role in my consultancy, Future Purchasing, and was delighted when colleagues organised a celebration (I think for my achievements, rather than pleasure that I was leaving!!) with much merriment, drinks and dinner in a large box in the Royal Grandstand. Even the speeches weren’t too boring. There were a couple of jokes about Champion spark-plugs and melons that certainly wouldn’t pass the spam filters. Even managed to back a few winners. Jack and I staggered off the course loaded down with presents so there was some tremendous generosity. We both resolved to retire every year from now on!

This sort of party definitely illustrates how racecourses can make money and provide lots of entertainment for non-racegoers. The vast majority of our guests had never stepped on to a racecourse before, and wanted to know whether our sport was always like this – fine food, decent wine, private bars, panoramic view of the racecourse and river, etc. It was hard not to smile wryly, thinking about what it will be like as we go through the winter enjoying the facilities at some of the minor jumps tracks, or even more wryly when considering the very dubious delights of the all-weather.

My last blog on owners being treated as “cash cows” triggered much discussion about the crazy economics of racing. Indeed, over a few pints of Donningtons down here in the Cotswolds the Curmudgeon and I developed a whole economic model around ROO (Return on Ownership). Those of you in the business world know that ROCE (Return on Capital Employed) is a very important financial metric, and we believe ROO is the same for racing. At the moment the ROO is about 20%, if you’re lucky. In other words, for every pound that an owner puts into racing, they get about 20p back. This puts us right at the bottom of the league table. In many countries, such as Dubai, Hong Kong, Japan and Australia, the return is massively better. The key question is what to do about it. Now that I’m officially retired and have a bit more time, I’m intending to try to get my mind around that, and also do some digging and delving into the facts and data of actual returns. I’d like to see the BHA and the ROA set a formal target of, say, 50% ROO to be achieved within five years.

When a friend of ours, Ruud van Ruitenbeek, and his wife Di were staying with us a week or two ago, we went to visit the historic church of St. Peter’s in Winchcombe, built in 1468. Right around the sides of the church are gruesome depictions of people, animals and mythical beasts. I’d always thought these were called gargoyles, but Ruud discovered that “gargoyle” comes from the French, gargouiller, which means “to gurgle”, and therefore refers to a water spout. Since the ones at Winchcombe don’t have any water coming out of their mouths, they are apparently called grotesques. The one that I have put into this blog definitely illustrates the likely reaction of anyone who tries to understand the crazy economics of our sport. It equally depicts my reaction to the disgraceful way in which bookmakers are milking our industry and failing to reinvest their profits so as to make an adequate contribution. This is another area that I intend to investigate. I’m going to start by seeking clarity on the BHA’s strategy – is the plan to keep on appeasing the bookies by allowing more and more low-grade racing, or will they be facilitating fundamental levy reform, and if so, how?

Off to Yorkshire now to see the horses at Karl and Elaine Burke’s. Bound to meet a few curmudgeons up at Middleham. I’ll keep you posted.

P.S. If you’d like to see any of Ruud’s photos, do have a look at his web site, - they are excellent. You can even buy his book of photos online.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

A One-Eyed View of Racing – Revenues Up and Costs Down

Throughout my consulting career I always made sure that clients worked hard to concentrate on both sides of the business equation – put in place the strategies and innovations to grow sustainable revenues while doing everything possible to reduce costs in a similarly sustainable manner. Incredibly, I often found many clients would only concentrate on one half of this equation, and I termed it the “one-eyed view of the world”.

I don’t know why, but I read two things recently about racing that made me twitchy and, if I’m honest about it, somewhat irritable. Racing quite rightly is determined to increase its slice of the sports and betting pie and grow overall revenue so that more money flows into the sport. For owners, the big worry is that not enough comes back to us through prize-money. And yet the sport doesn’t really seem to concentrate on the cost base. Indeed, from an owner’s perspective, I think we are often seen as a cash cow, there to be well and truly milked. So what irritated me?

