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!

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