Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Cheltenham – Owners, Trainers and their CLANS (Charmingly Large, Active Networks of Supporters)


The racing village is in many ways a huge network of multiple constituencies of enthusiasts, whether they be racegoers, punters, socialisers, pundits, owners or trainers. Cheltenham Racecourse is an ever powerful magnet which draws all this network together, even at one of its lesser meetings such as last weekend’s International, where the crowd is probably a third of that seen at the Paddy Power and the Festival. However, the OfO network had a great time, not least because of the excellent performances by three of our trainers, Martin Keighley, Philip Hobbs and Anthony Honeyball.

One of the most pleasant aspects of being an owner is the way in which you are automatically drawn in to the race-going CLAN, and that was definitely in evidence over the Friday and Saturday of the meeting. Martin and Belinda Keighley always receive a heartwarmingly enthusiastic reception from the crowd, and none more so after they experienced the highs but also terrible lows of racing on the first day. Their horse Hayjack, owned by James Hayman-Joyce whose son Simon is involved in one of our horses, Thady Quil, fell at the fence in the home straight and, alas, lost his life. One race later, Solstice Star put in an exuberant performance, bagging a four-timer and triggering the release of all sorts of emotions. I was in the paddock with another of our owners, Paul Davis, and we immediately gave Belinda a huge hug as the terrible low turned into a huge high. What we didn’t know was that it was captured on Channel 4 Racing and texts quickly followed asking us whose partner (other than our own) we were hugging. Fortunately my wife, when she was a lawyer, specialised in crime rather than divorce! We were then swept along by all the owners into the winners’ circle and on for champagne afterwards. The CLAN was definitely in action.

On the second day, Philip Hobbs’ wonderful season continued with a superb training performance to have the first and second in the top race of the meeting, the Caspian Caviar Gold Cup. Dickie Johnson managed to diet down to 10st for the ride on Village Vic, who ran the field ragged. That also included our own horse, Shantou Magic, who just couldn’t go the pace that Village Vic set, and our jockey, Will Kennedy, did the right thing and looked after him on ground that was softer than he really likes. He is now going off for a bit of R&R with Claire Hart, and won’t run again until the spring. Claire and her point-to-point connections are another part of the CLAN, and it is lovely that several of our owners who have now met Claire are hacking out with her and, indeed, one of them is setting a goal of taking part in a point-to-point. This owner had also linked up with another keen supporter of Owners for Owners, Tim Dykes, and their horse, Cappielow Park, ran in the same race as Solstice Star.

Peace & Co, for Nicky Henderson, ran far too keenly and his Champion Hurdle ambitions are on hold for a while. It was interesting, though, that the winner of the International Hurdle, Old Guard, is also owned by a CLAN, as a number of Paul Nicholls’ biggest owners have joined forces to buy top horses together. Looking at the recent autumn yearling sales on the Flat, that is also becoming an increasingly important CLAN, with mega buyers worldwide working together to pick up the choicest bloodstock, even though at eye-wateringly high prices. At a slightly lesser level on price (but still far too high), the Tattersalls NH Sale was held on Friday night and again it was strongly evident how the network of agents and top owners are working together to concentrate the firepower of best horses into a small number of rich men’s hands. Good for certain owners and trainers, but demotivating for others.

Finally in the last race of the meeting, Anthony Honeyball had his first ever Cheltenham winner, landing a three-timer with the game mare Lily Waugh. This was a valuable race, and tees her up now for a chance in the Mares’ Hurdle at the Festival. The win also put a huge amount of value on to her. A number of our owners are actively involved in Anthony’s yard and we were delighted to be with Lily Waugh’s fan club, both at lunchtime in the Tattersalls Pavillion and before / after the race. You couldn’t help but laugh at grown men praying on the paddock turf for a great performance from their mare …. which is exactly what they got. This CLAN of owners really entered into the spirit of having a runner and a winner at Cheltenham. Heart-warming!


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Tuesday, 1 December 2015

The Row Over Horse Race Sponsorship and Why Bookmaker Behaviour Has to Change


Last Saturday was the 58th year of the oldest sponsorship in British racing in the Hennessy Gold Cup at Newbury. With the row that has now erupted over Authorised Betting Partner (ABP) status and the brinkmanship between some of the big bookmakers and British Racing, one wonders whether we will see such successful and rewarding partnerships again, or whether a permanent chasm has opened up between the parties. Encouragingly there appears to be very little sympathy for the bookmaker stance as they try to evade making a fair and sustainable contribution to the sport. Indeed, for the moment, racing and the betting public appear to be disgusted by their short-sighted and extremely selfish stance. Surely this must in turn cause substantial brand damage – not least at a time when the financial performance of some of the big bookmakers is lamentable and they are increasingly huddling together through mergers or, as some commentators have said, “propping each other up like down-and-out drunks”.

ABP status is one tool to encourage bookmakers to make a proper contribution to racing from their offshore betting turnover. The BHA estimates that our sport is losing £30m a year because of levy evasion. Some bookmakers such as Bet 365, 32 Red and Betfair are already making a voluntary contribution (and you could argue, putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage to those that are not), whereas others such as Betfred, Ladbrokes, Coral, William Hill, Skybet, 888 Sport and Paddy Power are making no or minor contributions. From 1st January 2016 bookmakers will not be able to sponsor races without being ABP accredited.

It only took a few weeks from the announcement of ABP for brinkmanship to break out, with die-hard bookies threatening to pull the plug on their sponsorship deals: Betfred with the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Haydock Sprint Cup; Ladbrokes with the World Hurdle; Coral with the all-weather championships; and William Hill with the Kempton winter festival including the King George VI. Paddy Power have indicated that it could well affect their Cheltenham sponsorship. Some have questioned the legality of ABP exclusion as a potential breach of competition law. Alas, all very predictable, as was Betfair stepping in to the sponsorship role for the Tingle Creek at Sandown as soon as 888 Sport dropped out. This row is certainly going to test the unity of the various parties.

Obviously the row is not without risk. Although the figures are a few years out of date, when Deloittes and the BHA produced their Economic Impact of British Racing in 2012, total sponsorship was £82.2m, with 7,326 races sponsored. Of this, bookmakers’ contribution was £31.8m, covering 3,018 races, or 41% of the races and 39% of the total sponsorship pot. Similarly from the BHA Fact Book 2011-12, the breakdown of prize-money in 2011 was Levy Board contribution 34%, racecourses 28%, sponsorship 20% and owners 16%. So if the bookies decide to go elsewhere with their sponsorship money and fund other sports, it will clearly damage the funding of racing and owner prize-money, at least in the short term.