I noticed that on 20th July Haydock Park was (in its own words) “turning itself into a House of Fun”, with a “fantastic summer’s night of action-packed racing and live music”. Well, the “action-packed racing” was an exceptionally dreary card with only 37 runners and most of the fields not big enough to allow each-way betting. Madness topped the bill. Maximum ticket prices were £60 and, amazingly, 19,000 people turned up, thereby generating revenues well north of £1m. Win prize-money on four of the races was less than £3,000. Doubtless everyone who paid a premium price loved the music, and it has put a lot of money into the racecourse’s coffers. But as owners, will we see any of it? Great that revenue was up, but the racing was awful. If Haydock Park is first and foremost a racecourse rather than a music venue, how do we gain anything from it? Don’t get me wrong – I’m very much in favour of using racing’s assets in a way that maximises revenue, but there must be a risk that the main experience and its raison d’être is diminished. If so, Madness.

Secondly, in the latest Owner & Breeder magazine, I read about Noel Chance retiring. Great trainer, two Gold Cup winners. Jamie Snowden is now in one of his former yards, Folly House. Noel said of being a trainer, “It’s a wonderful life. I never had a bob, but I didn’t eat in a bad restaurant or stay in a bad hotel. It’s a surreal existence training racehorses. You’re dealing in vast amounts of money belonging to other people, and you tend to lose touch with reality to a certain extent. You tend to lose the value of money, particularly when it is other people’s” (my emphasis). It is that line that irritated me.

In Owners for Owners, we’ve gone out of our way to find trainers that we admire, respect and trust. So the comments I am about to make do not apply to them. They wouldn’t be on our roster if they did.

But I do think that racing authorities, many trainers and agents most definitely do not think enough about the cost base and forget that they should be husbanding owners’ hard-earned cash and doing everything possible not to waste it. At the moment, the average return on owning is less than 20%, i.e. 20p in the pound, which is a fraction of what we find in many other countries. And yet racing only really concentrates on trying to take revenues up. Maybe it should also concentrate on bringing costs down. Lots of ways of doing that: simplify the administration; rationalise the charges; avoid wasteful multiple entries; share the transport (not charging 100% for each horse when there is more than one in a box); cap training fees (they can range anywhere from £30 to £70 per day, and yet staff costs are relatively constant); refuse to bid up sales prices to ridiculous levels (aided and abetted by the agents who love the buzz of buying the top lots); making sure there is no luck money or hidden kickbacks; and avoiding bottom-of-the-barrel syndicates that double or treble the value of horses they have bought cheaply and passed on to naïve and gullible owners.

A bit of a rant, that. I did say I was irritated. I think I should discuss all this with The Curmudgeon who has been in hiding recently. I’ll find out his views over a few pints of Donnington’s fine ales here in the Cotswolds.

Monday, 15 July 2013

The Punter’s Glossary

Hi everyone. Jack and I are still basking in the warmth of a recent holiday in the Murcian desert of Spain. We were celebrating my stepping down from chairmanship of the consulting company that I set up a fair time ago. Our intention was to start off in the way we intend to carry on. We went on holiday at the end of the final week.

Earlier in my career I was persuaded to write a business textbook (Transform Your Supply Chain – Releasing Value in Business. Heavily discounted and signed copies are still available – not surprisingly!), and I still remember the shock of finding a copy of the magnum opus being flogged for £1 in a second-hand bookshop. One of my few claims to business fame is that for a (very short) while, the book was one of the top sellers in Brussels, of all places. My colleagues always used to say, “Well done Jon, big in Belgium”.

Anyway, that is a bit of a rambling introduction to the fact that as part of my holiday reading, I discovered a copy of Hitting the Turf – A Punting Life, written by David Ashforth. And yes, that was also £1. Inside the book there was a punter’s glossary that I found pretty amusing. I’ll have a go at doing the owners’ glossary for the next blog. Here are a few extracts.

Accumulator: bet requiring punter to make additional selections, until one loses.

Ante-post: special arrangement under which you are allowed to lose your money six months before the race has started.

Blinker: the first act of desperation (see also Hood, Visor, Gelding, Put Down).

Bookmaker: wealthy victim of repeated misfortune.

Double: bet based on the erroneous conviction that it is possible to pick more than one winner in the same afternoon.

Each Way: opportunity to lose twice in one bet.

Form Book: historical work, useful for predicting what will happen in the past.

Good Thing: losing horse.

Horse: magnificent creature with no sense of justice.

Inspection: examination of course to see whether it is fit for you to lose your money on.

Jockey: small person employed by trainer to ruin your win double.

Punter: person with no money.

Racecourse: place for seeing, at first hand, where things go wrong.

