Sunday 15 February 2015

A.P. McCoy’s Retirement: “Time waits for no man. And it certainly isn’t going to wait for me.”

As you get older, you definitely struggle to remember names, telephone numbers and where you left the car keys. But for some strange reason you never forget winning bets. Rolling the clock back: a grey, drizzly day at Plumpton, 9th December 1997. A scratchy-actioned trainer in signature black donkey jacket leads a horse out from the parade ring, taps the boot of the rider and quietly emphasises, “Maximum persuasion, Anthony, maximum persuasion.” The horse in question was an unremarkable 101 hurdler who had only managed to win once in his 17 previous runs, in an ordinary bumper in Tipperary. However, this was the first run for Unsinkable Boxer for Martin Pipe and Tony McCoy. Backed down to 11/10 favourite, he hacked up by 8 lengths, before going on to win his next six races. His mark jumped to 150, taking in both the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals. At Cheltenham this horse turned in one of the most impressive handicap wins ever, ridden with supreme confidence by A.P. (and irrelevantly, my largest-ever NH bet to date riding with him) in a 3m 1f hurdle. The race report doesn’t quite capture the ease of the win: “Held up and behind, steady headway 8th, led on the bit approaching 2 out, won in a canter.”

There must be millions of punters around the world who have their own similar memories of the phenomenal, record-breaking rider, A.P. McCoy, who unexpectedly announced his retirement after his 200th winner of the season on board Mr. Mole in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury. Many of us will have a “J.F. Kennedy” reaction of “Where were you on Saturday, 7th February 2015?” I’ll certainly never forget it – not least because I was at Uttoxeter with one of our horses, where Anthony Honeyball’s Rouquine Sauvage, ridden by his fiancĂ©e Rachael Green, was taking part in a 2m mares’ handicap hurdle. There were no connections present to cheer on horse or rider, so my wife and I, together with friends, became “honorary owners” for the day and I had the enjoyable experience, after a super winning ride from Rachael, of being called up to receive the prize as “Mr. J.P. McManus’s representative”. A.P.’s 200th winner was also in J.P.’s silks.

Obviously the statistics relating to A.P. are phenomenal: barring accidents, he will be lifting the trophy for his 20th consecutive jockey championship in the spring; the first jockey ever to ride 4,000 jumps winners (at Towcester, 7th November 2013 – I was also there that day, with a runner); galloped past Gordon Richards’ record of 269 winners with a total of 289 in 2001/02, and probably for A.P. a milestone that really mattered in passing Martin Pipe’s career tally of 4,191 on 18th July 2014. From then on there was only one more record, realistically, for him to break, and that certainly seemed likely at the start of this season: he had had his fastest-ever 50th, 100th and 150th winners when a bone-crunching fall at Worcester dislocated his collarbone, cracked a few ribs and punctured a lung, before a few weeks later breaking the same collarbone that he had earlier dislocated. The goal of 300 winners in a season then became impossible.

After the announcement of retirement, lots of commonality in the descriptions: determined, obsessive, driven, phlegmatic, disciplined, iron man. In his own words, one comment summed him up. “There have been loads of better riders than me: John Francome, Richard Dunwoody, Peter Scudamore, Charlie Swan, Ruby Walsh, Richard Johnson and Barry Geraghty. But I’ve been an over-achiever ….. The trick is that you mustn’t get too up, and you mustn’t get too down. It’s the fear of losing that matters, rather than the enjoyment of winning. That’s what keeps you going.”

So from now till the end of the season there is quite rightly bound to be a celebration wherever he rides, and it is most definitely a public relations godsend for racing. From the very next day, the Sunday after his retirement, the sports pages were full of photos and commentaries. Without any doubt there is a tremendous amount of goodwill towards A.P. and his family, and everyone is now hoping that he gets through to the end of the season in one piece and good shape, before deciding what to do next. It’s a real pity that racing doesn’t have its own version of the U.S. Hall of Fame to capture and acknowledge his immense stature and contribution to National Hunt racing.

The final comment is from J.P.: “Anthony was a great man to have on your side. To be sure, I wouldn’t have wanted to have him against me.”