Is this a risk worth taking? The over-arching principle now guiding British racing is that there must be a sustainable, commercial funding regime for the sport. Bookmaker contribution through the levy (or its replacement) is critical. As many levers of persuasion as possible need to be used to encourage, cajole or coerce bookies back to the negotiating table. The levy talks have broken down, so the ABP route is one lever that is definitely worth continuing with, particularly if the bookmakers receive a proper package of benefits as a result of signing up. Unfortunately at the moment hostility between the parties is blocking off a more collaborative search for the many mutual benefits that certainly exist. Without bookmaker behaviour changing, this could still have the makings of a zero sum game. It is vital that the debate shifts as quickly as possible on to innovation and growing a bigger betting pie while making racing even more attractive to the sports-going public. This can only happen through commercial collaboration.

One benefit that may come out of the row is a complete re-think of racing sponsorship. From the bookmakers’ side a lot of it looks extremely pedestrian and little more than a naming and badging exercise for races. From the racing side the product proposition is generally tedious from Sunday through to Friday, with insufficient thought and co-ordinated planning being given to framing fixtures and races that genuinely excite the consumer and, in turn, maximise betting revenue. Admittedly there are the high points of Cheltenham, Aintree, Epsom, Ascot and Goodwood but thousands of races are instantly forgettable as, indeed, are their sponsors.

And finally, a strong case can be made for looking way beyond traditional race sponsorship by bookies. Racing has become inertial, with chronic under-representation of leading British and global companies in our sport. From the 2012 data, food and drink companies only put in £6.5m of sponsorship, while the financial services sector was even less visible with £4.3m. A massive mind-set change is needed from sponsoring races to sponsoring events and experiences. Marketing gurus argue for “the integration of sponsorship platforms”, “co-creation of brands between companies and consumers” and “customers acting as ambassadors”. Watching Neanderthal bookies locking horns with Great British Racing in ultimately self-defeating rows over financial contribution, it is easy to despair. However it would be of real benefit to the industry if a search for new sponsorship in turn brought in a new generation of companies and dynamic leaders from other sectors with an enthusiasm to transform the whole way in which racing is presented to the broader betting and racegoing public.

In the meantime, I enjoyed raising a glass of fine brandy to the Hennessy winner.


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Sunday, 15 November 2015

At Last, One Voice for British Racing – and a Lot of It Focused on Bookmakers and Betting


Racing politics around the 55th Levy Scheme can be difficult for most of us to comprehend, but there have been a number of very significant and really positive developments recently reflecting months of hard work, particularly from CEO Nick Rust and Chairman Steve Harman of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) in conjunction with the Racecourse Association (RA) and Horsemen’s Group (HG).

While we don’t yet have an enforceable horserace betting right, we do have a new tripartite governance structure underpinned by a signed Members’ Agreement; a Members’ Committee representing the BHA, RA and HG, meeting quarterly; and an Executive Committee dealing with the implementation of strategy, meeting monthly. Credit where credit is due: this is potentially a milestone moment that will dramatically improve and strengthen decision-making and introduce a far more coherent and unified approach, with British racing able to speak with one voice and hopefully rise above the infighting of the past. Obviously there will be some big challenges to address, not least over the race programme and fixtures. Indeed Nick Rust has insisted that the agreement will only be in place initially for 18 months, and the next step forward will be dependent on a Memorandum of Understanding on the reshaping of fixtures – which, of course, goes right to the heart of the economic model of racecourses.

It sounds complex stuff, but it is all part of a genuinely strategic approach to the strengthening and growth of British Racing. Nick Rust has made a couple of TV appearances recently in which he emphasised the need to achieve three easily understandable goals: increase the number of racegoers, increase the volume of betting, increase the number of horses in training. Central to all of that is clearly the need for investment and funding across the sport, which is why bringing the bookmakers to the strategic party in the right way is so critically important.

Alas, while the developments mentioned above are a very big step forward, the breakdown on 31st October in the negotiations over the Levy for 2016/17 was definitely a big step back – at least in the short term. Basically about 40% of all bets by UK customers on British racing are not contributing anything at all to the sport or its workforce. Normally on a £10 bet, about 15p makes its way into racing. At the moment there is zero contribution to the levy from the digital, offshore businesses, and that is an estimated £30m currently being lost. The effect of the haemorrhaging of levy in this way is likely to reduce the levy yield from around £100m to £50m or lower by 2017, which is clearly going to have a hugely significant impact on racing, not least on prize-money for owners, which as we know is already at the bottom of the returns on ownership in any of the racing territories worldwide.

With the negotiations having broken down, the matter has had to be referred to the Government in the form of John Whittingdale, the Minister at the Department for Culture, Media & Sport, for determination. This is the last thing British racing wanted, since it shouldn’t be the Government’s job to sort out our problems. Having said that, there is apparently a lot of support for racing and, indeed, the Chancellor, in this year’s Budget, pledged that the Government will support a new Horserace Betting Right to replace the outdated levy mechanism.

The 55-year-old levy scheme is clearly nowhere near fit for purpose. Some would even argue that it rarely has been, since it started. The way that it was set up and operated has enabled bookies to under-pay for decades. Increasingly they have put out a smokescreen that the racing betting product is far less important than it used to be, but Nick Rust, as an ex-Ladbrokes man, is now poacher turned gamekeeper and knows the inherent nonsense of that statement. Racing is the only sport that provides a 7-day, worldwide betting product. It is inherently profitable but has the powerful advantage of bringing in punters to bet on other offerings. It is that leveraging of revenue which is at the heart of potentially huge growth for bookmakers if they could move away from denial and squabbling over the levy to a far more strategic debate about how to stimulate innovation in gambling and harness the enormous global market into and through the best racing in the world.

