Thursday 15 December 2016

The New PASS System Fails its Tests: British Racing Needs to Learn from these Fiascos

In the last blog I covered the launch of the new PASS system that was introduced at the beginning of November. Without repeating too much detail of that blog, the Privilege Access Swipe System (PASS) card was introduced over 20 years ago by racecourses to manage exclusive complimentary access for owners to courses. The new PASS cards, provided by the Racecourse Association (RCA), have been designed to “ensure quick and easy access to racecourses”; to “revolutionise your pre-arrival and entry experience”; giving you “the chance to personalise your raceday experience from start to finish”; and “this modern and mobile system allows better communication between you and racecourses, ensuring a personal touch to the raceday experience”.

For the new system to work properly, it needs to be suitable for all the different types of owner and unfortunately, from our experience in terms of partnerships, it most definitely isn’t, neither for those of us who have no problems whatsoever in using the internet nor equally for those of our owners who don’t or won’t. My wife, who does all the administration for Owners for Owners, has found it extremely frustrating and technically impossible to cover all the different requirements of our owners, and it most definitely hasn’t “revolutionised or personalised” our raceday experience. In fact it has done exactly the opposite. The frustration it has caused is so great that it has fundamentally challenged our commitment to running partnerships in the future, because the hassle of doing it is just becoming intolerable. In the future we may well switch to running syndicates instead, or owning horses outside Owners for Owners.

Before detailing some of the things wrong with the PASS system, I need to vent the frustration not just with the system but with the repeated inability of British Racing to apply any of the basic rules of change management. This is not just a personal opinion, as I have spoken at length with the Racehorse Owners Association (ROA) on the subject and they have been inundated with vehement complaints; I gather they have logged over 200 problems with the system. As far as I know, the whole system was rushed into operation at the last minute; there was no proper testing or Beta site to find out what might have been wrong with the system before they launched it; there were no user groups to guide design and implementation; the ROA, which could have helped enormously, was kept on the sidelines; and once again British Racing has a fiasco on its hands. It is not just Owners for Owners who are rethinking ownership. We have already heard from a number of our owners that they are considering packing in ownership because of the endless hassles, constant frustrations and just the rank inability of the racing administrators to shape up and test systems properly before launching them. This is a shocking self-inflicted wound that could easily drive owners out of the sport. It is time the ineptitude was not tolerated. For those of us who have worked in major companies worldwide, if you are in charge of a significant process launch such as the PASS system and get it wrong, you lose your job.

Right, I now feel a bit better for that rant. Here are some of the things wrong with the system:

  • Some owners have not even heard anything about it, and others have not received a new card.
  • For those who have received cards, not all of them have worked.
  • Registration procedures have been followed but the cards have not been activated.
  • Changes to passwords have been requested but there has been no response from the site.
  • There is enormous confusion about what the PASS system is designed to do.
  • There is equal confusion about the differences between the RCA and ROA, and the role of the PASS system in complimentary badge entitlement for those who own more than 50% of a horse.
  • The length of time to brief owners on the changes and the detail of operation have been inadequate.
  • British Racing refuses to acknowledge the implication of the age of most owners. Many of them cannot or will not interact with racing through the internet. The designers of the PASS system have not built this into the process with sufficient sensitivity (or at all).
  • The system may work well for sole owners and even syndicates where there are nominated owners who control matters, but it will not work for a partnership of owners, some of whom wish to attend with a guest and others who cannot attend – it does not allow the pooling of the badge allocation.
I am personally lobbying the RCA for immediate changes, and my wife is doing the same with the ROA. The core problem here is the lack of detailed information as to how ownership actually works. The designers of processes tend to be young, technically competent, based in London with great broadband access, and don’t own horses. The owners tend to be older, technically cautious, based in the country with often poor broadband, and own horses despite the frustrations of it. Without really careful and sympathetic design of any process changes, it is inevitable that there will be continued fiascos such as this one. Alas, I am going to have to return to this subject again on the next blog, as I’ve run out of space on this one! Yours, in frustration!

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.

Thursday 1 December 2016

Will the New PASS System Pass the Tests of Ease of Access and Enhancing the Owner Experience?

Regular readers of the blog will know that I have been campaigning over a number of years for radical improvement of the owner experience in terms of the way in which owners collect complimentary badges and enter the racecourse. At times I have been very critical of the old-fashioned way in which Owners & Trainers desks sometimes operate (no computers, when they do have computers there’s no internet access, if they do have access there’s no broadband, loads of paperwork and print-outs on which they can never find your name, long queues of owners irritated by endless delays, further irritation by people who are clearly trying to blag their way into the racecourse with no entitlement to badges, almost accusatory interrogation about who you are and proving your identity, etc.), while other elements of my campaign have argued for the adoption of customer relationship management (CRM) approaches where through technology and smart cards, different types of owner receive different types of benefits based on their contribution to racing through ownership. Basically the more you spend on owning racehorses, the better the benefits.

My ideal would be that everyone in the UK who is an owner in a racehorse (no matter what size the share) would have a smart ID badge that automatically contains information about their ownership and entitlement to badges and benefits. The more shares / horses you own, the better the quality of lounges and hospitality arrangements you can access. This would parallel the decades-old airline model of first-class and business-class lounges. Apparently in Australia this type of arrangement is already operative, with the benefits based around tiers of points. Although I have no first-hand experience of the scheme, it has apparently proved very motivating with owners investing in more shares in horses to lift themselves into the next tier of enhanced owner facilities. It wouldn’t necessarily need to be through a badge – it could just as easily be via a smart phone. Alas, this ideal still seems to be an awfully long way off for British, and indeed European, racing.

But some encouraging changes are under way, and a fair bit of innovation is coming into racing over the next twelve months which ought to enhance the owner experience. Let’s hope that all of this will be successful, particularly the way in which it is implemented. Again, regular blog readers will know how critical I was of Weatherbys Bank when they “upgraded” online banking. They are still sorting out that disaster.

In the UK, the Privilege Access Swipe System (PASS) card was introduced over 20 years ago by racecourses to manage exclusive complimentary access for owners to courses. From 1st November this Autumn, new gold PASS cards have been provided by the Racecourse Association (RCA), with some ambitious goals. They have been designed “to ensure quick and easy access to racecourses”; to “revolutionise your pre-arrival and entry experience”, giving you “the chance to personalise your raceday experience from start to finish”, and “this modern and mobile system allows better communication between you and racecourses, ensuring a personal touch to the raceday experience”.

The new PASS card is to be used whenever a registered owner has a runner, and also to gain entry via the Racecourse Badge Scheme for Owners (RBSO), which allows ROA members who are registered owners to gain complimentary access to over 1,300 race fixtures per year as long as they have 50% of a horse (or shares equivalent to that). Details are on and there is also an online concierge system to check allocation of tickets, pre-assign tickets to guests and discover information about special arrangements.

All of this sounds absolutely fantastic, as long as it works in practice for all the different types of owner, and particularly those in partnerships and syndicates. The major challenge for those who organise such shared ownership arrangements, and particularly for National Hunt where there are still 24-hour declarations, is that there is not a lot of time to liaise with all the owners and receive their instructions in terms of who will be attending and their requirements for additional badges for any guests, as well as confirming eligibility for lunches. Under the old system, which is now being replaced, the reliance was on telephone calls, faxes or emails to courses. Sometimes, with some courses, this worked well, but with others it didn’t. Whenever I have gone racing I have always taken a printed copy of the correspondence with me to sort out the errors and mistakes, and prove that we had given the course clear instructions. That shows how often the system broke down.

I had hoped to report by now on how well the new PASS system is working. I have tried to use it on two trips to the track, but on the first occasion they wanted to stay with the old system and on the second “the system was down” and computer said no. Not the most encouraging start! On the implementation timescale that the RCA has mapped out, they are convinced that the system should be “firmly established” from 1st January. We will have to wait and see. If any of you experience any problems at all with the new system, please let me know and I will do an update on how the new system is working in the New Year. For the sake of racing, I do hope that the RCA learnt from the Weatherbys debacle, and that the new system has been properly trialled and guaranteed to work really effectively. All crossed!

