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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