Tuesday, 15 March 2016
By the time this blog is posted, I’ll be down at Cheltenham Racecourse with friends and owners cheering on the start of National Hunt’s Olympics. For the occasional visitor to Prestbury Park, everything looks rosy in the racing village – huge crowds, fabulous facilities, majestic horses, big prize-money and enormous betting turnover, with this festival alone generating over £350m. What could possibly be wrong in British racing?
Unfortunately over the last couple of years it has become increasingly apparent that the levy system set up in 1961 is no longer fit for purpose, particularly with the migration of betting operators offshore, and with the accelerating use of remote channels the levy has halved. Without legislative change, racing faced a funding crisis, which is why the “Authorised Betting Partner” arrangement was put forward to secure voluntary payments from bookmakers of 7-8% on their online profits, in exchange for access to racing sponsorship, shaping of the fixture list and preferential media rights for certain services.
In my last blog I mentioned that I had been to the BHA’s forum at Newbury on 1st March, and that I had intended to summarise that today. However only two days later, on 3rd March, the Culture Secretary John Whittingdale announced to Parliament that new funding arrangements would be created to stop this levy leakage and that all bets placed on British racing by any British-based customer, whether in a retail betting shop or remotely, would come into the scope of proposed legislative changes to be fast-tracked through the House of Commons so that hopefully a new system will be in place by April 2017. The full endorsement by the Government of the so-called Racing Right is probably the most important proposal for British racing in 50 years, and is a tremendous enabler of the BHA’s Strategy for Growth developed by Steve Harman, Chairman of the BHA and Nick Rust, the Chief Executive, together with the active support of all the major stakeholders in British racing.
Racing’s leaders are to be thoroughly commended for this development, and it is most encouraging that the relationship with government is so strong and that the tripartite structure of the BHA, the Racecourse Association and the Horsemen’s Group has provided real clarity and cohesion throughout a turbulent time with a number of the traditional bookmakers such as Betfred, Ladbrokes, Coral and William Hill. Indeed I think this is the first Cheltenham Festival since the early 1980s where the Gold Cup is not being sponsored by a bookmaker (on Friday it will be Timico), and Ladbrokes are no longer associated with the World Hurdle (which goes to Ryanair). Indeed it is pretty symptomatic of the behaviour of some of these “traditional” (I’m actually tempted to use a much more pejorative description) operators that their reaction remains negative. As an indicator of that, Ladbrokes have had a right old strop and are refusing to open their betting offices at Cheltenham.
I’ll do a more detailed summary of the Newbury forum in the next blog. You may remember from previous communications from me that the BHA’s strategy is all about creating the right conditions for growth for the industry and particularly: seeking £120m of extra income for the sport by 2020; 1,000 additional horses in training by 2020; betting participation up by 5% by 2018; and racecourse attendance up to 7m by 2020. Clearly there are many interdependent factors in play to achieve these goals, but without any doubt at all, replacing the levy with a new funding platform backed by legislation is probably the single most important lever for growth. Without that, there would be a foreboding sense of racing being well and truly in decline, purely as a result of woefully insufficient income to fund the growth of the whole sport. Putting that in context, and quoting from the Newbury presentation, we’re currently 38th in the global league table of owner prize-money, and if we are ever to escape that lamentable position it is absolutely vital that there is a much greater and sustainable revenue pipeline.
Since I started doing this blog four years ago, it is the first time that I have felt that racing has finally turned a corner and that the sport is genuinely beginning to arrest the decline that could easily have become terminal. Hats off to everyone involved in this extremely significant and encouraging step forward. Doubtless there will be lots of detail to sort out, but the government’s backing for the racing right is of huge importance.
Tuesday, 1 March 2016
Because January and February turned out to be such wet months, we’ve had almost no horses running, but hopefully that will change very soon with better ground. My wife and I even managed to escape for a week, swinging the golf clubs in pleasantly warm Tenerife. On the flight out I read a really interesting article based on work done by psychologists at the University of Sussex who have been studying how horses react to photographs of positive and negative human facial expressions. Apparently when the horses saw photos of angry people, they looked at them more with their left eye, and their heart rates quickened. The researchers concluded that horses can definitely pick up on negativity, and that they have a “functional understanding” of the differences between happy and angry faces. Their reaction is also noticeably stronger to negative expressions than to positive ones. The researchers felt that this made sense from a survival perspective because horses need to be able to recognise any potential threats in their environment, and therefore angry faces become a warning system so that they can prepare themselves either to flee or to respond to any form of bad handling. The reason why they watch with their left eye is that the right side of the brain is used for processing such negative signs, and the eyes are linked to the opposite sides of the brain.
One of the leaders of the research, Professor Karen McComb, said that horses have adapted an “ancestral ability” for reading emotional cues in both other horses and also humans. Her research appears to confirm that the horse as a higher social species definitely has emotional awareness and apparently the research is going to look into this in much more detail now.
I don’t know why, but just reading this article made me personally feel very happy. I find that there are few things more relaxing and enjoyable than standing with a horse and bonding with it. As humans we tend to respond automatically to a happy horse, but it may also be that in turn the horse is doing the same with us. I have also noticed over the years that horses always seem to be incredibly pleased with themselves in the winner’s enclosure, and I always assumed that this is because of the satisfaction of beating the other horses. I now wonder whether it may also be that they are picking up on the delight of the owners, trainers and connections who are blissfully happy with their win.
I may have mentioned before in this blog that one of my favourite books, picked up in a second-hand bookshop in Hay-on-Wye, is entitled How to Talk to Your Horse. Over the years I’ve put this into practice. I’m now going to add “being happy” to my repertoire. As my wife is prone to saying, “Take him away, doctor ….”