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 15 November 2016

Remembrance Sunday and NH Superstars – So Many Poignant Moments at Cheltenham

Remembrance Sunday and NH Superstars – So Many Poignant Moments at Cheltenham

The general consensus about the three-day Open meeting at Cheltenham last weekend was that it was a mini-festival in many ways: absolutely terrific racing, with lots of current and future superstars in action. The crowd welcomed a number but, alas, said farewell to a few as well, not least the immensely talented but fragile Simonsig who broke a leg in the Shloer Chase on Sunday, and Sprinter Sacre who had been retired after suffering a tendon strain, but was paraded in front of his adoring fans at Prestbury Park. Ben Pauling’s best horse, Barters Hill, slipped a tendon off a hock and will be out for a some time, while Thistlecrack gave the crowd many heart-stopping moments. Colin Tizzard’s post-race comment was a distinct understatement when he said that the horse was “a bit exuberant”. He bunny-hopped a few, banked a couple and flew the rest. Doubtless he is a future Gold Cup winner …. but make it 2018, Colin.

I remember seeing Sprinter Sacre for the first time in the Game Spirit Chase at Newbury on 17th February 2012, when he put in a majestic round of jumping and just strolled away from the field up the straight. I followed the horse back up the walkway and asked Barry Geraghty what he thought to him. With all the expletives deleted, it was along the lines of: “Absolute superstar”. No-one would disagree. Alastair Down wrote an article on the retirement of Sprinter Sacre for the Racing Post. It was so good that I’ve decided to include it in its entirety. Here is Alastair’s eloquent piece, entitled: “Superstar Sprinter had swagger and brilliance”.

“HE was the James Bond of two-mile chasers - devilishly handsome, lethal in action and, when it came to winning, usually just needing to be shaken not stirred.

The name is Sacre. Sprinter Sacre.

At the zenith of his scarcely believable powers there was something almost absurdly glamorous about Sprinter Sacre, and from early on the public were drawn to him as the expression 'animal magnetism' could have been coined for him.

He had a buccaneer's swagger about him and if you plonked someone who had never been racing at the side of the paddock they could not fail to pick him out as the beau ideal of what an equine athlete should look like.

But if he was a prince in the parade ring he was simply the king out on the course. Sprinter Sacre won his first ten chases and in doing so redrew the map of the known two-mile world.

Imperious and untouchable, he made the hellfire rattle of a Grade 1 chase over two miles look easy whereas the truth is all about horses at full stretch from flagfall and the requirement to jump with the precision of a Swiss watch.

His 2012 Arkle defeat of Cue Card and his first Champion Chase victory by 19 lengths over Sizing Europe were, in terms of sheer style and superiority, ground-breaking and stands-shaking. Both days had about them the unmistakable scent of racing history.

Recovery and return

And very much part of our admiration for Sprinter Sacre is that his career suddenly ceased to be a seamless progression and entered the zone of struggle.

When he was pulled up at Kempton in December 2012 it was the precursor to 13 months off the course. At various times while he was being patiently rebuilt at Seven Barrows many thought we would not see him again or that should he return it would be as a shadow of the emperor of old.

Indeed, when he came back for his three runs in early 2015 he finished second, was pulled up in the Champion Chase and then second again. Some of the fires still clearly burned but the blazing brilliance - like those ancient hilltop beacons that sent both warnings and great news countrywide in days of old - seemed extinguished.

But through the days of doubt one man's faith never seemed to waver and he ever looked for the first streaks of a fresh dawn to drive the darkness away.

Be in no doubt, Nicky Henderson's handling of Sprinter Sacre has been the stuff of genius.

Sprinter Sacre. Picture: Edward Whitaker - Racing Post
PICTURE: Edward Whitaker (

This finest of all two-mile chasers has taken us to undiscovered places by roads never previously trod but it has been Henderson who has planned every step and nurtured his phenomenon back to fitness.

And it was never solely about getting Sprinter right physically, but keeping him sweet between the ears. Pain, discomfort and enforced inactivity can play with horses' minds and blunt their relish for the job. Few would have tolerated what Sprinter Sacre went through without being scarred.

Nicky will have had to push on occasions but he would never shove. He loves his horses and anyone listening to him on Sunday as the emotion and gratitude poured out will have realised this will never be a loveless world as long as Henderson and steeplechasers reside at Seven Barrows.

It was exactly a year ago in the Shloer Chase that Sprinter Sacre shed his chains and soared once more. It was make-or-break day for him, and in the paddock beforehand he looked awesome and had that gigolo's strut back on him.

And when he won, Cheltenham, home of the brave, went into raptures.

Henderson's finest hour

But there was more to come. When he took it up going to the second-last in the Champion Chase there was something wild about the sound as the faithful began to roar for him, British and Irish voices united in the single, thumping, heartfelt wish that Sprinter would get home.

He did of course, passing the stands to a bedlam of approbation and affection. Always a terrible show-off, witnessing his repossession of the Champion Chase crown was like watching some fable or legend come to life in front of you.

It was Henderson's finest hour and grizzled festival devotees who have lived many a winter will never tire of taking the moment out of the display case of memory and turning it over once more like something priceless. Which it was.

Henderson himself was superb yesterday, conducting a masterclass in rueful celebration as he recalled the triumphs and battles of recent years. He talked about the occasion as being a celebration of Sprinter Sacre's life, but it was also the stuff of tears.

Saying farewell to old friends is always sad and Sprinter was an old friend who never let you down when he was fit, well and able. In a beautiful phrase Nicky said: "We were very lucky to be the curator of this horse." And we were even more fortunate in having Henderson do the job and light up our world with this paragon of a racehorse.

In a turning of the screw beyond imagining, the day for Seven Barrows plummeted from sorrow at the end of a golden age to cruel distress with the death of Simonsig.

Most trainers would have got straight into the car and retired hurt. But not Nicky who, although clearly shattered by the second barrel of the gun, dealt with the media with a magnificence that was both humbling and utterly admirable.

Remembrance Sunday is never easy. In our little world it was, for some yesterday, abjectly painful. Spare a thought for 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 November 2016

Announcements Made on the Simplification of Ownership Administration: Full Marks to BHA and ROA.

Ever since I’ve been involved in owning horses the duplication, complexity, expense and hassle of ownership administration has been a complete pain in the backside. I have often joked that it was probably easier back in the days of Queen Anne. Even the postman who comes to our house regularly takes the micky out of the huge postbag of Weatherbys-related correspondence. It has probably taken a decade to learn how to deal with it all, which shows how complicated it can be – particularly when you’re running partnerships with multiple owners.

On the serious side though, it is not just the needlessly complex admin. There is a strategic dimension to the whole subject. The BHA, in its strategy for growth, is determined to bring more owners into the sport and retain those they already have. Anything which is potentially a barrier to that has to be properly addressed and changed. As Charlie Liverton, CEO of the Racehorse Owners Association, said last week when a raft of ownership reforms was announced: “Owners have long complained that their first steps on the road to ownership were characterised by red tape and confusing ownership structures, followed by numerous fees.” Encouragingly, from next Spring this should change, with a far simpler and much more modern process being introduced. My wife and I are very pleased about this, not least because we’ve taken part in a number of working groups with both the BHA and the ROA, and have made numerous recommendations for changes together with testing some of the proposed changes that are now going to be made. There are three main elements to the new system.

  1. Digitalising administration: a new racing administration web site for owners is being launched. Through an online hub, which will be supported by a telephone help desk, owners will be able to register, update and maintain ownerships digitally, removing the vast majority of paper-based forms. In addition owners will be able to set up sponsorships, register an authority to act and check and pay invoices, all online. These changes will make it much easier and quicker to complete any necessary administrative requirements associated with being an owner.