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Sunday 1 February 2015

Will 2015 be the Year when Racing’s Turnaround and Transformation Begins?

Last summer I was a member of one of the BHA’s strategy pillar teams: “Horse Population, Ownership and Breeding”. It certainly made me think more deeply about the huge challenges and opportunities facing racing. If you are of an optimistic nature, there are lots of positives around: a new CEO at the BHA, a big shake-up of the Board, record levels of prize-money for 2015, top-end bloodstock very strong, the 10-year sponsorship deal at Goodwood, contractual prize-money agreements in place with most racecourses and growth in media rights revenue. However, the glass can also look more than half-empty on occasions with racing in a fairly precarious position – big declines in owners, horses in training and numbers of runners with the consequent blight of small fields. So as Nick Rust, the new CEO (ex-Ladbrokes), goes on the road to meet the industry, here is the Owners for Owners’ “Strategic Starter for 10”.

1. Finalise and communicate racing’s turnaround growth strategy
Throughout January there have been the inevitable, platitudinous expressions of goodwill towards the new CEO, and in turn from him to the superficially supportive stakeholders. The reality of course is completely different. As the Australian commentator Jim McGrath said on a recent ATR Forum, “Racing’s stakeholders are like cats in a sack, and most of its leaders could start a row in an empty house”. Racing desperately needs clarity on its strategic vision around a small number of critical issues that the industry commits to supporting. The analytical piece (the “what” of strategy) then needs to be backed up by the behavioural piece (the “how” of operationalisation). A fundamental element of course is whether the strategy will be about growth or managed contraction, or a combination of the two.

2. Adopt a different leadership and governance model
Ever since the BHB was launched 20 years ago, the centre has lacked any real authority or control over the industry apart from regulation and integrity. The various factions have operated dysfunctionally and extremely inefficiently. For too long the bookmakers and racecourses have had the power in British racing, while the levy board has held the purse-strings. There are now proposals for a tripartite board representing the BHA, racecourses and the Horsemen’s Group. The challenge is whether the stakeholders will relinquish authority to the BHA within such a structure so that it can actually take control over key decisions. Without that it will be just about impossible to roll out a meaningful strategy for change. No matter how strong an organisation’s change management skills may be, it is just about impossible to do that purely through nudge, fudge and facilitation. It is time for a much more authoritative lead from the centre with a redefinition of the BHA’s role and the injection of resources and funds to drive the necessary changes.

3. Overhaul racing’s funding system and secure long-term income streams
Almost since its inception the levy scheme has not really been fit for purpose. More recently, as levy payments were avoided by offshore bookmaking, it was obvious that there had to be a replacement, together with the introduction of a “racing right” and new funding model. Encouragingly this appears to have found favour with the Government, but an obvious challenge is to maintain momentum through the inevitable disruption of the election. However it would be equally wrong to assume that modernisation and / or replacement of the levy is an automatic panacea for all racing’s ills. Bookmakers are already bemoaning the “increasing cost of content”, and any changes in fixture lists could easily dilute existing media rights payments. So as well as reforming the levy, it is vital that racing finds other income streams, particularly drawing on the export of racing media abroad.

4. Reshape and resize British racing
In the short term, there is simply too much racing and not enough horses. Everyone wants competitive, tightly-contested action, with more races having 8+ runners. That cannot be achieved at the moment, so changes needed include the removal of some fixtures, optimisation of race planning, restriction on the number of races programmed per fixture, removal of some races of four or fewer runners, reduction in field sizes in excess of 16, introduction of greater incentivisation to run through increases in prize- and place-money, and race innovation through, for example, making more handicaps into claimers. But all these are really just tinkering with the problem. The real need is longer-term remedial action.

5. Reverse the decline in both the horse and owner population
The average number of horses in training for both Flat and NH peaked in 2008, and has subsequently declined by over 1,600, coinciding with 650 races being added to the race programme. There has been a similar decline in the number of owners while their average age has increased from 57 to 63. There doesn’t seem to have been a corresponding inflow of younger owners. This is a spiral of decline: fewer runners, higher costs, more small-field races, poor prize-money particularly at the lower end, lower betting activity; and therefore reduced return on the levy. If there is going to be a growth strategy, then increasing the number of horses / owners must be central to it.