However, the bookies must make an appropriate contribution to British racing. One lever therefore is ongoing persuasion and negotiation, but the other is to be more coercive. So another significant development over the last month shows the huge benefit of having a Tripartite Agreement. British Racing – BHA, RA, HG – has introduced a new designation of “Authorised Betting Partner” (ABP) for bookmakers who “have a fair and mutually sustainable funding relationship with the sport”. This comes in on 1st January, and there are three firms already with that status: 32 Red, bet 365 and Betfair, because they are paying voluntarily on their digital businesses or, like Betfair, have a commercial deal in place. That is not the case with the likes of Betfred, Coral, Ladbrokes or William Hill. Although there was a voluntary agreement several years ago under which bookmakers committed to £18m of such contributions, only £4.5m has so far found its way into racing. All of this demonstrates that racing cannot rely on voluntary payments, and it must be underpinned by legally binding funding requirements – hence the need for an enforceable Horserace Betting Right. In future, if a bookmaker is not an ABP, because they are not paying levy or an agreed equivalent on their digital business, they will be banned from taking out new sponsorship deals on most races and festivals. Encouragingly both Jockey Club Racecourses and Arena Racing Company, who operate half the UK racecourses and 60% of the fixtures, have already stated that they will not enter into new commercial agreements with bookies that are not ABPs.

While the structural side of all of this is clearly complex, the basic goals, levers and requirements are straightforward. As this blog was written mid-way through the Paddy Power meeting at Cheltenham, it is to be hoped that the bookmakers change their behaviour, finally get behind racing’s strategy for growth and accept the need for a proper, sustainable contribution. At the moment, taking Paddy Power as an example, their initial reaction has been to question the legality of the ABP sponsorship model. Who knows, maybe it won’t be that long before Cheltenham is looking for a new sponsor.


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Sunday, 1 November 2015

Should the Handicapper Have a Responsibility to Retain Owners in British Racing?


If there are any certainties in life other than death and taxes, it is that owners and trainers will always argue that their horses have been badly treated by the handicapper. We always feel that as with golf handicaps we’re penalised quickly for decent performances while the official handicapper only reduces the penalties at a glacial pace. Recently one of our horses, He’s A Bully, a 13-race maiden, went up 7lbs for coming second. I thought this was very harsh, as did all the owners and connections. Having had quite a whinge about it, the horse duly won his next race by 9 lengths! But we had to run him before he could be re-handicapped, so for Owners for Owners there was a happy ending to the grumble and, indeed, the mark then stayed the same.

Throughout the intervening week between the 7lb hike and winning the race, there was a lot of discussion in our owner network about He’s A Bully, basically along the lines of how harsh it is to put up a maiden for not winning. Surely any horse should be entitled to win a race before being punished? There were even more painful examples however where the handicapper has put up horses significantly for not even completing races. Again, just because a horse is going well but then falls over, say, at the final fence, surely it is overly harsh to raise the mark without even getting home.

That line of discussion got me thinking more about the handicapping system, and the core principles behind it. On the BHA web site there is a detailed guide to handicapping which contains nine formal aims:

  1. To achieve a competitive race with a close finish with a view to providing an exciting sporting spectacle.
  2. To ensure that every horse’s handicap rating gives it a theoretical equal chance of success on its best recent form under its optimum conditions.
  3. To set an interesting puzzle that the public find intriguing to solve.
  4. To aim for competitive betting in handicap races, thereby indicating that the public believe that horses have a reasonable chance of success.
  5. To re-evaluate ratings after a race so that horses that have raced competitively together are weighted to, theoretically, equalise the form if they were to meet next time they ran.
  6. To reduce the rating of horses which appear to be deteriorating with a view to giving them a fair chance of success.
  7. To favour the majority at the expense of the minority. If one horse is rated too highly, then that one horse may not have an equal chance of success on its next start. If one horse is rated too low, however, then every horse it races against may not have an equal chance of success on their next start.
  8. To keep the median ratings of all horses on file as consistent as possible with previous years. Both ‘slippage’ and ‘uppage’ within the overall rating file are undesirable as they can lead to a mismatch between the racing population and the race programme.
  9. To be as open as possible with trainers and owners seeking information about their horse’s handicap rating.
You’ll see that owners only get one mention, and quite clearly all the aims are essentially to do with racing as a spectacle, and particularly betting. But as regular readers of this blog will know, the owners are the number one stakeholders in racing, making the greatest financial contribution. Nick Rust, Chief Executive of the BHA, is leading the drive to bring owners into the sport and for there to be an additional 1,000 horses in training by 2020. The other side of the coin, of course, is what to do about retaining owners who leave racing for all sorts of reasons.

Unfortunately there is very little properly gathered data examining the churn rate of owners, and I’ve certainly never seen anything at all that examines the frustration and disillusionment that can set in due to horses being handicapped to a level where it is just about impossible for them to win. Similarly I am not aware of any study having been made of owners quitting the sport and selling / retiring their horses as a result of inappropriately high handicapping. However, anecdotal evidence abounds on this subject and a number of trainers’ blogs definitely argue that the principles of handicapping are a contributing factor to high churn rates. To what extent should there be a formal aim of handicapping that focuses on the requirement to retain owners in the sport through ensuring that their horses can win or be placed a sufficient number of times? Do let me know your views on this subject. After all, there is no point pursuing expensive marketing initiatives to bring owners into the sport if it is driving them out through inappropriate handicapping of their horses.



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Thursday, 15 October 2015

Trainers and Horse Boxes: “I See Them Here, I See Them There, But There’s No Marketing Anywhere”


It constantly amazes me how trainers cope with the endless travelling. Last week my wife and I followed our horses: He’s A Bully to Exeter, Shantou Magic to Newton Abbot and then Jolievitesse and Timeless Art to York, with additional visits to the yards of Anthony Honeyball in Dorset and Karl Burke in Middleham. Encouraging runs for the most part, particularly Timeless Art who was unlucky not to win a valuable 7f maiden and will definitely keep the dream alive over the winter. This was the thick end of 1,000 miles of driving, and many trainers are regularly doing this, week in, week out. In the last blog I gave a few recommendations for places to stay and eat, and there are a few more after this trip: if you’re going down to Anthony’s, the 17th Century Somerset Dining Pub of the Year, www.lordpoulettarms.com is thoroughly recommended, while up in Middleham our favourite, going back several decades, is www.wensleydaleheifer.co.uk.

By the way, unlike the organisers of commercial syndicates, we don’t charge any expenses whatsoever for going racing. We follow our horses because of the love of the sport, not as a source of income.