  2. Simplifying ownership structures: in Owners for Owners we describe ourselves as forming joint ownerships, thereby encouraging co-owners to be genuine owners of horses. However it has never been easy simply to describe the differences between, say, co-owners, partnerships and syndicates. Having said that, many of our owners are with us because we are not a “syndicate”. There is certainly a lot of confusion around the different types of ownership, and the plan now is to streamline the eight types down to five: sole, partnership, syndicate, racing club and company. Sole and company ownerships will remain the same. Partnerships will be designed for small groups of registered owners who are looking to share the responsibility and liability for their horse(s) (the Owners for Owners offering). Syndicates will become the ownership vehicle for entities which have been formed through a public offering to consumers and / or one that has an individual managing it (e.g. a syndicator). In future the syndicator will become responsible for the syndicate, replacing the current requirement for two nominated partners from within the group. In a racing club, the horse(s) are owned by the club with members paying a subscription fee.

  3. Consolidation of fees: along with simplifying the registration process, both new and existing owners alike will benefit from the alignment and bundling of ownership fees. Rather than charging a number of different fees at various stages through the year, fees for the registration and re-registration of colours, an authority to act and VAT will be aligned to one date in the year. New owners will be able to purchase “fee bundles” at the registration stage in order to minimise any additional admin.

All of this is to be welcomed. It will be very interesting to see exactly how the changes are introduced. Regular readers of the blog will know that I was highly critical of Weatherbys Bank when their online banking was updated, which was a change management disaster. Hopefully everyone has learnt from that.

So full marks to both the ROA and the BHA for their part in pushing for these changes to take place. I worked closely with Richard Wayman before he became the Chief Operating Officer of the BHA, and his support for the initiative is warmly welcomed. His views are clear: “At the heart of the sport’s growth strategy is making racehorse ownership more attractive and accessible to both new and existing owners. This will require significant progress in a number of areas, including ownership administration, where there needs to be much greater emphasis on the customer experience. The initiatives announced (on Tuesday 25th October) will address many of the administrative frustrations faced by owners for too long.” Hear, hear!

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.

Saturday 15 October 2016

Tales from the Sales: All Too Often the Cards are Stacked against the Owner. Caveat emptor.

October is such a busy month for trainers, their agents and owners, particularly if they are involved in both Flat and National Hunt. The yearling sales have been through their crescendo in the UK with Tattersalls’ Book 1, involving horses with multi-million pound price tags; Champions’ Day at Ascot is on today (and we’re hoping for another superb run from Karl Burke’s brilliant filly, Quiet Reflection) and the first Cheltenham meeting is only a week away. Much to look forward to, as an owner, as long as your horse is fit, well and full of promise.

However, there will be quite a number of horses for whom plans are on hold because they are anything but “fit, well and full of promise”. We all know that even getting a horse to the track in one piece can be a huge challenge, and I often think that in itself often counts as a win. But there is one aspect of owning that gives me a huge amount of concern: where you buy a horse at a sale and then find it has a serious problem that could and should have been disclosed.

Because Owners for Owners has been buying both Flat and NH horses over the Summer and this Autumn, I’ve had my nose well and truly into the sales catalogues of Goffs, Tattersalls, Arqana and Osarus. I am not sure how many people bother ploughing through the voluminous Conditions of Sale, which run to 24 pages in the one that I have in front of me at the moment – Goffs’, and they are a similar length in most other catalogues – but because of my interest in procurement and contracts from my consulting days I am interested in how they are framed and who they are actually protecting. It was always one of my simple views of commercial life that you should be very wary of accepting or signing someone else’s contract because by and large, if they have produced it, it is primarily protecting them and not you. The Conditions of Sale are stated as being of relevance to “all potential vendors and purchasers”, so you would like to think that the contractual terms are balanced and even-handed, protecting both sides equally.

So it came as a huge surprise to see one particular clause in the Goffs catalogue (but also in the Tattersalls one) under the heading of: Lots Returnable, 12.2(e). Basically Section 12 lays out the grounds for returning a horse that you have bought to the sales house, and thence to the vendor. If you buy a horse that is a wind-sucker, weaver, box-walker, wobbler etc., then you can return it. As the buyer you would normally know about these conditions in advance as they are announced by the auctioneer ahead of the horse going through the ring. But Section 12.2(e) deals with wind:

(The lot is returnable if the horse) “has been tubed or otherwise operated on for unsoundness in wind…”

which is absolutely right and proper, as no-one wants to buy a horse whose wind is shot. Unfortunately though there is an important set of qualifiers in parentheses:

“… (Operations to treat the displacement of the soft palate, including the operations tie-forward, cautery of the soft palate, trimming of the soft palate and myectomy are not operations for the correction of an unsoundness in wind within the meaning of this condition.)”

I find this clause absolutely unbelievable, and intend to seek clarification from both the BHA and the ROA on it. In effect it means that if you were a vendor you could operate on the horse to correct what could well be a serious wind problem, then put the horse through the sale where it would be difficult to detect some of these operations, and when the unsuspecting buyer finds out about it, there is absolutely no redress whatsoever.

It may be apocryphal, but apparently there are vets in Ireland who will even perform a minor laser procedure on a horse’s wind box so that it neutralises the sound of bad wind. The operation only succeeds in keeping the horse quiet for a few weeks, but this is enough for the animal to go through the sales.

While preparing this blog I queried this with a well-known vet and he went even further. Apparently you can’t put a horse through the sales if it has bute or Lasix in the system, and that would be detected if there were a blood test. Apparently this doesn’t apply to cortisone, so any vendor can medicate a horse, maybe with serious tendon pain, and even though cortisone could be detected it won’t be declared to the prospective purchaser.

I have a horrible feeling that these are only some of the more public examples of the ways in which the owner is being taken for a ride (if that’s the phrase to use) by the bloodstock industry, sales houses and agents. This is a hugely controversial area, and one that I will come back to again on the blog.

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.

Saturday 1 October 2016

Trainer Effectiveness – Assessing Success AND Sustainability. The Need for Stronger Business Skills

There have been some very interesting developments on the National Hunt training scene in Ireland over the last couple of weeks: one sad and one perplexing.

A mid-tier Irish trainer, Colm Murphy, who had sent out a number of excellent winners not least Brave Inca to win the Champion Hurdle, has decided to call it a day primarily because of a contraction in his owner pool and not being able to succeed commercially. This is the sad case study, because it shows just how difficult it can be for trainers with excellent horseman skills to build a sustainable and successful operation.

The other case study is the announcement by Gigginstown that they are taking 60 horses away from Willie Mullins. Bearing in mind that we’re talking here about the current champion trainer and champion owner, this is a big story. Apparently Mullins had made a decision to increase training fees for the first time in quite a number of years, and Gigginstown refused to accept the increase. Doubtless there are a number of layers to that particular negotiation, and it may well not be quite as simple as it appears on the surface. The lucky trainers to receive these horses include Gordon Elliott, Noel Meade, Mouse Morris, Henry de Bromhead and the rapidly emerging NH (and for that matter, Flat) trainer Joseph O’Brien.

I’m sure I’ll revisit the Mullins story once it has settled down a bit, but the two case studies together prompted some thinking about the appropriate mix of skills needed for trainers to succeed, both on the racecourse and as a sustainable business. Our sport definitely does not lack the skills of being a horseman and, indeed, the vast majority of licensed trainers are highly competent, dedicated and immersed in that aspect of their business. The big issue is in the whole cluster of skills to do with being a successful business person, in terms of both possessing them in the first place and applying them in a diligent, ongoing manner. Alas, many trainers are only strong in the skills of being a horseman and either do not appreciate, or do not know how to address, the gaps in their business acumen. I’ve made an attempt to bring that to life in the diagram below with its ten factors: five to do with horsemanship and five with being a business professional.

Typical Profile of Mid-Tier Trainers: Business skills fail to complement training skills
1.  Training racehorses to win high profile races
2.  Keeping racehorses healthy, mentally and physically
3.  Attracting and retaining high-quality stable staff
4.  Investing in and improving the training facilities
5.  Timely sourcing of new horses with real potential
6.  Investing in and improving owner facilities and staff accommodation
7.  Ensuring that the business has strong cash flow and is profitable
8.  Attracting and retaining sufficient number of owners
9.  Having a marketing and communications plan to do this
10. Adopting a business model that drives and sustains ongoing success

When many young trainers start off I doubt whether they fully appreciate what being a high performing, highly competent trainer really involves. Training is provided as part of obtaining a licence, but despite its best intentions it is regarded as more of a chore and a means to an end than something that goes right to the heart of being successful and sustainable as a business. Alas, when the gaps in competence become self-evident it is very easy for the whole operation – such as that of Colm Murphy – to be incapable of revival. Equally, really successful businesses such as that of Willie Mullins need to ensure that they don’t take owners for granted and that they develop the right type of long-term partnership and collaborative endeavour to guarantee success at the highest level.