Starter: official who drops a flag to indicate that hope has ended and experience is about to begin.

Winning Post: wooden stick inserted in the ground in the wrong place.

On that note, wherever you may be over the summer, if it’s on a racecourse you’ll doubtless agree with the above. If not, I hope you’re enjoying your holidays.

Monday, 1 July 2013

Reflections on a Right Royal Ascot

Right from the off, this year’s Royal Ascot was a highly charged and emotional event. No sooner had there been a poignant minute’s silence in memory of Sir Henry Cecil than the meeting kicked off with the appropriately named Declaration Of War scooting home in the Queen Anne for the Magnier clan and their Florida-based new partner Joseph Allen, who owns the sire, War Front. (By the way, that splendid mare Zenyatta is now in foal to him.) This collaboration is all part of the battle for supremacy in the global bloodstock market, and was richly rewarded again when War Command slammed his field in the Coventry to become 5/1 favourite for next year’s 2000 Guineas. There must have been added pleasure for Sheikh Mohammed therefore when his Dawn Approach bounced back from the disaster of the Derby to win the St. James’s Palace Stakes. I doubt if Jim Bolger is flavour of the month at the moment with the Coolmore mafia, since he has allowed the Sheikh access by the back door to their magnificent Galileo bloodline. The mix of owners in the St. James’s Palace though hammers home why Flat racing is such a challenge for the average owner who can rarely aspire to the top rank: nine runners, with the owners being Godolphin, Khalid Abdullah, Mrs. John Magnier (with Michael Tabor and Derrick Smith) (x 3 horses), Ahmad Abdullah Al Shaikh, Mrs. Bolger and Sheikh Joaan Bin Hamad Al Thani (x 2). Having said that, later in the meeting it was a delight to listen to the co-owners of Clive Cox’s Lethal Force after they had won the Diamond Jubilee Stakes with a horse that only cost them €8,500 (which is about the same amount that we paid for our Aran Sky at the same sale in Ireland a couple of years later. No pressure on Karl & Elaine Burke, then!)

But without any doubt this year’s Ascot was a bad time to be a republican. Estimate’s hugely popular win for the Queen in the Gold Cup on Ladies’ Day will long be remembered as the highlight of the meeting. Obviously royal involvement has been a striking feature since the whole spectacle started in 1711, but the Queen’s enthusiasm for racing has rarely been so well rewarded, as she became the first monarch ever to have a Gold Cup winner, and it was her first Group 1 win in Britain since Dunfermline won the St. Leger in 1977. I well remember that race since it was the first Classic that I ever went to, and unfortunately for me lost a packet on Alleged, the horse Dunfermline beat. Alas he didn’t stay, although he was a terrific horse who won the Arc twice for Vincent O’Brien (and as an aside produced Shantou, the sire of our Shantou Magic).

It probably shouldn’t have come as a surprise that Estimate possesses the stamina needed to win this marathon Flat race. Her half-brother Enzeli also won it, and her sire Monsun throws many staying types. I’d love to have one of them in the Owners for Owners National Hunt portfolio, and will definitely be keeping an eye out for Shirocco stores. Wasn’t it great though for racing to be on the front pages for all the right reasons. I suspect it is only a matter of time now before John Warren, the Queen’s racing adviser and buyer of the Highclere horses, is elevated to the peerage. It was unbelievable to see the Queen so excited throughout the final couple of furlongs of the race – just like any other owner, in fact. Mind you, John looked as though he was about to get really carried away and embrace her at one point. It could have been a fine line between a peerage or the Tower.

I know we have the self-styled Champions’ Day at Ascot in the Autumn, but surely the only genuine Flat champions’ meeting in the UK is this one. Increasingly, international racing at the highest level is a real asset of the sport, with huge potential to raise racing’s profile and bring in much-needed revenue. Wouldn’t it be better if the racing authorities worldwide agreed on a proper World Series that tied together, in a sensible and coherent way, the top races in the UK, Ireland, France, Dubai, Hong Kong, Japan, Australia and the USA? At the moment, for example, if you run a horse at Champions’ Day you are really ruling out your chances of competing at the Breeders’ Cup. That can’t make much sense.