While driving round the country throughout this, for us, mammoth trip, I lost track of how many racehorse trainers’ horse boxes that I saw. Stuck behind them, I couldn’t help but observe how boring they are as an advertisement for the trainer and Great British Racing. The great majority are just “A. Trainer”, in a village you’ve never heard of, with few contact details. This is in marked contrast with many lorries that you see from the retailers and consumer goods companies who actively promote their products.

If you were a bit more structured about this, next time you see a horse box, try assessing it in terms of (a) overall presentational impact, (b) selling potential, (c) a specific offering, (d) a call to action, i.e. actually to do something, (e) contact details. If you gave 10 points to each of these five factors, I will guarantee that most boxes will score less than 20/50. Or as my teachers used to say in end-of-term reports, “should try harder”.

As I thought about this a bit more, I couldn’t help but feel that there is huge marketing potential, both for the trainer in selling horses and also more generally to promote British racing. In effect horse boxes are travelling billboards. At any one time there are 18,000 horses in training. Assuming that most horses would race, say, five times a year and be transported around in boxes each time, even in shared transit, there must be at least 50,000 box journeys a year. So 1,000 journeys a week x say, an average of 300 miles x (pure guesstimate) 100 vehicle viewings per mile is a fleeting weekly exposure to c. 30 million drivers and passengers. That must have a considerable subliminal impact on the viewer. I just wonder what value a marketing media specialist would put on 30 million communication hits a week, or 1.5 billion a year. Now of course the maths may be wildly wrong, but you get the drift of my logic.

I’m sure that the vast majority of trainers will have no intention of investing money to convert their horse boxes to high-impact advertising vehicles. And yet there must surely be huge potential for the trainer, their sponsors and British racing if anyone was prepared to facilitate such an investment. Maybe something for the National Trainers’ Federation and Great British Racing to consider? And I know that next year there is going to be a marketing push on syndication. Here is a challenge – every trainer to advertise syndicated horses for sale somewhere on their lorry, and find out if it brings new owners into their yard and the sport. Keep a track of the costs, and new owners and income coming in to the yard, and calculate the return on investment. It seems a sensible idea to me …. but I wonder why I’ve probably convinced myself already that it won’t happen?



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Thursday, 1 October 2015

Osarus Sale, Arcachon and the Ayr Western Meeting: All About Getting Maximum Enjoyment as an Owner


Regular readers of the blog will know that I’m a firm believer that because there are so many downs and disappointments with racehorses, it’s vital for owners to try to get as much enjoyment as they possibly can from all aspects of the ownership cycle. Being involved in partnerships with co-owners quickly forms many friendships around the common bond of owning. My wife and I certainly experienced that during September, with visits to the sales and several race meetings in the company of owners who have now become friends.

Owners For Owners Latest Yearling
Sunday Break – Lots of weekends away
with the new horse
A couple of weeks ago we went over to the Osarus sale near Arcachon, south-west of Bordeaux, with Karl and Elaine Burke. We share Karl’s view that there are always good horses in every sale, and you don’t necessarily have to go to the premium sales and spend prodigious amounts of money to obtain them. This has certainly been the case with our last three purchases out in France at the Arqana sale in Deauville, and we’re hoping that we’ve turned up another useful prospect in a chestnut colt by the Japanese / American sire, Sunday Break. He is from the American line of Mr Prospector, and our ideal was a US-bred because they often act well on the quick ground that is becoming increasingly common in northern Europe. As you can see on the photo, he is a big, strong, precocious type, and on breeding he ought to stay middle distances. With the dream starting, one would hope that he might make it to a race such as the Chesham at Royal Ascot, but only time will tell. If not, there is a perfect 6f Listed race for him back at the Arcachon racetrack at La Teste de Buche in early August, with the French premiums boosting prize-money by 64% plus an extra premium for graduates of the Osarus sale. Interestingly this year’s Chesham winner, Suits You, was bought cheaply at Osarus.

However, it wasn’t just the sale that was enjoyable. Being with our trainer and co-owners out in Aquitaine provided opportunities for eating, drinking and good fellowship. Arcachon is the oyster capital of France, and quite a number of mighty molluscs slipped down the system, particularly at the seafront restaurant Chez Pierre, as well as a magnificent reception hosted by the Osarus sales house. One of our fellow owners also bought a Mount Nelson filly, and there is a lot of fun being had in trying to name her. You can guess why if you look at Lot 85 in the Osarus catalogue!

We flew back into the UK on the Wednesday evening and then drove almost straight up to Ayr for the start of the Ayr Western meeting. It is a 12-hour plus round trip and most people would suppose that to watch one’s horse come last would be a dismal experience. The plan was for the horse to be dropped out, with a lot of cover, and be taught to settle. Unfortunately Jolievitesse broke very quickly from the stalls and shot into the lead while the rest of the field were reined back, and then blew up at the mile post. And yet the owners had a fantastic time at Ayr during the three days and soon put the disappointment behind them. This was certainly helped by all of us having a good bet on Karl’s winning filly, Quiet Reflection, who paid for a magnificent dinner (she will probably go next to either the Cornwallis Stakes at Newmarket or a Group 2 at Maisons-Lafitte). There is a theme emerging – good meals and fine wine, in beautiful locations, with friends from racing. This time the seafood was courtesy of
Scott's Bar & Restaurant at Troon harbour, looking across to Aran. At the end of the harbour is another fine restaurant, MacCallums Oyster Bar, as well as Scotland’s best fish and chip take-away alongside – Wee Hurrie. It is the only place where I’ve ever seen lobster and chips!

We’re already looking forward to the Ayr festival next year. It’s a track that looks after owners superbly well, as anyone who has enjoyed the owners’ lunch in the Western Hotel can testify. The atmosphere building to the Ayr Gold Cup is electric, and this year the crowd went crazy after the favourite, Don’t Touch, won readily. It’s rare for me to leave a meeting in profit, but I certainly did from this one, together with great memories from a really enjoyable week.

That’s it now for restaurant recommendations. Having said that, owners are going up to Yorkshire soon to see the new horse, and doubtless we’ll enjoy the sumptuous meals at the
Wensleydale Heifer. Diet postponed!

I am always interested to hear your views so please do leave a comment. If you can't see the comment box at the bottom of this post then navigate to the post using the right hand navigation or click here > and scroll to the bottom of the page. Look forward to hearing your views. Thanks very much for sharing them.