Conventional businesses learnt a long time ago that their senior managers need ongoing training, development and coaching to groom them for broader responsibilities. It is highly likely that racehorse trainers also need appropriate interventions to raise their competence and skill base so that they can genuinely succeed. This really matters because without successful trainers you cannot have successful owners. The two need each other …. as both Mullins and Gigginstown may realise over the next couple of years.

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.

Thursday 15 September 2016

Creativity and Greater Liberalisation of Colours May Encourage Some Owners to Come into the Sport

Ever since we set up Owners for Owners we have differed from the vast majority, if not all, of partnerships and syndicates by not having our own colours. Our horses race in the colours of one of our owners, drawn by ballot every season. If an owner doesn’t have colours, we encourage and help them to select a set of racing silks because we genuinely believe that watching a horse race in one’s colours adds significantly to the overall owner experience. If you look on the Home Page of our web site, you’ll see photographs of recent winners, all of them in the colours of different owners.

So it was with some interest that I saw on the Racehorse Owners Association web site details of an imminent auction of six sets of racing silks that have never been seen before, and which are vibrant and multi-coloured, to say the least. You can see them on, and you may need to put the sunglasses on beforehand! Whether you like them or not is not the issue, because it is really all about whether the racing industry can and should liberalise the rules on racing colours, thereby increasing the number of available designs and colours beyond the current restrictions.

You won’t be surprised to hear that the racing industry worldwide has a distinct, and for a lot of the time necessary, tendency towards rules and bureaucracy. In Britain they are covered by our domestic rules of racing and there are international requirements and restrictions as well. At the moment there is a limit of 25 allowable designs on the jacket, 12 on the sleeves, 10 on the cap and then an allowable two shades on each of the jacket, sleeves and cap. I haven’t calculated this but have been told that this results in 12 million combinations of colours, and putting that in context there are currently 14,000 sets of colours registered.

When I was a member of the BHA’s pillar team on ownership, as part of the strategy for growth, a business case was developed that I found very compelling and convincing. We recommended that there should be a liberalisation of racing colours, thereby increasing the number of colours, permutations and allowable designs. Not everyone, of course, would be in favour of this and we accepted that it could lead to some confusion, problems for judges, commentators, racegoers, racecard production and the TV. Aesthetically, some people wouldn’t like designs that they felt were garish and there was also the possibility that inadvertently someone’s intellectual property rights or branding could be infringed, leading to legal challenge.

Notwithstanding all the potential negatives, however, the positives appear dramatically to outweigh them. The two most important arguments in favour of greater flexibility are to enhance the overall owner experience (particularly for different types of owner) and hopefully to attract completely new kinds of owner into racing. More specifically, football clubs, universities, pubs, golf clubs, companies etc. all have logos and branding that they are proud of and to which they are emotionally committed. Indeed in some of the sporting clubs you can argue that there is almost a tribal element associated with the colours. If racing allowed the incorporation of these colours then, the argument goes, it might well be much easier to persuade them to invest in ownership of racehorses. At the top end there is a powerful case for corporate partnering and brand alignment between racing and very affluent third parties.

If the broad principle of liberalisation of colours is accepted, then racing can look for ways of maximising the opportunities for ownership as well as additional income streams. For example once you have the colours of companies of major sporting clubs on a horse, then you may be able to persuade such organisations actively to sponsor yards. A tiering of colours could create an opportunity for different levels of charging between more routine colours and premium ones. Colour auctions can be established (as in the trial at the end of this month), both of new, highly creative colours and older, dormant ones.

I really hope this is an initiative that leads to a tremendous amount of creativity, flexibility and new owners coming into the sport. As a minimum it should encourage stronger personalisation and self-expression on the part of owners, and could be one important element in maximising the overall ownership experience. Bring on the sunglasses!

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.

Thursday 1 September 2016

ROA National Racehorse Owners Survey – Part 2, Identifying the Key Factors in Acquisition and Retention

My wife and I were lucky enough to be at our favourite racecourse – York – to watch the Nunthorpe, won in devastating style by Mecca’s Angel. Such a tough horse, and a superb buy at only 16,000 guineas out of Book 2 Tattersalls October Yearling Sale in 2012. She is the first filly to win the Nunthorpe twice, and it was a delight to watch the turbo-chargers kick in as she scorched through the final furlong. David Metcalfe, the owner, was clearly delighted and the whole experience was everything that owners aspire to. In a rather less restrained celebration, the Here For The Craic partnership couldn’t believe their fortune when – every syndicate’s dream – Heartbreak City won the Ebor for Tony Martin. These results, and the York racecourse experience, sum up what brings owners into the game and keeps them there.

However the backdrop for the first National Racehorse Owners Survey (summarised in the blog on 15th August) is the ongoing decline in ownership since the financial crisis of 2008. Numbers coming in were lower than numbers going out in seven of the last eight years, although encouragingly there has started to be some improvement recently.  The headline messages from the survey, of over 2,200 current and lapsed owners, include:

  • 73% of owners start out with others, particularly friends, family or through a syndicate.
  • 53% of owners say that speaking to a trainer or visiting a yard is the most influential step in their decision to own. However, 44% of owners say that there isn’t enough information available on costs, income or prize-money in the public domain to make that decision.
  • 45% of current owners would increase their number of horses in training if prize-money increased.
  • 44% of lapsed owners cite facilities and treatment of owners at racecourses as a key factor in their decision to give up ownership.
  • Three out of four lapsed owners would return to owning if the circumstances were right.
The survey has been analysed under three main themes of the owner, the trainer and the racecourse experience. The more the results of the survey were examined, the more it became clear to us that the factors bringing owners into the sport are not necessarily the same as those that drive them out. This is illustrated in our diagram below, while drawing on the survey’s findings.

A Dual Industry-Wide Strategy is Required: Attracting AND Retaining Owners


Doubtless the analysis and conclusions from the survey will feed into the BHA’s Strategy for Growth and all the operational planning associated with its implementation. Our recommendation is that in the light of the dual factor model outlined, there needs to be a similar dual strategy with different goals and interventions. Acquiring new owners is closely linked to marketing, PR and timely, detailed and transparent provision of information about ownership, particularly while potential owners are visiting trainers. Retaining owners is much more challenging because of the inevitable disappointments of ownership, the high relative costs and dissatisfaction with racecourse facilities. It is essential that the industry doesn’t just concentrate on marketing and PR campaigns, but addresses properly the financial and experiential factors driving unnecessarily high owner churn rates. Indeed we would argue that this should be the prime strategic imperative of the BHA’s Strategy for Growth. 

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.

Monday 15 August 2016

ROA National Racehorse Owners Survey – Part 1, A Summary of the Results

When I took part in the BHA’s pillar strategy process a couple of years ago, one of the frustrations was the lack of facts and data on which to ground discussions and the formulation of important initiatives. The Racehorse Owners Association (ROA) felt exactly the same, and were determined to canvass both current and lapsed owners to find out their views, particularly in terms of what brings them into the sport, retains them and indeed drives them out of ownership. In this first blog on the subject I have done no more than list out the results from the survey. In the second part, on 1st September, I’ll do my own analysis and draw conclusions on what I think the survey actually tells us.

Encouragingly there was a good sample size, with 2,203 responses including a number of “hard to reach” owner samples such as new owners with less than two years’ ownership experience (255) and lapsed owners (203). Interesting to see that the average age of a racehorse owner is 59; the percentage of lapsed owners who cite facilities and treatment of owners at racecourses as a factor in their decision to give up ownership is 44%; the duration of ownership is longer for ROA members; the satisfaction rating of the ownership experience is higher for syndicate members than for sole owners; and the percentage of lapsed owners who would like to own horses again is 73%.