Finally though it is only appropriate to say a few words about the other immensely popular winner of the week. Anyone who watched the post-race interview with Lady Cecil after Riposte’s victory in the Ribblesdale couldn’t help but be struck by her grace and poise as she struggled to describe what the win meant. It definitely felt as though it was the 76th Royal Ascot win for Sir Henry. How sad then that the Cecils’ horse Thomas Chippendale, having won the Hardwick, collapsed and died.

Highs and lows of racing often follow in rapid succession. Yes, our sport is certainly a helter-skelter of emotions.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Great Sadness, but Magnificent Memories of Sir Henry Cecil

Everyone connected to racing has been hugely saddened this week, following the death on 11th June of Sir Henry Cecil. It would be hard to think of anyone in our sport who has been so loved by the whole racing community. A huge loss, but also as the incredibly moving obituaries have emerged over the week – particularly the one by Alastair Down in the Racing Post – there has been such a sense of reflection on and celebration of a magnificent training career. This is bound to pervade the whole of Royal Ascot next week. Apparently there is going to be a minute’s silence when the meeting opens on Tuesday, and the Queen’s Vase on Friday will be formally run in his memory.

It is actually difficult to grasp the enormity of his success since 1969, when he started training: 3,431 worldwide wins, 418 pattern races, 25 British Classic wins, 75 winners at Royal Ascot and 10 trainer titles. I’m sure we all have our own favourite horses from a career that spanned five decades. Few trainers have ever been so naturally gifted in the conditioning and training of the thoroughbred, particularly stayers. It seems a long time ago now, but I can still visualise the bold determination of that contrary character Le Moss winning the stayers’ triple crown of Ascot, Goodwood and Doncaster Gold Cups at the end of the 1970s. And amazingly Sir Henry did the same again with Ardross at the start of the following decade. He won the fillies’ Triple Crown with Oh So Sharp in 1985, and then exceeded that performance with the mighty Reference Point who completely dominated the Derby, King George and St. Leger with his captivating front-running style in 1987. I thought he wouldn’t be surpassed. But then, in the twilight of Sir Henry’s career, along came Frankel.

After the glory days, it was so sad to see the training and personal decline of Sir Henry to the nadir of 2005 when he was barely in the top 100 trainer list, and had been reduced to a miserly 12 winners. Worse was to come, with the physical decline as stomach cancer took its grip. And yet, in the same way that his beloved roses would often have a late-flowering bloom, so Frankel provided the perfect ending to a magnificent Indian summer that began with Light Shift in 2007 and ran through to Champions’ Day at Ascot in the Autumn of 2012. I always felt that Frankel’s most brilliant performance was in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot that year, when he thrashed Excelebration by 11 lengths and earned the highest ever Racing Post rating of 143. My wife Jack has a different view and thinks the 7-length victory in the Juddmonte International at York was more impressive for being over a longer trip. We were both on the Knavesmire that day, where the sense of the crowd’s overpowering goodwill towards the agonisingly frail trainer was almost tangible. We also both went to Champions’ Day to watch that victory, and followed Frankel in his final departure from the paddock, heading for his new career at stud. It was such a poignant moment, partly to see the last of a racehorse who had been undefeated over three seasons, but also because we believed he had helped keep his trainer alive, and that without him it would be hard to survive for very long. And so it has proved.

The five best Flat trainers I’ve seen are Vincent O’Brien, André Fabre, Sir Michael Stoute, Aidan O’Brien and Sir Henry Cecil. There are common characteristics: instinctive empathy for the racehorse, extreme patience and the ability to fine-tune and channel a horse’s natural talent so that it can deliver the highest quality of performance on the track. But to my eyes Sir Henry would be primus inter pares when compared to those other great trainers. Most definitely first amongst equals, not only because of what he achieved in training terms but through his charm, approachability and self-effacing dignity. A much-loved person who will be massively missed, not just by his friends and family but by the whole racing community.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

Derby Day – Everything Crossed for the Burkes and Libertarian

By the time you read this, the result of the Derby may already be known. It is always one of my favourite races of the year, and it is great to have something to cheer about, after all the doping and corruption revelations of the last couple of weeks. It has had a special place in my heart ever since, as a student, I backed Morston at 25/1 just after completing Finals. I think I probably have fonder memories of that betting slip than I do of my degree certificate. It certainly guaranteed an enjoyable summer, with student days behind me. 33 years later, I ended up living alongside the Woolley Down gallops where Morston and Blakeney were trained – so, happy memories.