Sunday, 13 September 2015

As We Enter “Syndicate Season”, How Many of Them are Ripping Off the Owner?


A few weeks back I posted a blog on over-charging by agents and trainers. I know from communication that I’ve had with owners in my network that this theme definitely struck a chord. Indeed, as well as the specific examples that I quoted, a clear theme emerged that the “racing mind-set” of those who work in racing just doesn’t seem to understand the need for proper transparency and active management of costs (downwards). In most other walks of life, and particularly in modern companies, this laissez-faire attitude towards over-charging (which is either incompetence, greed or alas on occasions corruption) would be completely unacceptable. In these days of price comparison web sites and consumer guides, customers would just switch allegiance to other suppliers.

Those who have been reading the blog since Owners for Owners was set up will know that I’ve had a particular crusade to reduce the over-charging that takes place in some syndicates. Indeed this message is increasingly being recognised by the racing authorities and it is likely that a code of conduct will emerge fairly soon, which I have personally been making some input into. One of the big problems is that many potential owners have little insight into the costs and practices of syndication. As na├»ve owners they can be lambs to the slaughter in the hands of the less scrupulous syndicators. Look out for these unacceptable practices:

  1. No contract and no cooling-off period. The owner has no real clarity on what is being provided.
  2. Inadequate term definition. You don’t know how long you’re going to be in for.
  3. Unclear and / or no defined exit routes from the syndicate. No annual review process.
  4. No breakdown of the precise horse acquisition cost. The owners end up paying far more than this. So from day one, the value of their investment is reduced by syndicate manager profiteering.
  5. Use of free shares by racing managers, enabling them to participate in the benefits but not the costs.
  6. Undeclared retrospective rebates from trainers retained by the syndicate manager.
  7. Inflated operating costs. No itemised annual estimate of ongoing costs. Inadequate coverage and disclosure of a racing manager’s annual fee vs. additional (hidden) charges for overheads.
  8. Undisclosed supplementary costs.
  9. No service standards and no commitment to provide an enjoyable owner experience.
  10. No communications schedule and therefore no commitment to provide regular information.
  11. Little owner involvement in the key decisions relating to the horse. Limited access to trainer / horse.
  12. Undisclosed, opaque syndicate manager’s expenses e.g. travel, flights, hotels, meals, hospitality, etc.
  13. Back-handers and luck money on horse purchase retained by the syndicate manager.
  14. Expensive phone lines for information on your horse.
  15. Trainer syndicates which end up charging double margins, i.e. on training fees and then syndication.
  16. Offloading of crocked and useless horses to a syndicate. No access to sales vetting or vets’ reports.
  17. Undisclosed conflicts of interest e.g. syndicate manager buying horses from related parties.
  18. Retention of sales money or high percentage deductions by the syndicate manager against sale.
  19. Owner benefits being retained for the syndicate manager e.g. lunches, badges, boxes, car park admission, prizes, prize-money, breeding rights, use of colours, running horse in manager’s name.
  20. No proper dispute resolution process. Only way to exit the syndicate is by abandoning your share. No valuation or buy-out procedures. Syndicate manager has complete control, and a vested interest in prolonging the syndicate for as long as possible in order to maximise fees / overhead contribution.
September is often the start of the “syndicate season”. The yearling Flat sales are under way and the main NH season about to start. Lots of trainers and syndicate managers have bought horses and are desperate for owners to take them over. If any of you are thinking of buying into syndicates this autumn, you would be strongly advised to evaluate their offers in line with this list of 20 practices. If in doubt, ask questions of the syndicator and commit to being “an informed customer”. Don’t join the gullible and be ripped off. There is nothing wrong with a syndicate manager being paid reasonable remuneration for the work done. As always, it is the definition of “reasonable” that matters. Look closely at the actual costs, the syndicator’s total profits and what they are offering you in terms of added value benefits of being an owner with them.

I am always interested to hear your views so please do leave a comment. If you can't see the comment box at the bottom of this post then navigate to the post using the right hand navigation or click here > and scroll to the bottom of the page. Look forward to hearing your views. Thanks very much for sharing them.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

Is York Now the Best Racecourse in the Country? It is Certainly My Favourite.

The recent Ebor festival was an outstanding success, although only a few favourites came in, and even then I studiously managed to avoid backing them. So if I was talking through my pocket I would definitely be critical. But I’m exactly the opposite as far as the Knavesmire is concerned. It really is a super track.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I’m more than prepared to criticise racecourses for their indifferent service and poor facilities – not just for owners but for the general racegoer as well. York, however, seems to get all the basics right, and over the last few years has made significant multi-million pound investments in facilities such as the new pre-parade ring, Champagne bars, restaurants etc. There are always lots of areas to relax, sit down, raise a few glasses of the best value Champagne on race tracks in the country, the walkways actually allow you to get around easily and all the staff are unfailingly polite and appear to be extremely well trained. Even the excellently produced and detailed racecards are free.

This year’s festival also will have pleased owners, with every race worth more than £50,000 in prize-money, and there have been significant boosts for the hugely competitive handicaps as well as the pattern races. Indeed the level of competition is such that to win at York now you need to have a horse who if not already 100+ on official ratings soon will be, after winning any of the races there.

Like all business operations, it is the quality of leadership that really counts, and Lord Grimthorpe and his team, with the hugely talented William Darby, have to be commended for what they have achieved. Indeed I have heard that the members of the board only receive payments to cover expenses, so for many of the top team it is clearly a labour of love, with all profits and surpluses ploughed back into the course in prize-money. This really does set the benchmark in quality, commitment and performance that all racecourses need to strive for.

In terms of the racing itself this year, this brought quite a bit of controversy, most of it on Day 1. Arabian Queen, in the Juddmonte International, turned over the hot Derby-winning favourite Golden Horn. It is just a pity that the winning trainer, David Elsworth, then made a complete fool of himself, throwing a major strop about not being invited to lunch and apparently feeling that his filly had been unfairly criticised. In the Great Voltigeur, Pat Cosgrave got into a barging match on Storm The Stars but under current British rules kept the race. It is now pretty clear that unless there is only a neck or a head difference in a result, the chances are that interference won’t lead to a result being overturned. Throughout the meeting a few jockeys picked up bans for over-use of the whip, and with the level of prize-money on offer it is clearly the case that some jockeys are still prepared to ignore the rules. There should be stiffer penalties to curtail this behaviour.