Theme 1: Owner Experience Results

  1. 73% of racehorse owners started out with others.
  2. Nearly one in four owners have taken a break, most due to finances or horse injury.
  3. The most influential steps to ownership are speaking to a trainer or other owners.
  4. New owners take more decision steps and are more likely to research online.
  5. Ownership is born out of family history, keen interest in racing or attraction to the excitement.
  6. New and syndicate owners think of the excitement above the expense.
  7. Owners are not likely to recommend owning a racehorse to their friends.
  8. Costs and prize-money are primary lapse reasons, racecourse and trainer experience crucial.
  9. Three out of four lapsed owners would return to owning if the circumstances were right.
  10. ROA members are much more likely to remain in ownership for longer.
Theme 2: Trainer Experience Results
  1. The most influential steps to ownership are speaking to a trainer or other owners: 53% say that speaking to a trainer or visiting a yard is the key step, and for 22% it is speaking to other owners.
  2. Owners want more information on costs and trainers: particularly on training fees, engagement and the owner experience, income and expenditure, and clear cost models so owners know what they are getting into.
  3. Trainers are approachable but could communicate more information, more regularly.
  4. Costs and prize-money are primary lapse reasons for 80% of lapsed owners; trainer experience (29%) is also crucial.
Theme 3: Racecourse Experience Results
  1. The racecourse is the pinnacle of the ownership experience: the primary motivation to become an owner is the enjoyment of watching your horse run.
  2. Racecourses are the shop window to ownership, not the salesmen: speaking to someone at a racecourse is not a crucial step in the decision to become a racehorse owner.
  3. New owners are motivated more by the social aspects of racing: particularly with combined with the enjoyment of watching your horse run as well as the non-raceday social elements.
  4. Winning is an important bonus, not the be-all and end-all: fewer than one in 12 owners believe that winning is everything.
  5. Costs and prize-money are primary lapse reasons for 80% of lapsed owners; racecourse experience (44%) is also crucial.
In the second blog on the survey, the intention is to explore whether there may well be a “two factor” model working here. I know that sounds a bit jargony, but it could be that there are subtle but important differences between the factors that bring people into the sport and those that discourage them and ultimately may drive them out of the game. Thinking caps on over the next fortnight on that hypothesis.

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.

Monday 1 August 2016

Glorious Goodwood: Racing at its Absolute Best, and Broader Implications for the Racing Industry

Just back from a couple of days at Goodwood while staying in the truly beautiful South Downs National Park. Increasingly my wife and I, when we go racing, try to make it a proper trip and there is no shortage of places to stay. It amused us that both the hotel we stayed in and the restaurant where we ate were both frequented by a very well-known retired football star, now owner. He must read the same guidebooks as we do! Like us I’m sure he was raving about The Barn at Roundhurst and the excellent food at The Duke of Cumberland in Fernhurst.

The Qatar Sussex Stakes lived up to its star billing, bringing together the winners of the English, Irish and French 2000 Guineas – apparently the first time this has happened at Goodwood. The Gurkha had looked an unlucky loser in the St. James’s Palace at Royal Ascot, under one of Ryan Moore’s less impressive rides. This time however the horse was ridden much closer to the leader, Galileo Gold, and always looked as though he was going to beat him inside the final furlong. The only disappointment was that the French 2000 Guineas winner, Awtaad, failed to show his form on ground that was probably too quick. With over £1m of prize-money, it was hardly surprising that the field was top class, although one of the common themes being expressed after the race was that at the platinum level of racing the money is really just being shared out amongst a very few privileged people: the winner was owned by Derrick Smith, Mrs. J. Magnier and Michael Tabor; the second by Al Shaqab Racing; and the third, Ribchester, by Godolphin. Having said that, I doubt whether any of these care much about the actual prize-money, since the bloodstock value is what really matters these days. Great battles though between top horses such as Galileo Gold and The Gurkha are thrilling to the core racing fan and the whole racecourse was buzzing afterwards.

As always there was a fair bit of publicity about Goodwood in the national press, with interesting coverage of Charles Gordon-Lennox, Earl of March, and his passion, even obsession, with raising the total Goodwood experience year on year. Managing the 12,000 acre estate, which is completely self-funded, employing well over 600 staff full-time, and dealing with all the various commercial ventures is a huge undertaking. So he must have been delighted when last year the entire Glorious Goodwood meeting was sponsored for the first time by Qatar Racing and Equestrian Club, which is Sheikh Joaan Al-Thani’s Al Shaqab operation. They have committed to a ten-year sponsorship deal and it has already led to substantial injection of additional prize-money with around £5m on offer at this meeting. There is definitely considerable affection for the quintessentially English “Goodwood Experience”, not just amongst Qatari sheikhs but the racing public across all the levels from the privileged Richmond Enclosure (which is where my wife and I went courtesy of the ROA arrangements for their members) through to the bucolic (alcoholic?) pleasures of Trundle Hill overlooking the course, as well as the large number of picnics around the various car parks.

One aspect on which the Earl of March has been outspoken is the need for racing to “reinvent itself”, particularly through marketing, branding and strengthening its overall customer proposition. He clearly feels like many of us that racing is still not exploiting its assets and customer appeal in the way that it could do across the widest possible range of customers. This theme has also been reinforced recently by Simon Bazalgette, CEO of the Jockey Club, who is currently leading a strategic overhaul of what the Jockey Club actually stands for. At one level they are clearly a commercial success, turning over £183m last year, and that level of financial strength has enabled them to invest £415m in prize-money and improvements in facilities over the last ten years. Over 2m customers a year go through their gates, with a similar number for non-racing activities, notably pop concerts. However Mr. Bazalgette believes that the Jockey Club can raise its game hugely, and apparently is working with M&C Saatchi on exactly what the next phase of their commercial mission should be about, and how to communicate it.

It is hard not to be really optimistic and encouraged by the restlessness and strategic endeavour that Messrs. Gordon-Lennox and Bazalgette are putting into driving their racecourses forward. While I don’t think many of us were thinking like that while watching The Gurkha storm home, you cannot help but feel that the whole racing experience at the top of the sport can still be developed much further. Let’s hope that is the case and that there is a substantial trickle down in revenue and funding from it to the less exalted, day-to-day, grassroots racing.

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.

Friday 15 July 2016

“Vindication for Syndication”. How Owners for Owners Took On the Syndicate Industry and Won.

All our owners know that one of the most important guiding principles behind Owners for Owners is the determination to ensure that everything to do with owning a horse is fully transparent to them. We are passionate believers that owners must be completely aware of all aspects to do with the cost, performance and potential of the horse, and fully involved in every key decision that affects the horse and the partnership. This is covered in detail in our Partnership Principles, which we make available for anyone in the racing world to download without cost from our web site here. And, of course, a copy is given to every owner who is involved with us. Interestingly over the last couple of years I have had requests from people in other syndicates to use it, and I always allow that, with no charge whatsoever for the intellectual property. I have also circulated it to a number of leaders in the ROA and BHA.

When I first became involved in owning horses, well over a decade ago, I knew nothing at all about owning racehorses and went into it with a dangerous combination of naivety and enthusiasm. This brought me into contact with quite a number of commercial syndicates and I signed up with them without really considering any of the issues that affect most partnerships and most racehorses. I was, you might well say, “a lamb to the slaughter”. Again like many owners, I have had a wide range of experiences since: some good, but unfortunately many bad. I listed a number of the unacceptable practices found in syndication in the 15th September 2015 blog entitled As We Enter “Syndicate Season”, How Many of Them are Ripping Off the Owner?