This year, I suppose everything depends on whether you believe Dawn Approach will stay, or not. With a few exceptions such as Sea The Stars, not many Guineas winners have done so; I think he may be a doubtful stayer, and definitely far too short a price. The Aidan O’Brien runners are bound to test him. Battle Of Marengo may be his best, but he seems quite exposed. Are Ocavango and Chopin any good? I liked the way Ruler Of The World won at Chester, and he is on my shortlist, but without any doubt the Owners for Owners community is bound to be behind Libertarian.

We had our final “Meet the Trainer” morning at Elaine and Karl Burke’s stables the day after the Dante. Most of us had backed Libertarian at 33/1, so it was a real privilege to be able to stand alongside the horse at Spigot Lodge. There may only have been a few of us there, but we had a terrific morning. I hope everyone else was forming an orderly queue outside various bookies, lumping on at 20/1+ for the Derby. We saw our horses Paradise Spectre and Aran Sky up on the High Moor gallops, did the posing with Libertarian and then took Karl and Elaine off to the Wensleydale Heifer for a good lunch. Amazingly, it was Karl’s 50th birthday as well, so there was a lot to celebrate. When we expressed amazement, he came out with the great line: “You don’t think I’m 60, do you?”

Anoraks like me love stats and history. Libertarian is the first Yorkshire-trained horse to have won the Dante since Dante, so it was a fabulous achievement by the Burkes. They bought him out of a breeze-up for 40,000gns. Despite having done the slowest time at the sales, he is a lovely, strapping son of New Approach and no matter what happens today he can only improve this season, and into next. Elsewhere on the web site I have sung the praises of Karl Burke and Lars Kelp in spotting high-potential horses. Look no further for proof. By the way, Spigot Lodge is named after Jack Spigot, the 1821 St. Leger winner, and The Flying Dutchman won the 1849 Derby from these stables, before his famous match against Voltigeur on the Knavesmire at York in front of a crowd of 100,000. But I bet you knew that anyway. The BHA’s Great British Racing campaigns have got a bit of catching up to do!

However, the main reason I’ll be cheering Libertarian home today is that it signals the return to the top flight of training for the whole Burke yard. Back in the dark days of 2009, when Karl was warned off for a year for passing information to a very dodgy character, Miles Rogers, there was a possibility that all their hard work and endeavour would have been in vain, with their whole livelihood falling apart. Karl had just won his first Group 1 with Lord Shanakill at Chantilly, and was on the point of breaking through to the top ranks of training. Within weeks the number of horses in the yard had dropped from 90 to 25, and most of the staff were laid off. It was an agonisingly sad time for everyone. We kept our faith in and support for the yard, and nothing will give me greater pleasure than seeing a good run today from Libertarian. Everything crossed. As a horse who will only mature with time, there is always a risk that he may not have the necessary luck in running at Epsom. Let’s hope that he breaks well and William Buick is able to have him in a forward position at the top of the hill. If not, never mind - his day is bound to come. I’m already on for the Leger!

Hats off to Karl, Elaine, Kelly and Lucy Burke and all the crew up at Spigot Lodge. As Derek Thompson would doubtless say: “Enjoy the moment.”

Wednesday, 15 May 2013

Is a New Dawn Approaching after Doping Crisis?

Shenanigans still continue after the al-Zarooni “catastrophic error”. He is now appealing against the duration of his sentence; Saeed bin Suroor is taking over Moulton Paddocks as well as carrying on with the horses at Stanley House Stables; all the Godolphin horses are now being tested by the BHA before re-licensing the yards; and the Gerard Butler claim that a hundred horses in Newmarket have received banned steroid treatments is being investigated ..... but at least Sheikh Mohammed had the joy of winning the 2000 Guineas with Dawn Approach – mercifully trained by Jim Bolger in Ireland, otherwise he wouldn’t have run.