The two highlights for me, though, were undoubtedly the magnificent successes for “ordinary owners and ordinary trainers”. Mecca’s Angel’s win in the Nunthorpe was the first Group 1 for both jockey Paul Mulrennan and trainer Michael Dods. On the right ground she is a really game filly and was very well bought for 16,000 gns. The Prix de l’Abbaye at Longchamps is an obvious next target for her. Then in the Ebor the win by Litigant for Joe Tuite and A.A. Byrne was a mightily impressive performance bearing in mind that the horse had been off the track since April 2014. Again, cheaply bought at £18,500. The owner currently has seven horses in training, and the other six haven’t managed to win £10,000 in total between them this year. Such are the highs and lows of ownership. I used to live only a couple of miles away from Tuite’s yard, in Great Shefford near Lambourn, and doubtless if I was still based there would have heard some whispers beforehand. Sadly, all my bets went down, and indeed the final day of the meeting was just about a complete graveyard for punters. The Placepot paying £4,882 to a £1 stake says everything about the day!

Great to see the ordinary owner do well. That was in marked contrast to the results for some of the top trainers, most noticeably William Haggas, all of whose winners were owned by royalty and sheikhs. Such is the value of mega-wealthy patronage in the top yards at Headquarters.

Already looking forward to York next year, and indeed have already booked accommodation. See you there!



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Saturday, 15 August 2015

Incompetence or Corruption – Where Do You Draw the Line on Ethical Practices?


I always remember a lovely story told by the inimitable cricket correspondent, Henry Blofeld. Apparently on one occasion when he was entering Australia at Sydney Airport, he was stopped at Immigration to answer a number of questions. When asked, “Do you have a criminal record?”, his reply was, “My dear old thing, I didn’t realise it was compulsory!”

I don’t know if I was chuckling quite so much when I read on the Racing Post web site this week an almost unbelievable story concerning the Australian trainer, Dean Howard, who was suspended for 18 months after selling a horse without the consent of the owners, and keeping a chunk of the sale proceeds for himself. Apparently he sold the horse, Convincable, to Hong Kong without the owners’ knowledge, before informing them of a lower final sale price. He then kept the difference. What I find even more unbelievable is that he only got 18 months!

Maybe it depends on the Australian interpretation of criminality! The serious issue is that a lot of ownership and partnership problems that can occur are actually a breach of agency law. In most instances the owners are the principals and the bloodstock agents and trainers are merely agents, covered by well-established common law principles and precedents. Agents must act in the best interests of their principals. Alas, that all too often isn’t the case. So I decided to think about problems that I have encountered in the last decade or so of owning horses, and have listed ten examples below. They are numbered from 1 to 10. Where would you draw the line in your interpretation of a breach by the agent? I suspect a lot of you will start to have concerns from 1 onwards!! Unfortunately all of these are relatively common examples.

I just don’t believe that the racing mind-set is to protect owners properly, while seeking out value for money at every opportunity. Indeed, one of the very top NH owners believes that practices such as those listed below are “illegal taxes on owners”.

  1. Trainer uses the same vet for all his horses, but the owner is charged at the standard vet rack rate; no reductions and no rebates for annual volumes, regardless of the profit to the vet over the year.
  2. Inaccuracies on the trainer’s recording of full training fees vs. lower fee out of training, box rest etc.
  3. Vet automatically doubles the cost to the owner of buying in proprietary drugs. Adds no value whatsoever.
  4. Trainer takes a full box to the races and then charges each owner the mileage rate as though for a single horse. Similarly, charges full costs of a visit to a sale (flights, hotels, meals etc.) to each owner for whom he buys a horse at that sale.
  5. Trainer charges for a treatment such as use of a cold-water spa, swimming pool or treadmill, even though the horse has not received the treatment.
  6. Syndicate manager has a “free share”; no cost for this but participates in all benefits / prize-money.
  7. Horse bought by a syndicate manager from a family member’s stud farm. Horse has a chronic wind problem.
  8. Syndicate manager, inept on accounts, manages to “lose” £8,000. “Forgets” to register for VAT.
  9. Syndicate horse entered into a sale without the approval of the owners. Doesn’t meet its reserve. Sold privately the same day by the manager at a lower price to a “contact”. That person sells the horse on the next day for twice as much. Zero owner involvement, discussion or opportunity to make a bid.
  10. Syndicate manager doubles the purchase price of the horse on syndication, thereby immediately halving the value of the asset purchased by the owners, while making himself 100% profit for doing nothing.
You can see why we set up Owners for Owners. We make sure that none of our owners are ripped off. Occasionally mistakes occur, but we’re now in the fortunate position where our relationships with trainers and agents are excellent. However, that doesn’t mean that everything is perfect, and for example the way vets charge is a persistent niggle, and something which from time to time we’ve had to challenge.

I’ve just been invited to take part in an ROA working party, tasked with producing a code of conduct for syndicates. Alas, I’m not going to find it too difficult to come up with real-life examples of incompetence and, I’m afraid on occasion, corruption. It will be interesting to see the appetite for where the line is drawn in the ethical sand. I’m certainly going to be at the robust end of the scale, and would like to see far more transparency and demanding service standards required from the various agents.



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Saturday, 1 August 2015

Have the Racecourses Hijacked Our Sport …. and If So, What Should Be Done About It?


This blog has been triggered by an article in the Racing Post by Colin Russell, and subsequent discussion with a number of our owners who definitely agree with it. Basically, Colin argued that the power in racing doesn’t sit with the BHA, the bookmakers or Horsemen’s Group, but with racecourses, which “act like spoilt kids and don’t worry about how it affects anyone else”. He argues that they control the purse strings, as they sit astride most of the big flows of cash through Levy Board grants, media rights, gate money, sponsorship, owner entry charges, the Tote, bookmakers’ payments – and that’s before you even get to the additional contribution from the racegoers themselves, consuming expensive food and drink. Key decisions are being taken by the racecourses in their own best commercial interests rather than for racing as a whole, as illustrated by silly same-day race meeting clashes between local tracks such as Kempton and Lingfield, Southwell and Nottingham, Haydock and Chester. He believes that the Racecourse Association doesn’t care about this, and moreover the tracks pay as little in prize-money as they can get away with.

