Thursday, 15 January 2015
My three least favourite tracks in the whole of the country are Wolverhampton, Lingfield and then Kempton. All of them are all-weather tracks, and every time I’ve been there as an owner I’ve vowed never to return. Standing on the green rubberised concrete of the parade ring at Wolverhampton, with the scent of stale Balti wafting across from the grim bar and restaurant overlooking the crowd-absent terraces, definitely doesn’t count as an enjoyable owner experience in my book. I know I’m exaggerating, and doubtless if one of our Flat horses stormed home, head in his chest, to win going away, I’d probably feel different. But that hasn’t happened either, and invariably you go to the A/W out of necessity rather than pleasure.
And yet the last decade has seen an exponential increase in the amount of all-weather racing in the UK as a percentage of the overall fixture list, so it clearly is meeting a number of objectives: first and foremost, it generates betting turnover and therefore levy to help fund racing; the crowd-free business and commercial model clearly works for the course operators, particularly ARC; unfortunately there are large numbers of moderate horses who have a better chance of winning in the winter on the all-weather than they ever would do on turf in the summer; and finally it provides viewing fodder for TV channels, even if a lot of it is as dull as ditch-water.
So, reluctantly, I have to admit that there is a purpose to all-weather racing. Some of the key questions though are to do with the quantity, distribution and quality of the A/W fixtures and racecourse experiences. Back in this blog on 1st March 2013, I also raised the concerning issue of integrity since many of the ethical breaches have involved this form of racing.
Therefore when Chelmsford City (the former Great Leighs track that closed down almost six years ago) held its first fixture last Sunday, 11th January, I wondered whether we were just going to get more of the same or, ever the optimist, whether a new operator with much deeper pockets could use this racecourse to launch what hopefully could become a new era for all-weather racing.
Very rarely for me, I sat down and watched the racing on TV. I also had a side interest because a horse that I formerly had a share in, Lunar Deity, took part in one of the races, going for a hat-trick, and almost succeeded – only beaten a short head. Lunar was by Medicean, a stallion that I really like, and it is great that we now have another by this sire, with Karl Burke. He looks a late-maturing type (as was Lunar Deity), but hopefully he will be out as a two-year-old in late summer.
First impressions were pretty positive. Prize-money was high in comparison with other similar fixtures; the facilities had a plushness that I probably hadn’t expected; entrances, bars, restaurants etc. appeared to be massively superior to the other A/W tracks, and the track itself has been well regarded since its original construction. True, the grandstand is in the wrong position and apparently over the next three or four years they are going to build one where it needs to be, and the track rode quite deep and slow but will doubtless bed down over the next few months. Personally I wish the track every success and it is bound to be very well supported particularly by the Newmarket trainers, presumably at the expense of the other courses.
But the main reason why I wish it success is that I hope it applies leverage and competition to drive improvement generally in this poor relation of our sport. There is no inherent reason why all-weather racing has to be so abysmal. Better management, prize-money and facilities, and much greater collaboration with other racing stakeholders, ought to be capable of dramatically raising overall standards. Furthermore I would like to see a quantum improvement of this sort both stimulated and reinforced by the allocation of fixtures. Racing needs more incentives and penalties in the system, with a stronger BHA being prepared to apply them in a way that genuinely rewards the improvers and penalises the laggards. Let’s hope good progress is made.
Thursday, 1 January 2015
Hope everyone has enjoyed (?) the Christmas festivities and New Year’s Eve. One of our owners commented after our 2m novice chaser, Future Gilded, ran at Plumpton, “If only we could become racehorses” …. go for one 5-minute run and lose 16kg of weight, which is what Frankie did. May all your dietary resolutions be successful.
Anyway, just before Christmas I saw a number of comments that really had me thinking more seriously about resolutions. The first was in the Racing Post under the headline “Crisis mounts as flood of races hit by small fields”. David Williams of Ladbrokes painted a gloomy picture when he said, “The reasons for the small field sizes are complex, but the impact will be painfully straightforward: recreational punters will look elsewhere for their betting entertainment”, while Robin Mounsey of the BHA commented, “We’ve already stated this issue (field sizes) is our top priority. We have already announced a range of initiatives designed to address the situation, but that is not the end of it. We continue to focus on the issue and it will remain a priority for some time.” Completely agree with both of these comments – finding solutions to the problem has to be right at the heart of racing’s overall strategy and operational planning for the future.
But what to do about it? Personally I believe that there should be open acknowledgement of the problem, and then a clear decision taken by racing to resolve its central strategic dilemma. For a number of years, and particularly through the recession, there has been a steady decline in the numbers of both owners and horses in training. That has coincided with a significant increase in the number of races within the overall racing calendar, at a time when all-weather racing has grown considerably. Basically there are just not enough horses to go around and make races sufficiently competitive, with eight or more runners.
So strategically the industry either accepts a contraction so that there are fewer races (and therefore less revenue), or it pushes for an expansion in the horse population (with significant financial gains across all the stakeholders). I know what my preferred outcome would be – go for growth and expansion by making a number of fundamental changes across the whole racing spectrum. I would love to see racing’s new year resolutions aligned to that statement.
This is clearly a multi-layered and complex problem to solve, which is why another comment in December also caught my eye. It came on Twitter from John Basquill, of whom I have no knowledge. He said:
“Experience the joy of horse-ownership by paying a stranger two grand a month to phone sporadically and describe an array of equine ailments.”
Indeed, this stopped me in my tracks. If I were involved in the “training of trainers”, I’d run a workshop on all the implications of this comment, because in many ways it goes right to the heart of the problem. For too many owners, the level of engagement and return on investment just doesn’t add up. That shows in all the statistics on British racing to do with the horrible term, “owner churn rate”. Every year, hundreds if not thousands of owners leave the sport, never to return. Racing doesn’t really know why they leave, and this ought to be a prime target for research. If we want more horses we clearly need more owners but, just as importantly, to keep current owners in the sport. To do that they need genuinely to experience “the joy of horse ownership”.
And I think there is an enormous amount that can be done in racing to help them obtain that experience. I will revisit that again during the year, as the Owners for Owners new year resolution.
May you all be lucky and have a great 2015.