Anyone of a generous and slightly naive disposition will cling to the “isolated incident” interpretation of the al-Zarooni doping crisis and applaud the BHA for rapid resolution of the whole affair. Indeed, at one level it appears to be a wholehearted endorsement of the dope-testing programme and a clear reiteration of the zero tolerance policy that performance-enhancing drugs will not be allowed in British racing. But the racing brand has doubtless been damaged, and broader changes are called for:

1.  Re-emphasising the policy on doping: zero tolerance is vital to the integrity of British racing. No-one should gain an unfair advantage by administering illegal medication. Any deliberate flouting of the formal governance, rules and procedures of racing should be punished severely. Anything less than that erodes the very basis of racing and undermines the sport, the breeding industry and all our revenue streams. We believe that the BHA should produce an authoritative statement that provides explicit guidelines on acceptable and unacceptable practice for anyone involved with racehorses, and not just those based in “licensed premises”.

2.  Strengthen the sampling regimes: race-day testing (approximately 90,000 runners per annum in the UK, 7,000 samples, with c. 20 positives) is probably sufficiently rigorous, but there needs to be an increase in the random testing of horses in training. This should also be extended into the breeding industry and the non-licensed stables where many horses spend out-of-training time. At the moment these horses can be pumped full of dope and there are no restrictions at all on the use of steroids. A phrase often used at sales and breeze-ups is “this horse will never look as well again as the day he went through the ring”. How widespread is the use of steroids in the breeding industry, and how would we know?

3.  Vetting the vets: the training of vets is broader than that of the medical community, and subject to fewer controls. What inspections are there of veterinary procedures? How many trainers actually know what is in the compounds given to racehorses? Some vets and trainers will always push the boundaries on medication. With such a range of therapies now available, there are grey areas between appropriate medicinal treatment and illegal performance enhancement. One can only agree with Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, Head of Racing in Hong Kong and Vice-Chairman of the International Federation of Horse-Racing Authorities: “Races should always be won by the best horses, not by horses with the best vets.”

4.  Open access to a horse passport / treatment log: it is impossible for a prospective owner, trying to buy a horse, to access a record of the treatments that the animal has received since foaling. Why not introduce a log of all such treatments, similar to the service record of a car? Just consider the effect that such a log would have on the whole breeding, selling and training industry.

5.  Global harmonisation: the scandal of al-Zarooni’s behaviour is that in several racing jurisdictions around the world, he would not have been in breach of the rules. The inconsistencies that exist between Britain on the one hand, and Dubai, the USA, South Africa and Australia on the other, in the definitions of acceptable medication are completely intolerable. If there is any good to come out of the current crisis, it will be an alliance between the BHA and Sheikh Mohammed / Dubai to drive a worldwide harmonisation timetable that puts to an end the unacceptable tolerance of medication that is detrimental to the breed. That really would be a new dawn approaching.

But before we conclude this blog, it is hard not to reflect on Gladiatorus, who turned in a sensational performance to win for Sheikh Mohammed in Dubai in 2009. That horse was trained by Mubarak bin Shafya, for whom Al-Zarooni worked at that time. Subsequently, Shafya was banned for using the steroid stanozolol in endurance horse racing. Al-Zarooni before being caught red-handed by the BHA had also failed tests for the administration of painkillers last year. Are these really isolated and exceptional incidents? Reluctantly, I have concluded that doping worldwide is more common than has previously been acknowledged. I wonder if the Camelot team have had similar thoughts about Encke winning the St. Leger? Doping must be stamped out in line with much tougher, globally harmonised procedures and with zero tolerance of any breaches. I fear that we are many years away from this international consensus.

Wednesday, 1 May 2013

Mahmood al-Zarooni: Summary Execution in High Holborn

In my more erudite days, before reading Timeform annuals took over, I used to enjoy the Penguin Modern Classics. A novel that had a big impact on me as a student was Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, about a Bolshevik prisoner, Rubashov, as he awaits death in a GPU prison. Darkness and the whiff of cordite definitely descended over the British Horseracing Authority’s offices in High Holborn throughout the last ten days. With almost indecent haste, the BHA investigation panel summarily terminated Mahmood al-Zarooni’s training career, at least for the next eight years, following the sensational disclosures that eleven out of 45 Godolphin horses tested positive for steroids on 9th April. If there were volunteers to man the firing squad, I’m sure that Sheikh Mohammed, Paul Bittar (CEO of the BHA), Rod Street (CEO of Racing Enterprises Limited and leader of Great British Racing), Chris McFadden (Chairman of REL) and Simon Bazalgette (Group CEO of the Jockey Club) would definitely have taken a big stride forward. Indeed, the dazed look on Godolphin racing manager Simon Crisford’s face during TV interviews tempted one to think he was already loading the bullets into the Smith & Wesson. Whether that was to use on al-Zarooni or himself is only conjecture. As the wrath of Sheikh Moh is felt across racing, there are bound to be others in the firing line.