It has been very interesting to experience the reaction of some of the bigger commercial syndicates to the stance I took. The syndicate industry had set up a group called the Racing Syndicates & Clubs Association (RSACA) and I was asked / summoned to go and see them two years ago because they had taken a strong dislike to statements made on our web site. In particular when we partner out a horse we emphasise our tremendous value for money and use phrases such as “buying into a horse with Owners for Owners reduces the cost per partner by around 50%, with huge savings merely by cutting out expensive racing managers with high administration costs, and not charging indefensible mark-ups on the initial purchase price of the horse”. You can imagine my surprise when I attended this meeting, to be told that I was “breaking the law” by making false statements. This was absolutely preposterous, and I spent a frustrating couple of hours detailing cost breakdowns for the Owners for Owners approach vs. a number of named, big syndicates. I even went to the trouble of writing up the analysis and entering into extensive correspondence with the RSACA. I failed to convince some of their leading players and wasn’t surprised when they blocked an application from OfO to join the group so that I could try to change the practices from within.

At about the same time I was invited to take part in the BHA’s Strategy for Growth pillar team on ownership. I wasn’t there to represent the syndicate industry, although again the RSACA didn’t see it that way. Throughout my work on the pillar team I argued strongly for partnerships, shared ownership and syndication to be given a much higher profile in the promotion of British racing, and helped put together the business case for an additional 1000 horses in training by 2020, many of which would be owned in these types of structures. I also felt that it would be difficult for the BHA and Great British Racing to promote syndication properly without the industry being covered more thoroughly by the rules of racing, with the promotion of best practice and greater transparency through a code of conduct and freely available templates and tools to support anyone setting up a partnership. I have carried on with that work over the last year, including taking part in an ROA-sponsored working group to create such documents.

When all this started, I definitely felt as though I was taking on the syndicate industry and experienced a number of personal attacks by those with vested interests in the status quo and a reluctance to adopt more modern syndicate practices designed properly to protect the syndicate member. So I was absolutely delighted to hear that a number of the old guard have moved on, and that the RSACA is now more aligned with the OfO approach. It is changing its name to the Racehorse Syndicates Association (RSA) and adopting a new constitution. There is a new, modern web site at Maybe this time round they will finally accept OfO as a member. While we definitely don’t see ourselves as running commercial syndicates (we help co-owners come together in partnerships), we would like to help shape the industry so that it encourages more participation in the magnificent sport of racehorse ownership.

All of this is definitely good news. Not everything in the syndicate industry is working well however, and I’m sure there will be clashes in the future. However I do feel that the stance I adopted has been vindicated. Furthermore Great British Racing is going to launch a promotion of shared ownership and syndication in the autumn, and I’m now far more confident than I was that new and established owners will get a much fairer deal, with closer involvement and hopefully more enjoyment. As a minimum they should be able to compare one syndicate against another in a transparent manner so that they can select a syndicate that is closely aligned with their needs. Here’s hoping that more owners come into racing this way and have a thoroughly enjoyable time.

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 28 June 2016

Some Quiet Reflection on Royal Ascot, Timeless Art and Brexit Independence Day …. if Possible

Although I’ve been involved in Flat horses with seven trainers including the likes of William Haggas and Richard Hannon, in Owners for Owners we only have one Flat trainer and that is Karl Burke. I’ve had horses with Karl for 11 years now, ever since I came into ownership, and it says everything that we’ve never once had a disagreement. Even when Karl was harshly forced into exile for a short period, we stayed with the yard to support Elaine and the family. We got off to a great start through David Redvers (pre-Qatar Racing days) with a lovely, fast filly called Swift Princess who won for us, was sold for more than we paid for her and is now a successful broodmare in New Zealand. I’ve had double the winners with Karl of any other trainer and only a week or so ago we had our latest when Timeless Art won a valuable £15k handicap up at one of my favourite racecourses, Ayr.

Yet at the start of this Flat season nothing seemed to be going right. Our horses all disappointed when they came out, and March and April were a tough time for Karl and all his owners. As always with racing patience has paid handsome rewards and the yard has been flying through May and June, not least at Royal Ascot where the magnificent Gr.1-winning performance of Quiet Reflection in the Commonwealth Cup was the highlight of the week. It was Karl’s first Royal Ascot winner, first Gr.1 in the UK, first Ascot-winning ride for new stable jockey Dougie Costello in his first season on the Flat and first winner at the Royal meeting for the syndicate that part-owns the horse, Ontoawinner. As one of them said afterwards, “We’re proud to be Yorkshire. Proud and loud!” The joyous scenes after the race were wonderful to behold, and sum up every owner’s aspirations. It now looks as though Quiet Reflection may head for the Darley July Cup at Newmarket on 9th July, and then onwards throughout the year to Champions’ Day back at Ascot.

I’m sure that Karl’s yard will be over-subscribed in the autumn. We’re definitely buying another yearling, so if you fancy getting involved, do let me know as soon as possible. One of Karl’s many accomplishments is the rare ability to spot good-value talent at the sales, and I would never consider buying a horse for the Flat without him being there. If you’d like to come to the sales with us in the autumn, you’re more than welcome.

Among many highlights of Royal Ascot, Lady Aurelia was simply outstanding in the Queen Mary, winning in a time 3 seconds faster than Profitable in the King’s Stand. She simply blew the field away, and I doubt if I’ve ever seen a more impressive 2yo performance. Indeed the only other similarly stunning performance I can recall is Frankel winning the 2000 Guineas. Delighted to see Order Of St George win the Gold Cup and give Aidan O’Brien his 7th victory in 11 runnings. He may go to the King George, but I’m actually more interested to see whether he can do what Ardross, Westerner and Yeats failed to do – win the Arc as well as the Gold Cup. Thinking of the sire of this horse – Nigel Twiston Davies made me laugh after his son Willie won one of the handicaps for Alan King and then the other son, Sam, won two at Ffos Las that evening. He said: “I’m the new Galileo!”

Another trainer who I always find amusing, Sir Mark Prescott, shared his view on the Brexit vote with his comment on Farage: “I wouldn’t follow him down a footpath!” Having said that, clearly a really momentous decision was made by the British electorate. Maybe a small but nevertheless a clear margin voted for exit from the EU on a strong turnout of 72%. It was amazing that the bookmakers got it so wrong, with 1/10 for remain. As expected there was immediate market mayhem with the Pound plummeting to its lowest value since 1985, a big drop in equities and then the political fall-out with Prime Minster Cameron resigning, and as I write this blog, half the Shadow Cabinet doing likewise.

Superficially it seems to be a seismic vote against elites and the establishment, with deep divides between the old and the young, rural and metropolitan; London, Scotland and Northern Ireland vs. the rest of the country. It doubtless has the potential to put 70 years of European integration into reverse, and there are profound implications particularly if it triggers other countries to vote against the dead hand of Brussels bureaucratic centralisation. Personally I’ve felt for a long time that the EU fails to provide any real competitive advantage for Europe and that their operating model is no longer fit for purpose. Here’s hoping that the politicians can provide the leadership, both in the UK and across Europe, to drive a new arrangement fit for the 21st Century.

And finally of course this decision is bound to have an effect on British racing. One of the big gains of the BHA in recent years has been the development of strong contacts with government and in securing their commitment to the replacement of the Levy. Hopefully the strength of cross-party backing will ensure that this continues. It may be that the exit vote may make it easier to reform the Levy and also offshore bookmaking. It was noticeable that shares in Ladbrokes and William Hill dropped like a stone in early trading after the result was announced.

It's too early to say what the effect is going to be on employment law, immigration policy and recruitment of stable staff from overseas, the breeding industry that currently receives payment under the European Common Agricultural Policy, the movement of horses and trade at the sales with a weaker pound.

Doubtless after some quiet reflection over the next few months we’ll find that the advantages for British racing are greater than the disadvantages. Here’s hoping, anyway.

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.

Wednesday 15 June 2016

Rapidly On From Epsom to Royal Ascot – and Will We Soon See Luxury Hotels on Racecourses?

Once again going into Epsom there was a feeling that there might not be any truly outstanding horses running, but I think that view has changed following a number of superb performances, not least from Minding, Postponed and then a little bit behind them, Harzand.