6. Dramatically transform the owner experience
Owners are the largest investors in racing, injecting hundreds of millions of pounds a year and over £20,000 for each of their horses in training. And yet they are still treated almost as “a necessary evil”. The whole racing mind-set should change. As a single example, compare the check-in desk and lounge for first and business-class passengers with the reception and hospitality that owners receive on the racecourse. Racing just doesn’t understand that owners are buyers of luxury goods and services, and there is a need here for multiple interventions across the whole industry. There are also very few proper metrics and assessment of service levels given to owners. We would like to see a Good Trainer Guide, a Good Racecourse Guide and more transparency in trainer charges, syndicate costs, agents’ commissions and the exposure of the corrupt practices and market distortions that occur in the bloodstock industry. Time for a radical re-think, and in parallel we recommend an industry-wide initiative to take costs out of the system, particularly through adoption of best-in-class procurement practices and a dramatic simplification in the process costs of racing administration. The complexity of administration is in itself one of the barriers preventing many people from becoming owners. All savings could be reinvested in owner-related benefits.

7. Set explicit goals for the return on ownership and prize-money This clearly follows naturally from the section above. At the moment the return on ownership is around 20%, so for every £ invested by owners they lose on average 80p. That is rock-bottom for the industry worldwide. Notwithstanding the record-breaking prize-money of £130.8m being provided in 2015 (a very welcome bounce back from the low of £94m in 2011), minimum values of races below Listed class are generally lower now than they were in 2005. Place-money is often derisory. We would like to see two clear targets: no place-money to be lower than the average cost of entering a horse and transporting it to the race; and for the return on ownership to increase from 20% to 50% by 2020.

8. Foster innovation in betting and bookmaking
Bookmakers definitely feel that they are being squeezed on all sides, with declining turnover, increased regulation and the high cost of the racing product. Racing appears to be losing market share to other sports and betting products. There is doubtless a need for joint initiatives to boost racing’s attractiveness to punters while ensuring that the sport receives a fair return from this betting activity. The key question is whether that can be done through the existing bookmaking structures, or whether there is a much broader need for both betting and technological innovation. This is an area for active research and business development to identify radically different betting platforms – “Betfair 2.0”.

9. Boost attendance at racecourses and improve terrestrial TV coverage of racing
At their worst some racecourse operators, particularly those under the ARC banner, see racing purely as a commercial activity and a cash cow to be milked. They suffer from dreadful media relations and fail to deliver an enjoyable racegoer experience, their facilities are a disgrace and they don’t act on their commitments to racing over prize-money. If a new governance regime led to much greater control over the fixture list, then a system of much greater incentives and penalties should be introduced with those courses. The best races and the most valuable fixtures should naturally go to those courses that demonstrate the greatest commitment to British racing. It is also vital for the terrestrial TV coverage of racing to be kept firmly in the mainstream. It would be severely damaging if anything happened to reduce this, as has been seen with the reluctance of many daily newspapers to cover the sport. Another area for collaborative action between key stakeholders is to ensure that TV coverage is revitalised and relevant for the modern viewer across a broad range of media platforms.

10. Stop the own goals
Unfortunately over the last few months we have seen a number of incidents in racing that have damaged the perception of the sport. For instance if a whip rule is introduced, based on the number of hits, and then stewards are expected to follow the rules without flexibility (although there is discretion), then poor outcomes are inevitable, as seen in the Aidan Coleman ban. But there have been other amateurish examples to do with flag waving, and removal of hurdles due to low sun even after sunset. Racecourse executives and stewards need to raise their game significantly here. Indeed there is probably a case for professionalisation of stewards.

Well that’s the longest blog that I’ve ever written. I said at the beginning that it was a “starter for 10” and there is a lot more detail that could be covered. I’m just hoping that Nick Rust demonstrates by his actions that he is a good appointment, and we’ll all be following what happens throughout this year with real interest.

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.