First reports indicated a clear, open-and-shut breach of the rules, with al-Zarooni admitting that he had made a “catastrophic error” by administering steroids. Traces of ethylstranol (a steroid often used by body-builders) and stanozolol (which cost Ben Johnson his Olympic gold medal) were found in the horses (including Certify, one of the favourites for the 1000 Guineas), and they have now been ruled out of competition until 9th October. Both steroids are prohibited substances under British rules of racing and cannot be used at any time on licensed premises for horses in full-time training or out of competition. Within the space of a week, al-Zarooni was investigated, sentenced and banished, with the BHA deciding that it was very much in the best interests of racing to sort out the matter as quickly as possible. Full marks to them on that, even though there are inevitably many questions still to be answered.

Alas though, only a couple of days later another bombshell dropped when it was announced that Gerard Butler had been medicating the injured joints of some of his horses with Sungate, which also contains stanozolol. That was discovered on a BHA sampling visit to his yard on 20th February. Butler himself spoke to the press about this, and made a highly controversial assertion, now being investigated, that over 100 horses across various yards in Newmarket had been similarly treated. The firing squad rifles could soon be overheating.

In the next blog I will examine a number of the questions and issues in more detail. But where does all this leave “brand racing”? One of the jargon words often bandied around by those of a marketing bent is the creation of “narratives”. There are probably three that can be readily identified, and which have certainly been well aired at the various parish pumps of racing over the last week.

1.   Straightest racing in the world: no-one applies a zero tolerance policy like the Brits. We have the best and cleanest racing in the world. Doping doesn’t exist. Inevitably a few accidents occur, and we punish the guilty parties with a ruthlessness that other countries ought to be applying.

2.   It’s all a muddle: how on earth can trainers be expected to know what chemical actives are in sophisticated veterinary compounds, or what the precise regulations are in different countries? If they act on the advice of their vets, then who is accountable for mistakes? It is all too confusing. We need much clearer guidelines and global harmonisation.

3.   We’re no different to cycling: scratch the surface of racing and you will find that doping is endemic. The old adage that “good trainers don’t change their methods, they just change their vets” is as true now as it has ever been. It is just that everyone has become more sophisticated in keeping ahead of the regulator.

I fear that the public view sits squarely with the third narrative. So to lighten the gloom: I heard a joke that the BHA should have known what was going on when one of al-Zarooni’s horses won the Tour de France.

Ethics and integrity have always been a strategic priority. It has rocketed back to the top of the agenda. More on this subject next time.

Monday, 15 April 2013

Aintree and The National – Grand Result for Racing

As readers of the blog will know, I’m a huge fan of Aintree and much prefer it to Cheltenham. Alas though, in recent years I’ve been going up to the Grand National meeting with an increasingly heavy heart, in view of all the controversy surrounding the course and injuries / fatalities to horses, not helped by the stance adopted by the RSPCA (Royal Society for Permanent Criticism of Aintree).

But what a result this year, and a really fantastic outcome for our sport. When all 40 runners sailed over Becher’s, the roar from the crowd was truly heart-warming. Hats off to Aintree for all the work they’d done to maintain the going, and the softening of the fence cores has clearly helped enormously, as did the far less frenetic than usual start, with a shorter run to the first fence. Without doubt, the National is the most famous race in the world, and the only time that our sport truly takes centre stage. Lots of statistics were being bandied about, such as that half the UK population bets on the race, £150m staked, 600 million people watching worldwide, etc. This certainly goes right to the heart of racing’s brand value and the aims of Great British Racing that were covered in the last blog.

The other statistic that I welcomed was that there were no more than 20 protesters at Aintree. I really hope that the BHA and all the bodies connected with racing do everything possible now to maintain the high ground in defence of National Hunt racing, and challenge the nay-sayers who argue that in some way jumping is cruel. As the Aintree changes have shown so purposefully, we’re doing everything possible to exercise our duty of care towards the animals that we all love and admire.

When I saw Frankel thrash Excelebration in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot, I felt that was the best horse-race that I’d ever seen, or would probably ever see. But then to be present to watch the sublime performance of Sprinter Sacre destroy Cue Card and Flemenstar in the Melling Chase was to my humble eyes even better. Stupendous.