At times the article was clearly a bit of a rant, but the argument struck a chord and most people I’ve spoken to believe that the racecourses are definitely calling the shots. It seems that legally they own 1,200 of the 1,400+ race fixtures and therefore hold both the purse-strings and the power in the British racing landscape. Without any doubt this will be tested over the next few months as the BHA tries to implement the proposed tripartite agreement and more importantly the operating principles behind it. At the moment the RCA hasn’t signed up to this agreement alongside the BHA and the Horsemen’s Group. Several of the key issues that need to be resolved at a tripartite board revolve around racecourses and the way the fixture list operates. In essence the BHA has relatively low authority to influence this, so if you take as jaundiced a view as Colin Russell then, yes, there is a risk that the racecourses have hijacked our sport.

Earlier in the week, though, I was encouraged to see that Richard Wayman, Chief Executive of the Racehorse Owners’ Association, is moving across to become the new Chief Operating Officer of the BHA. I’ve worked with Richard on a number of projects and he is an extremely able individual whose natural style is highly collaborative. As he has been given the job of sorting out the fixture list, he is clearly going to be a very important power broker with the racecourses. Indeed I joked with him that he was offered three jobs – by the IMF to sort out the Greek debt crisis; by the UN to address the threats posed by ISIS; and by the BHA to create a more rational race programme. Full marks that he has gone for the most difficult one!?!

However I do think it is wrong to lump all the racecourses together and be critical of the lot. So I sat down to do my own classification and started slotting them into one of four groups: stars (the tracks you really like going to, and which offer a top-quality raceday experience), improvers (where substantial investment is being made), dullards (which are just coasting along) and exploiters (which are ripping off everyone). At the positive end of this scale, my top ten tracks would be Aintree, Ascot, Ayr, Chester, Goodwood, Haydock, Market Rasen, Newmarket, Sandown, York. Six of these are independently managed and four are controlled by Jockey Club Racecourses. My bottom ten are Bath, Brighton, Lingfield, Newcastle, Plumpton, Redcar, Southwell, Towcester, Wolverhampton and Worcester. This time none are JCR; three are independent and seven are under the dubious management of Arena Racing Company. And of course I haven’t flagged up some of the strong improvers such as Cheltenham and Newbury where millions are being invested at the moment.

As the Americans say about strategy, “it ain’t vanilla”. Different racecourses and different operators need different strategies and different levers of power to influence future direction. Every course is a business in its own right, while JCR and ARC are substantial players in the leisure market with hundreds of staff and multi-million pound budgets. As such they are open to a range of negotiating tactics, just like any other commercial organisation. The challenge for the BHA is to create a clear vision for the future shape of British racing, particularly in terms of the fixture list and race programme. Once the gap between the current position and the future requirement is clear, then the levers need to be applied to secure it. One end of the negotiating scale is collaborative but that shouldn’t preclude the other end, which is more aggressive. There are bound to be ways in which racecourses can be persuaded and / or forced to behave in the right way, for the greater good of the sport. After all, the BHA licences all racing establishments including racecourses, so why not introduce a range of criteria that need to be pursued and without which licences can be withheld.

This subject is definitely one of the top three issues facing the sport and its future success. We wish Richard Wayman all possible success in the new role that he will be playing to bring about some of the necessary changes.



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Wednesday, 15 July 2015

Feast and Famine in the Fixture List: Programme Planning will be a Major Test for the BHA’s Collaborative Tripartite Board


If you’re keen on racing as well as other sports, then last weekend was positively exhausting. You can have multiple TVs on around the house and still have no chance of keeping up with Wimbledon, the Tour de France, first Ashes Test and Scottish Open as well as the onslaught of a totally Flat-dominated Saturday of Ascot, Chester, Hamilton, Newmarket, Salisbury, York and over in Ireland, Tipperary. Hardly surprising that the pundits had an alliterative field day, calling it all “Midsummer Madness”, “Feast and Famine”, “Surfeit of Stuff” and “Clearly Crackers”. Ladbrokes termed it “Groundhog Day”.

And then, incredibly, on Sunday there wasn’t a single Flat turf meeting in either Ireland or the UK. You scratch your head as to why, in mid-July, the choice is really moderate NH racing at Perth, Sligo, Southwell, Stratford or, if you’re really desperate, the all-weather at Dundalk.

As always at the moment in racing, it seems as though some stakeholders gain but others definitely lose. Such is the support at some of the tracks that York on their Magnet Cup day (which, full credit to them, they’ve been running now for over half a century on this day) had 40,000 attendees, Chester (with a pretty ordinary card) 28,000, Ascot 20,000 and yet the top meeting, with the July Cup, at Newmarket had a paltry 14,000 and only 37,000 over all three days of their top midsummer fixture.

We all know that Saturday betting turnover matters enormously, as it drives the levy and is ultimately such a big contributor to prize-money. All the betting operators were extremely critical of the weekend clashes, which led to many punters giving up due to racing overload. Some of the sponsors such as Bet 365, who had supported the Bunbury Cup at Newmarket, were naturally disappointed with the turnover. Trainers and jockeys faced a logistical nightmare. All in all, an indictment of the way the current fixture list and programme plan operate.

Tactically, although not necessarily as simple as it sounds, the obvious short-term requirement is to separate some of these meetings. In particular, the Newmarket July meeting over recent years has moved to the weekend and it should go back to a mid-week slot. John Smiths day, with its huge support and tradition, should be the anchor Saturday meeting. And then it is important to look at the weekends either side and see whether they can be strengthened. In fact when you look at this weekend’s fare, it is certainly not particularly impressive and again illustrates the need to balance the fixture list.

Strategically though, it is not sufficient just to tinker around with a few race days and a few meetings. The whole of the programme, end to end across the year, needs significant review. Indeed if I put my former management consultancy hat on, it is a classic for data analysis of meetings, racecourse attendances, betting turnover and the needs of the racehorse population in the context of the total amount of racing in both in the UK and near neighbours. Mathematically it is possible to work out the absolutely optimal pattern that maximises the total revenue and margin of British racing. That can be compared against the current arrangement and a migration plan determined to move the current, inherently ineffective system towards the optimal one ….. and yes, I can already hear the sound of pigs taking off from the runway.

