Monday, 15 December 2014
Over the last few weeks there have been quite a few announcements of some excellent appointments at the very top of racing. The old adage is that ships either float or sink from the bridge, and Steve Harman, BHA Chairman, is to be congratulated for showing a steely resolve to make sure that racing has a much broader leadership cadre, combining not just in-depth racing expertise but stronger business and commercial acumen. This is all part of putting in place a growth strategy for racing that is essential if the sport is to compete properly with all the other leisure sectors and racing territories. Indeed it says a lot about racing in the past that this will be the first ever proper strategy. Really looking forward to seeing the detail as it emerges in 2015.
However, Owners for Owners is probably the only organisation that is aware that a top-secret appointment has been made, yet to be announced – racing’s first ever Director of Common Sense. Any business sector or organisation can easily become process-bound and overly constrained by the letter of the law on its rules and regulations. We have seen a number of instances over the autumn where relatively minor episodes have an very negative impact on the public perception of the sport. If the day’s top jumps meeting suddenly finds that its best race is in jeopardy because of sunlight, it only makes sense to move it on the day so that it is run as a proper spectacle rather than a strange mish-mash of jumping and flat racing as numerous fences are bypassed by sticking to the same race time. If there is a minor infringement due to a flag man inadvertently waving the wrong flag (obviously fully acknowledging the need for jockeys to be vigilant and never to ignore the potential dangers of disobeying flag instructions), then let the race result stand and don’t overly punish the jockeys through lengthy bans. Racing wants to see its superstar jockeys over the Christmas holiday period, and banning someone such as Richard Johnson for the duration takes away a lot of public interest. Indeed, I think banning is a dubious punishment anyway. Hitting jockeys’ pockets really hard would probably be far more persuasive, and could be flexed to suit the circumstances of the rider.
So a warm welcome to the new appointee, and I can tell you now that the diary is likely to be very full. Indeed, with having this inside information, we have already lined up an important test case of Future Gilded (known as “Frankie” by his friends) vs. The Handicapper. Trainers and owners are finding the new novice / novice handicap chase regulations quite difficult to come to terms with, and I suspect it is likely that they will be tweaked again before too long. It is possible now for a horse to go into a novice handicap chase and run off his current officially-rated hurdle mark. This is a good innovation, because otherwise he would have to race against potential superstars from the Nicholls and Henderson yards in novice chases. Come up against a 150+ horse, run a fine race to come 2nd, 3rd or 4th and your handicap mark is probably blown for ever.
Eighteen months ago, Owners for Owners bought the gorgeous Frankie at our favourite sales venue, Arqana in Deauville. He had won his only race, over hurdles at Aix-les-Bains, and we knew that he wouldn’t be eligible as a result for novice hurdles in his first season with us. He would have gone into handicap hurdles, but for sustaining a slight tendon injury that meant he was on the sidelines until now. He’s a gorgeous, big, strong horse, made for chasing, which is where we’re going with him. We entered him in a handicap hurdle to get a mark, and have now got one – 117. Unfortunately though, when we then considered entering him for a novice handicap chase, we were told he is not eligible “due to the rules”, and that he would have to go handicap hurdling for three races first. Because he must have soft ground, and jumps fences far better than hurdles, this is the last thing we want him to do. He spent the whole autumn building his strength steadily and having regular scans to ensure the tendon has been sound, so it has taken until mid-December to have him ready to make his debut for us. If we go down the hurdling route, the risk will be that we lose the ground before all three races can be run, and then another season has gone. So the only option available to us is to go novice chasing ….. with the attendant risk of coming up against a potential super-star. Our trainer has spoken to the handicapper, who admittedly is sympathetic, but can’t do anything to help us. So we are running today at Plumpton in the 12:40. Do watch it and cheer on Fabulous Frankie. And if I see the new Director of Common Sense, I’ll be arguing my case with him in the O&T bar.
Monday, 1 December 2014
I’ve been going to a large number of race meetings over the autumn, following our horses, and as many of you will know I’m quite a critic of the owners’ badge allocation system and its archaic administrative procedures. Ordering and then collecting them is needlessly time-consuming, and often a source of tension as genuine owners often have to convince the O&T desk that they are entitled to them. Definitely a system that needs to be brought into this century, never mind this decade. Smart ID systems, linked to owner IDs, would solve all of it, and also provide really valuable information to racecourses in line with modern customer relationship management practice. Doubtless there would be some technical issues, but as so many other leisure sectors have dealt with them, I can’t believe that there isn’t a perfect system out there, waiting for the racing industry to get up to date and adopt it.
However, in this blog I wanted to switch it round, because I do have a lot of sympathy with racecourses over the widespread abuse of owners’ badges. In effect there is an active black market in badges with lots of people getting access to them, particularly via trainers, jockeys, racecourse officials, syndicate managers etc. This fuels the generally suspicious attitude that prevails at O&T desks. Every person who gets in on a badge that they are not genuinely entitled to, is clearly lost revenue for the racecourse, and it is probably not an insignificant amount of money. Let’s say that 100 people per meeting get in for nothing, then that could easily be £3,000 lost income. Equally that is money that could be spent in the Owners & Trainers facility on better standards of refreshment, food, service etc. as well as improving the overall atmosphere.
As people who know me can testify, I’m very much behind the democratisation of racing and I’d like to see more people from non-traditional areas becoming active owners and investing in our sport. I don’t want to sound snobbish about this, but often I find myself in an Owners & Trainers entrance queue behind “no-good boyos” who are clearly picking up or cadging owners’ badges so that they can go on the lash on the racecourse and particularly in the O&T bar. Similarly at a number of tracks there are groups of people who seem to live there permanently, and yet never go out to see horses. I just don’t believe these people are involved in ownership, but are just exploiting the system and in effect being subsidised to attend privileged facilities by genuine owners.
Another aspect of this is the various hangers-on in the pre-parade and parade ring, who often attach themselves to owners simply because they have some relatively distant contact with a trainer or another horse in the yard. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve no problems whatsoever with owners inviting friends along into the paddock, but it is when you find yourself with individuals with whom there are no real links or ties or friendship at all – they have just become non-paying, limpet owners freeloading on a badge system that is not fit for purpose.
What, if anything, should be done about it? The recommended starting point is clearly tightening up the whole process in a way that genuinely allocates badges in a generous way to owners who are investing in the sport, while making it far more difficult for the free-loaders. More guidelines from the Racecourse Association and National Trainers’ Federation would help. There should be a policy actively to discourage the doling out of freebie badges just because many individuals are brazen enough to ask for them. A half-way house might be to allocate a small number of badges to trainers so that they both manage and police the allocation in a way that is deemed to be equitable to their network of contacts and owners. Another and very innovative suggestion (which I know is being examined) is to set up a system for people to become “owners for the day” where they attend the racecourse as owners when a horse’s genuine owners are unable to attend, thereby experiencing at first hand the pleasures of being a racehorse owner. But they would pay for that privilege.
I don’t have any statistics on the scale of the problem, and hope I don’t sound too curmudgeonly, but I think the industry ought to be actively discouraging the freeloading, while equally actively encouraging investment in owning horses.