I was also interested to see the announcement from the Jockey Club that the £45m make-over at Cheltenham will go ahead straight after the 2014 Festival meeting, with the aim of completing it for 2016. There is going to be a new grandstand complex, some spectacular tiered viewing of the parade ring and much improved crowd circulation around it. As always in racing, there were a few vested interests fighting against it, but no doubt they will be adequately compensated and it certainly looks as though this investment plan is going to go forward quickly.

So with the Aintree spectacular and an imminent huge upgrade at Cheltenham, it really looks as though National Hunt racing is going from strength to strength. Having said that, I was wondering what other changes would make a real difference. I would certainly like to see much higher prize-money at the October Cheltenham meeting and really use this to kick-start the jumps season, and hopefully not clash it with Ascot’s Champions Day. At the other end of the season I’d also love to see either Ayr and / or the Sandown mixed meeting similarly revamped so that we really have a grand finale through March and into May. And then the race planners can have a look across the season and plug some of the weaker periods with bigger races as part of a high profile National Hunt series. Anyone against, please take one step forward.

Monday, 1 April 2013

Great British Racing ... but Compare Dismal Doncaster to Dynamic Dubai

I’ve been very interested in the way Racing for Change has morphed into Great British Racing. On balance I’m definitely in favour, and their web site,, gives all the details of what they are trying to do, as the marketing and promotional arm of British horseracing. Encouragingly, they have been really specific about their role, which is to widen the sport’s fan base, help grow revenue streams and maintain British racing’s position internationally. They have a clear mission statement about broadening the appeal of British horseracing at every level and have mapped out seven clear aims and objectives. Not everyone will like the marketing-speak, but if they meet their goals it will be a job well done.

So in this blog I thought I’d have a look at two of the aims and objectives, in the context of the start of the Flat at Doncaster. Let’s evaluate it in terms of aim #4, “Improve the production and delivery of the raceday experience .... Give customers a reason to visit and return”; and aim #5, “Market the thrill of ownership .... Attract, reward and retain existing racehorse owners”.

I don’t think the racing authorities could have kicked off the Flat in such a dismal manner as Doncaster on Friday, 22nd March. A seven-race card with total win prize money of less than £50,000; one Class 2, one Class 3, three Class 4s and two Class 5s, one of which was a very modest race for amateur riders. All run on very testing conditions in front of a minute crowd, and absolutely no atmosphere whatsoever. No evidence here of “the thrill of ownership” or “a compelling story”, and no incentive to “widen racing’s exposure across all media platforms” as the Great British Racing web site describes it. A total damp squib, followed by fits and starts over the next few weeks. What an absolutely pathetic way to kick off the Flat, and as the marketers would say, “bookend the season”.

In comparison, what about Dubai’s World Cup Saturday? Total win prize money of a whisker under £10m, and with fabulous prize money all the way down to 6th place. Indeed the lowest place prize money in any race was £12,269, which is only £700 below the top win prize money of the Class 2 at Doncaster.

Now obviously there is no way at all that Doncaster on a wet Friday in March is going to compare with Meydan in all its pomp and glory. But surely the collective racing industry can do something to kick off our Flat season with a much greater sense of style and excitement. Some ideas:

•   Change the start date of the Flat. Put it back until after the Grand National. Build up a real
    sense of back-to-back weekends of fabulous racing.

•   Dramatically increase the prize money for the first day of the Flat, and have it on a 
•   Aim for £1m of prize money, with money all the way down to 6th place.
•   Frame the races in a way that really incentivises trainers to get their horses to Doncaster 
    for this kick-off meeting.
•   Make sure that the meeting doesn’t clash with another “showcase” event.
•   Have a proper PR and social media campaign well ahead of the meeting, to build buzz 
    and excitement.
•   Actively involve top jockeys and key sporting personalities in the whole event.

One of the races I’d like to see in this card would be the start of a “Syndicate Series”, say with a value of £50,000, that is open only to horses in joint ownerships, partnerships and syndicates with at least four owners per horse. Run this series throughout the season (and have a similar one over jumps). Have prize money down to 6th. It would guarantee maximum fields and big crowds with all the co-owners and their friends.

This seems such a good idea I think I’ll even send it to Great British Racing.