A number of us were lucky enough to have a visit to Coolmore Stallions in Ireland recently, with a couple of our owners brave enough to pat the mighty Galileo. His daughter, Minding, showed great bravery and versatility, I thought, to win the Oaks having been brought almost to a standstill at the top of the straight. Aidan O’Brien was particularly effusive afterwards, saying: “Speed, class, stamina, a great mind. Real heart, courage and guts had to come into it, but she had it in abundance, like all the Galileos.” At least I’ve stood next to the great Galileo, even if I’ll never afford to buy one of his offspring. This was a particularly notable performance, as she had three demanding races in five weeks, winning the English 1,000 Guineas, coming 2nd in the Irish equivalent and then the Oaks. She looks an outstanding filly and it will be interesting to see if they bring her back in trip or keep her at 1m 4f. I could see her doing well in the Autumn, in the Arc.

Postponed has long been a favourite of mine, and he just seems to be a horse who is getting better with age. By the magnificent stallion Dubawi, he was outstanding in the Coronation Cup and presumably will now be targeted at the King George. He is currently the Arc favourite. Sea The Stars has rapidly established himself as a top stallion, and his son Harzand won the most valuable race ever staged in the UK in this year’s Derby. Amazingly it was the first win in the race for Dermot Weld, who has been a hero of mine for decades. One wonders now whether his owner, the Aga Khan, will consider having horses again in the UK. It just shows again that once a late-maturing colt really starts improving, he can take huge strides forward.

By the time this blog comes out, we will be a couple of days into Royal Ascot. Surprisingly, rather than commenting on the racing, my eyes were drawn to an article in The Times on Monday entitled “Ascot considers betting on a hotel to attract year-round big spenders”. A friend of mine, particularly when he has had a few drinks, often quotes Peter Kay from Phoenix Nights: “Garlic bread, it’s the future, I’ve tasted it!” That had me thinking that in some ways racecourses in the UK could easily redefine themselves and their assets by branching out into other related sports and leisure activities. It is easy to think that racecourses don’t really change that much, but if you take an historical perspective, the evolution has been enormous. As indeed has been their demise. I looked up the number of racecourses that have actually closed, and was staggered to learn that 186 have gone through the 19th and 20th centuries, many as a result of housing and property booms. You only have to think of Bromford Bridge in Birmingham, Alexandra Park in London, Castle Irwell in Salford, Hurst Park in Surrey and Gatwick.

Guy Henderson, the Chief Executive of Ascot, is convinced that the track is such a magnificent site that a hotel could be a real game-changer, despite the considerable capital investment. He indicated that they may look for a partner to explore the options for the site. As it is, Ascot is a highly profitable course and their annual revenues were up 10% to £75m in 2015, with profits rising by nearly 11% to £18.7m. It is easy to see top-end racecourses going down the housing and hotel route with Newbury’s ongoing redevelopment an obvious example.

All that I am hoping is that the financial re-engineering and redefinition of racecourses such as this results in substantial additional funding for owners’ and trainers’ facilities. There is no reason why the two cannot co-exist, as Ayr demonstrates so well throughout the season with the marvellous lunches provided in the Western Hotel. So maybe this is an emerging element of the future of racing. Maybe not as popular as garlic bread, but significantly more sophisticated.

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.

Wednesday 1 June 2016

Woeful Weatherbys Fall at the First Hurdle of Technology Change Management – The Frustrating Shambles of their Online Banking Upgrade and Worrying Concerns for 2017+

In the last blog I was very supportive of the statements that Richard Wayman made at a recent BHA strategy forum at Newbury on 1st March relating to a major innovation led by Weatherbys to streamline ownership administration from 2017. He assured the audience that the changes “will put the customer, the owner, at the centre” of the exercise. It would be easy to say, “about time too”, because racing administration is far too expensive, over-complicated and a real burden on those who have to deal with it. Indeed, needlessly costly and frustrating administration is a barrier to owning and one factor contributing to owners leaving the sport.

You may know that Weatherbys is a privately-owned company established in 1770. It has 16,000 customers (12,000 racing clients and 4,000 private) and its latest accounts show that it made profits of almost £6m on income of £18.5m. One element of its work is to provide British racing with its central administration under a sole source contract with the BHA. The fees that they charge are not only a source of profit to Weatherbys but also co-fund the BHA. This is hardly guaranteed to drive significant transactional and cost efficiencies. Furthermore, I doubt whether its actual competencies in modern integrated transactional processing have ever been market-tested. It may do a marvellous job with the Stud Book, but that doesn’t guarantee that it has the expertise to design, launch and deliver a modern, owner-friendly, online administrative system.

A project has been running in Weatherbys for over five years to simplify ownership structures, integrate all the administration and transfer it on to this online system so that racing finally moves into the modern era with a highly user-friendly process involving minimal paperwork and easy-to-operate technology. In Owners for Owners we are really looking forward to the system being launched in 2017 – not least my wife who has the unenviable task of doing all our OfO racing administration and VAT reclaims. It is obviously essential that this project is a real success, otherwise it will generate considerable owner negativity, which is what Weatherbys’ latest online banking upgrade has done. At least four success criteria need to be met from a change management perspective and, alas, I’d have major reservations at the moment that Weatherbys can meet them.

  1. Owner pull, not Weatherbys push. Whatever system is designed must meet the explicit needs for simplicity and cost-effectiveness of different types of owner. They are the primary stakeholders. Administrators and technologists at Weatherbys’ HQ need to view all changes through their eyes, and not just push out a system that may or may not be fit for purpose.
  2. Intuitive, simple and workable. The average age of owners is 57+. Many are not particularly technology-literate and are doing administration from home, where broadband may not be super-fast, and computers and software may not be the latest versions. The new system must be easy to use, operable from home and with a “look, touch and feel” that is owner-friendly and intuitive. 
  3. Properly tested. It is incredibly easy in process redesign to have frequent delays that put pressure on planned launch dates. The critical time for stakeholder testing is often skimped. Initial versions are launched too early. Owners must be actively involved in testing the system and have veto rights, with the ROA central to this and ideally the overall project sponsor. Never launch a system such as this until success is guaranteed. 
  4. Dramatically reduce cost and complexity. There is far too much paperwork, much of it confusing and repetitious. Delays and errors easily creep into the system. It is slow, costly and stressful. Weatherbys and the BHA should set clear improvement goals, e.g. to reduce racing administration total cost to £100 per owner, per horse; or to have every registration necessary on a one-page form that only has to be inputted once. So what went wrong with the recent Weatherbys online banking upgrade? It doesn’t appear to have had any testing whatsoever; no-one appears to have known much about it prior to launch, and it clearly wasn’t ready, as a number of modifications have already been necessary. Registering a new password and PIN number was far too laborious. Logging on to the new site takes about four times as long as previously, taking 21 key strokes. The new site was designed to enable the user to carry out tasks in one place. In practice though, and particularly if you are operating a number of accounts for different horses, it can be easier to carry out tasks separately by account. In other words, go on the site, select the account you want to operate, check the balance and recent transactions, pay the bill and move on to another account rather than checking balances in one section and then moving on to pay a lot of bills in another. The real disaster though came with the bank statements. Before, my wife had checked these, updated her spreadsheets, filed the VAT returns and received any refunds due by the middle of the month. To her dismay there was no VAT column on the new statements so it was just about impossible to do the VAT return without a separate spreadsheet being emailed to her. When she received this it was a very rudimentary document …. and so the story went on. We have documented a number of these other issues and sent them on to the ROA for discussion directly with Weatherbys.

The big picture on all of this is that if Weatherbys are going to be the lead body for the major administrative changes coming in in 2017, then they must adopt an owner-led change management process. And then on the smaller picture of the detail of all the procedures there has to be far more active testing. If Weatherbys aren’t up to the job, then this whole administrative task could be a prime candidate for market-testing and outsourcing. More about the argument for this in another blog, even if Queen Anne might well turn in her grave at the thought of Weatherbys losing its time-honoured right to manage so much of British racing.

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Sunday 15 May 2016

How to “segway” from Beer Consumption to Growing Racehorse Ownership in British Racing – A Further Note on the BHA’s Growth Strategy

I was delighted to read of a research study done by the Mediterranean Neurological Institute concluding that moderate daily beer consumption reduces the risk of heart and circulatory diseases by a quarter. Apparently the phenols in the flavour act as an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory and also protect the body against viruses. Here in the Hawling Institute we have also concluded through even more extensive research over many years that combining this with red wine drinking guarantees receipt of a telegram from the Queen on reaching your century.

