Wednesday, 16 January 2013

“Big E” and “Little e” Resolutions for the Racing Industry

Apologies that the blog is a day late. I went to Ffos Las yesterday and underestimated how long it would take. As Jamie Snowden said to me – it’s easy to get there, just head towards Ireland and turn left!

Years ago when working in a huge global company, the CEO told me that every year he made a distinction between “big E” and “little e” projects. I received a pretty withering look when I asked him what that meant. “All that really matters is that you focus on the biggies”. So what would be your “big E” and “little e” resolutions? In this blog I’ll share my views on some of the big ones.

“Big E” racing projects – the ones that would really make a difference 

1.    The racing industry needs to know exactly what their “big E” projects are, and how on earth they can achieve them. At the moment the industry is in a complete strategic mess. The BHA, in particular, has a dismal track record with a long list of failures and weak leadership. Some sort of strategic coalition is needed to weld together all the major parties in order to frame that strategy.

2.    The starting point of the strategy must be far more clarity on precisely how racing should address its deep-seated funding and, in turn, revenue maximisation issues. Yes, you can spend a lot of time bickering and fighting over how to divide a pot, but it is far more constructive to have a strategy that builds a bigger one. Without that, prize money remains on a downward spiral.

3.     Long term (3-5 years +), our greatest asset is the quality, variety and (despite a few high-publicity incidents and the belief of some punters) extremely high level of integrity. The “big E” challenge is how to leverage that asset. One strategy is about capturing a bigger slice of the global betting market and for the profits from that to be channelled into racing, rather than just the pockets of the bookmakers. The industry could set up its own bookmaking venture in conjunction with racecourses (after all, if the BHA hadn’t been so useless, we would have owned the Tote), and then actively compete with bookmakers who continually tell us that racing is no longer that central to their business. We would soon find out whether it is or not. Don’t argue with them, just take them on.

4.     Medium term (1-3 years), levy funding is well past its sell-by date and definitely no longer fit for purpose. It should be scrapped. Equally, the way in which funds are allocated is not meeting the strategic goals of racing, nor the day-to-day requirements of trainers, owners, breeders, customers and bookmakers. One option would be for race meetings to be put into three bands. Group A would consist of the highest quality meetings, on which the brand of racing and the quality of the breed depend. Prize money for all races at these meetings to be well above tariff. Group B, the next tier of meetings, should have prize money at a tariff level agreed with the Horsemen’s Group. Group C fixtures, with the lowliest races acting as betting fodder, should receive no funding at all and be sponsored by the racecourses and bookmakers themselves.

5.     Short term (2013), BHA to drive a strategic planning exercise to a successful conclusion. If they prove incapable of doing that, then heads should roll. One important aspect of the review must also be a fundamental assessment of the costs of running the BHA and the woeful inefficiencies that exist within the transactional side of racing. Anyone who has ever tried to register a racehorse knows what this means in practice. Administration is not joined up, needlessly laborious and the process cost of it is huge. Racing’s bureaucracy needs a wake-up call.

As you can see, a long journey to Ffos Las and back gave me time to think quite deeply about racing. The fact that our horse didn’t run particularly well, and probably has a serious underlying physical problem, put me into a gloomy mood. In the next blog I’ll come back to some of the less weighty issues. 

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Wet, Wet, Wet & Wonderful Wincanton .... But Oh the Prize Money

Firstly, please accept best wishes for a great New Year, and may there be plenty of winners.

Really encouragingly for Owners for Owners, we finished the year on a high when Quick Decisson (not our name or spelling, by the way – we bought him named from Irish point-to-pointing), trained by Philip Hobbs and superbly ridden by Tom O’Brien, won at Wincanton on Boxing Day. It’s not often in racing that a horse follows the script, but for our first-ever runner under the Owners for Owners banner to win his first-ever race under rules was a fabulous start. It was the last race on the card, the weather was filthy, the going appalling, the floodlights almost had to be switched on to watch it in the dank early evening gloom .... but for all the owners, it was a real high with much embracing and kissing in that wonderful moment just after the line when you know you’ve won a race. We knew that QD (aka “Denis”) had shown a fair bit of toe at home, reflecting a US-bred, speedy dam line, but it was really encouraging to see the stamina kick in as he stayed on up the long Wincanton home straight. He won relatively easily, with a number of decent horses well behind him. There is an interesting form line through Mr Marvellous, whom we thrashed into 10th place, trained by Colin Tizzard. He had run 4th behind Oscar Rock in a good bumper at Newbury at the end of November, and is currently in the top half of the ante-post betting for the Champion Bumper at the Cheltenham Festival. Philip intends to reflect on the result for a week or so, and then decide whether to stay bumping or switch to novice hurdling. Either route is fine with us.

The directors at Wincanton could not have been more generous after the race, as they plied us with sandwiches, mince pies, champagne and free run of their well-stocked bar. The new Chairman of Wincanton, Guy Henderson, went out of his way to be friendly to everyone and it is easy to see why this track is regularly voted the best racecourse in the South West. He is determined to introduce lots of innovations and has set a goal of doubling the number of annual members. Best of luck to him.

However, one of the Jon Hughes Laws of Racing is that the longer the name of the race, the lower the prize-money. Denis won the “Connolly’s Red Mills Bumper Challenge Standard Open National Hunt Flat Race”, and in the process bagged the derisory first prize of £1,364.58. Second, third and fourth picked up around £400, £200 and £100 respectively. That is scant reward for the investment in horses aged 4-6. I’ll be examining the whole area of prize-money on the blog throughout 2013.

On the way back, Jack and I called in to our Lambourn recommended pub, The Pheasant, for a (quick?) celebration. I’m sure you noticed that there was another decent race on during Boxing Day, for rather higher prize money, namely the King George at Kempton, won very bravely by Long Run beating Philip Hobbs’ Captain Chris by a head. We walked into the bar and stepped straight into the post-race party with all the Waley-Cohen family including jockey, Sam. We didn’t want to intrude but they immediately started talking to us and when they found out that we had just won the bumper at Wincanton they seemed genuinely thrilled for us. To be slapped on the back and told “Really well done, you’ve got to start somewhere .... Who knows, it could be you winning at Kempton in a few years’ time” was the icing on the cake of Denis’s win.

Boxing Day hangover has now just about worn off!