Friday 15 February 2013

A Horse Called “UKRacingStratPlan” (?!?)

Having mapped out in the last two blogs my own five “Big Es” and five “Little es” (ten resolutions for the racing industry), I thought I would have a go at tuning in to the more formal strategic intent, goals, priorities and key initiatives for our industry over the next three to five years. Now, you would think that the obvious location for such a strategy would be the British Horseracing Authority, since their web site proudly proclaims that they are “The Official Governing Body of Racing – The First Place for British Horseracing”.

As chairman of a management consultancy I suppose I have become a bit cautious about talking to senior executives about strategy, so I did my preparation, mapped out a number of key open questions and went to the phone expecting a lengthy and searching discussion. The reaction to my opening question, “Could you please tell me where I can find a documented and approved five-year strategy for British racing?” produced an extremely long silence, followed by my being routed around the BHA Holborn office. I chuckled as the general tone of the responses (I never got beyond the first question) went along the lines of: “I’m not sure which department would be in charge of that”; “Since we don’t have any control over racecourses etc., we wouldn’t expect to have a strategy, would we?”; “It’s very difficult, since we have so many stakeholders, so perhaps it would be better if you talked to them first”; “I’m not sure that we’ve got one, or if we have, I haven’t seen it”; and “If it does exist, I don’t think we would release it”.

Not quite sure that this was what I was expecting from a body that sits astride a multi-billion pound industry, with many thousands of dependent employees and a whole infrastructure of breeders, trainers, stable staff, racecourses, bookmakers and owners. I definitely think I’m going to become an investigative journalist in another life. I decided to fire off an email with a more formal request to Paul Bittar, CEO of the BHA, and am awaiting his response with some interest. I’m doing the same with the ROA and Racing for Change.

While waiting to hear more, I’ve been grappling with some of the issues of registering the Owners for Owners racehorses, one element of which is naming them. For any of you who have tried this, you will know that it can be incredibly difficult, since nearly every name you can think of seems already to have been registered. Well, I can say with confidence that one name that no-one has ever used is “UKRacingStratPlan” (that’s even inside the 18 characters maximum limit). Not the catchiest of names, I grant you. I wonder what the breeding would be. How about, by Machiavellian out of Bureaucracy (by Jobsworth).

I’m hoping to be proved wrong, but my fear is that no-one in the racing hierarchy believes that they are accountable for developing a strategic plan that tries to address the huge opportunities but also the great structural weaknesses that currently exist across our sport.

On much less weighty (but far more enjoyable) matters, we held the first Owners for Owners’ “Meet the Trainer” morning with Jamie Snowden at Lambourn last Saturday (pictures on the Latest News page). We had a really enjoyable time, despite Arctic conditions, and saw our Houndscourt put in a sterling performance alongside one of Jamie’s best horses, Present View. There will be other, similar sessions later in the year with Philip Hobbs, Charlie Longsdon and Elaine Burke. Finally, Quick Decisson, our bumper horse with Philip Hobbs, put in a really brave performance in atrocious conditions at Exeter on Sunday. He was just run out of 2nd place and beaten by a decent horse from David Pipe’s, in Vieux Lion Rouge. We’ve had three runs so far and all three have been in the money; long may that continue!

Friday 1 February 2013

“Little e” Resolutions for the Racing Industry – but I can see the pigs flying over Woolley Down

Despite the shocking weather, lots happening on the horse front. Quick Decisson wasn’t able to go to Wincanton when the hurdles / bumpers were abandoned, but will hopefully go to Exeter on 10th February; Shantou Magic had a really good workout at Lambourn during the week, and is only a couple of weeks off coming out; and Houndscourt did us proud with a game 2nd at Lingfield in a jumpers’ bumper. Two runs so far for Owners for Owners – a 1st and a 2nd sets the standard for whichever horse comes out next. Great to see both Timeform and Racing Post very complimentary: “plenty to recommend him on pedigree and should progress over jumps, with his long-term future likely to be over fences” and “ran a fine race on his first start since arriving from Ireland. A point winner at Tinahely in October, he would probably have found the trip on the sharp side, and rates as a decent prospect”. All very encouraging.

In the last blog, I flagged up a number of big recommendations for the racing industry. I’ve been in touch with the BHA about them and had what you might call an “interesting” discussion. More on that in the next blog.

I’m sure everyone has their own list of more immediate changes that could be easily made. Here are my “starters for 10”. As I’m writing it, I can see a flock of large pigs flying over the Woolley gallops!

1.  Racecourses and bookmakers complain of races with seven or fewer runners, particularly novice chases. Why don’t they target the problem ones and have prize-money down to eighth?

2.  Racecourses have done a great job recently with special initiatives, setting up jumpers’ bumpers, switching abandoned races to other tracks etc. Hats off, but why isn’t it done more often?

3.  Racecourses such as Chester have a fabulous Owners and Trainers facility, superb lunch etc. Others are simply shocking. Surely any track should provide something more than a stale bun and a cup of coffee, when we’re often spending £200-£500 just to get a horse to the course?

4.  Integrity of racing is critical. No problems with a crackdown on corruption – there will always be serious breaches, such as the the case of Andrew Heffernan. But two trainers I know very well, Karl Burke and Jim Boyle, were both dealt with very badly indeed and their livelihoods threatened during needlessly protracted and poorly handled investigations. Why do they take so long? I’ll examine Jim Boyle’s case in more detail in a later blog. It’s a disgrace.

5.  Prize money, and the trickle down into the racing industry, has to be improved. All of us should rally behind initiatives from the ROA and the Horsemen’s Group. Why wouldn’t we support them?

6.  Joint ownership, partnerships, syndicates etc. now represent a huge part of the industry. Yet we’re often treated as second-class citizens. How about racecourses targeting us all with special deals, much better facilities and a series of “syndicate races” with big prize money, only open to us?

7.  Racing for Change often talks about “bookending” the season. So why doesn’t that happen properly? Why have the start of the season at Cheltenham clash with Ascot’s Champions’ Day? Why is the start of the Flat such a damp squib nowadays?

8.  The administration and form-filling in being involved as an owner is simply shocking. Every form also has to have a cheque attached to it. I fear that it is a revenue stream for Weatherbys. Why can’t we have one payment (say, £100) and one form that covers everything involved? And online?

9.  The bookmakers are now evading the taxman with offshore gambling to the tune of several billions of pounds a year. How can HM Treasury allow that to happen? Put the legislation together, crack down on evasion and introduce a transaction tax on every bet struck online.

10.  Find a way of putting the welfare of horses and stable staff more centre stage. How do we do that? Don’t have any answers, but would welcome views.

I think I’ve only scratched the surface with these ten! Still lots of pigs flying out there ....