As always this is not just a logical exercise. If you’re generous it involves give and take on the part of racecourses, and if you’re not, it is at the heart of the need for the BHA to take more control over British racing from certain stakeholders and, in this example, specifically the racecourses. The tracks need to give up power, in other words. I’m sure that is an implicit assumption behind the behavioural dynamics of the new tripartite board representing the BHA, the Horsemen’s Group and the Racecourse Association. Success or otherwise will certainly be one of the prime tests of how well the collaborative model can work in practice.

It could be harder to solve than the Greek debt crisis!?! We wish everyone well around the negotiating table.


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Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Reflections on Royal Ascot: Is It Now the Biggest Brand and Racing Event on the International Stage?


I lived in Windsor for 15 years and for a fair chunk of that time had an office in Ascot, so I’ve observed the “Royal Ascot experience” pretty closely over the last couple of decades. Personally I believe there has been a transformation in the event, particularly since the £220m of investment culminating in the opening of the new stand. In effect, Ascot has reinvented itself and has reached new heights. Having been lucky enough to go along to two days of this year’s Royal meeting, here are some reflections on both racing and broader issues.

Day 1: Savoured by the purists and the next best day’s racing after Champions’ Day

Ascot peaked early this year! Freddie Head’s Solow was majestic in the Queen Anne, making it 7 wins from 7, while Gleneagles confirmed his status as champion miler, adding to wins in the English and Irish 2000 Guineas. Not for the first time, Aidan O’Brien confirmed him as his “best ever miler”, adding to similar comments when both Henrythenavigator and Rock Of Gibraltar did exactly the same. It will be magnificent if these two clash in the Sussex Stakes.

Internationalism: I believe that Ascot this year was the best international meeting that has ever taken place in England, despite the non-attendance of California Chrome and the dismal flop of Able Friend. For the first time there were more winning horses trained outside England. In Wesley Ward, British racing has a superb ambassador. Indeed he is positively evangelical about our sport.

Day 2: Love him or loathe him, when Frankie Dettori does well, so does British Racing

Acapulco looked as though she wouldn’t have been out of place in the Mares’ Hurdle at Cheltenham – a massive filly who completely burnt off the field of 2yos in the Queen Mary. She cut an awesome presence and, in the words of Ryan Moore, “looked and rode like a 4yo”. With his win in the Prince of Wales, Free Eagle could be a potential Arc horse. Incredibly Dermot Weld had his first winner at the meeting 42 years ago. Dettori’s triumph on Osaila was his 50th winner, putting him in 4th place behind Lester Piggott (116), Pat Eddery (73) and Willie Carson (56). That is one to remember for the pub quiz! What a rejuvenation in his career.

Personalities: racing definitely needs them. I suspect there were more column inches in the daily newspapers about Dettori than about the horses that day. Although everyone appreciates Ryan Moore’s brilliance (and by the end of the fourth day, his 9th win at the meeting was a record in modern times), there is very little broader public awareness of his contribution to the sport. A challenge there for some personal re-branding?

Day 3: Embodiment of racing’s heritage with the Gold Cup

If there is one race in which I would love to have a runner, it is the Gold Cup (and like The Open, it never has a qualifying introduction – it is the Gold Cup), partly because of its heritage going back well over 200 years when the Czar donated his trophy, but far more importantly because staying warriors, in my eyes, are the real equine stars. So the captivating moment, despite its being substandard, was Trip To Paris’s win, and hopefully booking his passage to Melbourne.

Ordinary owners: the platinum tier of ownership with ultra-high net worth individuals dominating both Flat and Jumps has clearly made a huge contribution to the sport. But this can be disillusioning for the ordinary owner. On Day 1, my wife and I were standing right behind the Act D Wagg Syndicate (including jockeys’ wives such as Gillian Walsh) when their Clondaw Warrior won the Ascot Stakes, and it was marvellous to see / hear their jubilant reaction. Similarly with the La Grange Partnership that had sportingly supplemented Trip To Paris for £35,000, having been so impressed by him when he won the Chester Cup – a marvellous return on investment.

Day 4: Continuous improvement of the racing programme has been richly rewarded

It is easy to forget that 20 years ago there were only three Group 1 races at Ascot, whereas now there are eight. The racing structure has evolved, names have changed and yet the overall heritage and quality have significantly improved. None more so than this year, when Muhaarar was an impressive winner of the newly introduced Commonwealth Cup – an undoubted success and tremendous incentive for 3yo sprinters. Illuminate winning the Albany also made it an emotional day, with a winner for Richard Hannon Jr. / Richard Hughes at their last Royal Ascot together before Hughesie competes against Hannon as a trainer.

Racing as an event: over 293,000 racegoers came along over the five days to enjoy the spectacle. How many of them will attend any other meeting? Just think of the impact on the sport if the majority of them could be persuaded to attend just one more day of racing? In many ways, though, spectators are now really supporting sport as a pageant and a huge social event, rather than necessarily being interested in the sport per se. That must have massive implications for the way in which racing is promoted and the fixture list organised.

Day 5: Betting finally falls apart – normal service resumed

By the time Day 5 arrives, wallets are light and energy depleted. Alas, the Wokingham was a complete disaster, with my nap of the week Huntsman’s Close deciding it was time to become a jumper and the back-up, Watchable, only running into 5th place. One result though that I enjoyed tremendously was the win of a €12,000 purchase at Osarus in Bordeaux, Suits You, for Eoghan O’Neill in the Chesham. This is a sale where I am intending to look for a yearling in the autumn with our trainer Karl Burke, who has also bought well there.

Investment and sponsorship: the Queen’s patronage of Royal Ascot adds massive brand value and must be one of the key factors in securing the considerable sponsorship of QIPCO as the leading commercial partner with £50m committed until 2024. Indeed if you consider the six brothers behind QIPCO led by Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah al-Thani, Sheikh Mohammed and the Coolmore trio of Messrs. Magnier, Tabor and Smith, then ten individuals in many ways now completely dominate the Flat. Obviously fabulous for all concerned, but not without risk.

All in all, a tremendous five days and a huge showcase for British racing. Already looking forward to June 2016!



I am always interested to hear your views so please do leave a comment. If you can't see the comment box at the bottom of this post then navigate to the post using the right hand navigation or click here > and scroll to the bottom of the page. Look forward to hearing your views. Thanks very much for sharing them.