So a number of our owners put this latest finding into practice this week at York for the Dante meeting, not least celebrating a game 4th by our horse Jolievitesse on the opening day. Readers of this blog will know that I believe York Racecourse sets the bar for the total owner and racegoer experience. They are continuing to invest heavily at the track, with prize-money this year increasing to £7m despite a £200,000 decrease in levy funding. Last year they achieved record turnover and attendances. Their £60m-plus investment in facilities for horses, horsemen and racegoers over the last 20 years has paid handsome dividends. Jolievitesse’s race was only Class 4 but had a prize fund of £15,000 with £9,700 for the winner but still £721 for the 4th. The 20-runner field will have guaranteed significant betting and substantial levy contribution. It is this virtuous circle that racing is striving to achieve on a broader basis.

We weren’t however debating racing politics after this fine run, but there was a fair bit of discussion about how good the York experience is, particularly when you are staying in country hotels and dining in excellent restaurants. If you’re in the area, do visit The Crown Inn at Roecliffe. I don’t know of any course that offers such good value, with champagne at £30 a bottle and Theakston’s best bitter at £3.30 a pint, readily available in their new bar set up to offer local beers. Indeed York makes a big point of the partnerships they have developed with local suppliers of beef, smoked salmon, trout and fine cheeses from Ryedale, Wensleydale and Hambleton. I bet you feel hungry now! Courses can do a lot more to showcase local produce. Cheltenham did so at the October meeting and it was a great success.

The racing at York, as usual, was top-class, not least the superb runs by So Mi Dar in the Musidora and Wings Of Desire in the Dante. John Gosden came up with a nice comment about his now Derby favourite, that what he most enjoys is “eating and sleeping”. If you add in drinking beer and wine as well, it would cover most of the Owners for Owners network!

So York racecourse definitely demonstrates what can be done to enthuse racehorse owners. At the BHA forum I attended at Newbury on 1st March, Richard Wayman made a typically strong presentation in which he balanced discussion on the disappointing contraction in the UK ownership base (horse population down 9% from 2008; steady decline in registered owners over the same period, down 17%) and an analysis of its causation (the poor economics of ownership in the UK; a need to strengthen owner engagement; insufficient promotion of ownership, not least in syndicates; and needlessly complex ownership structures, systems and fees) with an outline of a number of practical initiatives to improve the situation.

Obviously the key to prize-money is tied in with levy replacement and capturing racing’s rightful contribution from the offshore bookmakers. I’ve covered that before in the blog, so won’t touch on it again. Richard, though, emphasised that it is not all about prize-money and stated strongly that owners must feel valued within racing, and clearly trainers and racecourses are at the heart of that. There is also apparently going to be a major innovation to streamline ownership administration from early 2017 as well as a big push on ownership, particularly with a campaign to promote syndication. There will be a central ownership hub, close liaison with racecourses and the introduction of a code of conduct for syndicates, thereby ensuring far more transparency and helping prospective owners make a more informed choice.

As this was right at the heart of why we set up Owners for Owners, we feel vindicated. Time to reflect on this with a couple of pints of Donnington’s Best Bitter in The Plough at Ford, my local watering hole just round the corner from Martin Keighley’s stables. Maybe it’s time to think about a Plough partnership.

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Sunday 1 May 2016

On NH Racing, Couch Potatoes and Collaboration with Bookmakers

Normally I’m criss-crossing the country supporting our horses, but with the dreadful winter and apparently never-ceasing soft ground it has been one of the quietest few months for ages, notwithstanding attending all four days of the Cheltenham Festival and the three of Aintree. However, since then I have to say that I have been “enjoying” the delights of sitting at home, wood burner blazing and chilled white wine at my elbow while cheering on my (mainly losing) bets at Sandown and more recently, Punchestown. So, as I knock on the door of becoming a pensioner, I’m also becoming a couch potato. Bliss!

It was absolutely terrific to see Richard Johnson finally become Champion Jockey after all those years of being runner-up to AP. There isn’t a better rider over jumps at the moment, and there certainly isn’t a nicer guy. He’s marvellous with owners and it is always a pleasure when he is riding one of our horses for any of our trainers but, obviously, mostly Philip Hobbs. Indeed we gave him his 100th winner of the recent season when He’s A Bully won for him at Wincanton. With typical modesty, when I complemented him on the ride, he said, “They’re always easy when they win”, despite our horse hanging badly over most of his fences.

Reflecting on the NH season, who would now be your top three horses? For me the performance on Thursday of Douvan would make him my top jumper. This was his 11th consecutive win, and he has won the last three by a cumulative 32 lengths, bagging all three top novice chases at Cheltenham, Aintree and now Punchestown. We have a Getaway with Anthony Honeyball, and he keeps referring to him as “Douvan”. Dream on, dream on. My second top horse would be the wonderful Thistlecrack, who waltzed home in the World Hurdle and then the Liverpool Stayers’ Hurdle, on both occasions by 7 lengths. I’ll then have three joint thirds: Annie Power (could she become the first mare to win the Champion Hurdle twice?), Don Cossack (not just for the Gold Cup but because we have a Sholokhov 2yo who we have nicknamed “Don Caster”), and then Sprinter Sacre (as well as the superb training performance by Nicky Henderson in bringing him back, and similarly My Tent Or Yours, Simonsig and Bob’s Worth).

We couch potatoes also have lots of time to read the newspapers from cover to cover. Two articles about gambling and bookmakers caught my eye. The Sunday Times Rich List goes into the category of tittle-tattle with me, but I noticed that a number of Britain’s wealthiest tycoons in the betting industry saw their collective wealth jump by almost £3bn to £19bn in 2015/16. Amazing really when you think that their normal stance is that they aren’t making money, particularly through racing. And yet the Coates family, who founded Bet365, saw profits double to £410m and their fortune increase to £1.4bn; the co-founder of Betfair, Ed Wray’s wealth jumped by £68m after the Paddy Power merger; and that almost-destitute winner of Group 1s on the Flat, Michael Tabor, the majority stakeholder in Bet Victor, added another £25m to his net worth of £600m. Never believe a bookmaker when they tell you times are tough.

While the Sunday Times article produced steam out of my ears, another in The Times I found really encouraging. When I attended the BHA strategic forum at Newbury on 1st March, Nick Rust emphasised that three of their four strategic goals for British Racing are to grow betting participation by 5% by 2018, generate £120m of extra income for the sport and increase racecourse attendance to 7m by 2020. In the last couple of blogs I have been praising Jockey Club Racecourses for their investment in facilities and prize-money and now, according to The Times, their Racecourse Media Group (RMG) (which recently negotiated the £30m racing rights deal with ITV) are facilitating plans to bring the Tote under the control of British racing. RMG have an excellent track record and indeed in 2015 ploughed back over £80m to their 34 racecourse stakeholders via profits from Turf TV, pay-TV channel Racing UK, streaming pictures to online mobile betting sites and the current deal with Channel 4.

If you’re an avid reader of the blog you’ll know that I’m highly critical of the way the Tote, as a gaming asset, has been milked by Betfred and also the dismal lack of innovation on the part of many of the retail bookmakers, particularly the non-ABP partners Ladbrokes, Coral, William Hill and Betfred. Apparently RMG is likely to broker a collaborative business model between racecourses and a number of bookmakers so that they can take the contract back over when it comes up for renegotiation in 2018. There could be significant money for racing if this collaboration were successful: when Betfred took over the Tote, they paid £265m and committed to making annual payments back into racing of around £10m. RMG intend to involve all 58 racecourses to come up with an agreement with as many bookmaking firms as possible to develop a credible alternative to Betfred’s control of the Tote. If successful it would be a really significant step forward, not just in generating more revenue for British racing but also facilitating a far more creative use of the Tote’s assets and betting possibilities, both in the UK and worldwide.

On that note, I’ll put a few more logs on the burner and pour another glass of white wine. Cheers to RMG!

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.