Thursday, 15 June 2017

The Three Keys to Successful Trainer : Owner Relationships – Communicate, Communicate, Communicate


In early days when I did a lot of management training, I used to joke that the vast majority of people believe that they are good in bed, great car drivers and excellent communicators. Occasionally people would take offence, as some probably will do about this blog, and there were always a few who, for whatever reason, immediately admitted that they were terrible at all three. My response was always the same – while I wouldn’t dare comment on the first two, I would be pretty confident that very few would pass the test of excellence in communication. I then used to set up a series of exercises involving video recording of different types of communication that pretty quickly proved that I was right.

Interestingly, if you talk to trainers about communication the distribution is always massively skewed to their perception that they are good at it. Alas, in my experience it is the same as in the management training scenario –a very small number indeed are consistently and reliably good at communicating with owners. Having made that statement, these would be my ten tests of excellence. Why not rate your own trainer(s) out of 10 and see what score they get. I’ll leave it to others to assess their prowess in other fields of activity!?!
  1. Asking owners about communication. In all my years of owning horses not one trainer has ever asked me any questions whatsoever about how I would like them to communicate with me, with what frequency, through which medium and about which aspects of the horse’s development and performance. Not a good start.
  2. Authenticity of communication. Any idiot can communicate, but the question is whether it is meaningful, genuine, honest and authentic. We can all sense immediately when we are not being spoken to in a truthful and timely manner. I have encountered the full range of this in my ownership career, from meaningful and helpful through to downright deceptive and pointless. Hardly surprising that none of the trainers at the negative end of the scale lasted very long.
  3. Frequency of communication. If trainers bothered to talk to me about this, I’d always say that my communication preference is for regular, weekly updates, ideally on a Sunday morning, by phone or email. As I always do a Sunday update on our horses, this would help me enormously. Even now, I still have to chase some trainers. They should be the proactive ones, not me. After all, it’s my choice whether to go to or stay with them, or not.
  4. Using the channels of communication. There have never been more channels, and different types of medium to select. Trainers can communicate by phone, fax, email, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, WhatsApp, with photos, videos, audio messages etc. They can even try face-to-face. That mix of communication, and how it is best used, can only really be clear if Question 1 has been followed – “How do you want me to communicate with you?”
  5. Communicating setbacks. Absolutely vital that if a horse has any setback, no matter how minor, owners know about it as soon as possible. A number of years ago a trainer even had the audacity to geld my horse without my being aware of it. Correction, I should have said “ex-trainer”!
  6. Race planning and communication. Some trainers enter every race imaginable for your horse without any proper discussion. Some then do the same on selecting the race. Not only can that waste a huge amount of money, but it is extremely frustrating, particularly if you are organising partnerships or syndicates. Owners need at least an indication of the probability of a run so as to make plans to attend.
  7. Raceday communication. Ideally, owners meet up with the trainer on the track before the race in a relaxed way, for a highly personalised briefing. Not easy, particularly on a busy race-day when the trainer has other runners. All too frequently you meet with your trainer while the horse is being saddled up, and if the trainer can’t attend it is with a member of staff who doesn’t really know you. That doesn’t give much time for meaningful dialogue, particularly with a large ownership group.
  8. Immediate post-race communication and feedback. We all know as owners that we are dealing with disappointment probably, on average, nine races out of ten. If there is an area where trainers need to excel, it is in dealing with that disappointment. It is vital for there to be balanced communication that looks for the positives while also dealing with the negatives in a realistic and sensible manner.
  9. Communication the day after a race. It is absolutely vital that the trainer or a member of their staff contact you the next day with an update on the horse, particularly if there is a possibility of a physical issue or injury. Again the ideal is a communication coming out around a fixed time, such as 10:00. That way the horse can have been examined and trotted out. Vets can also have made an assessment.
  10. Communicating expectations and key decisions. The famous phrase is that success in life is expectation minus reality. If the expectations are built up too high, then everyone is doomed to failure. A difficult balance to achieve in practice. It is amazing though how many horses are potential Group winners until they step on to the track for the first time. Most trainers over-hype horses most of the time. That doesn’t help at arriving on key decisions, either to do with selection of race targets or for that matter when to move a horse on – sell, retire or rehome it.
I think that will do for the moment – there are doubtless far more than ten, not least because everyone has their own communication style and requirements. What would yours be? What would encourage you to stay with a trainer? If I was a trainer, I would certainly want to know what would discourage you, as that can quickly lead to an owner having no more horses in the future, and / or removing them to somewhere else where communication is excellent.


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Thursday, 1 June 2017

“Five Steps to Saving the Endangered Racehorse Owner” – with acknowledgements to the Racing Post


On Sunday, 21st May, the Racing Post published an excellent article written by Tom Kerr, with what looked like significant input from the Racehorse Owners Association. It really is an excellent read and I wouldn’t disagree with a single point. Since we started Owners for Owners five years ago, we have been arguing strongly for significant improvement in prize-money and the total owner experience. We’re delighted, therefore, that the Racing Post has finally acknowledged the need for radical improvement, particularly at the grass-roots level. If you haven’t already read it, here is the article in its entirety, with full acknowledgement of copyright to the Racing Post and Tom Kerr.

***** 

ON A sunny January day at Lingfield this year, Bill Davis achieved the dream of every owner: he stood beaming in the winner’s enclosure alongside his pride and joy, a mare named Ayr Of Elegance, and celebrated coming first past the post.

What made this story notable enough to generate headlines across the mainstream media, was that Davis had been a racehorse owner for more than a quarter of a century without once previously gracing the winner’s podium. Davis was dubbed ‘Britain’s unluckiest racehorse owner’ by the press and his long, patient wait for success made for a delightful story. He was toasted as an exemplar of endurance, a man who tried and tried again and did not allow defeat to wear down his spirit. Yet no-one could have blamed him if he had quit the sport years ago, weighed down by heartache and expenditure.

“It was just madness that kept me searching for that first win,” he said.

While Davis’s long wait for success marks him out as an outlier cursed by poor fortune, the madness that kept him searching is evident in many long-term owners. They pour vast sums into racing for paltry returns, with around 30 per cent receiving no prize-money in any given year and owners of low-class horses unlikely to see ten pence back for every pound invested.

Those, like Davis, who remain through thick and thin, haemorrhaging money through the years, typically do it for the love of the game and for the sheer joy of being involved with racehorses. Some might enter the sport dreaming of glamour, victory and riches but if so those notions are soon disabused – more expect nothing other than to lose large sums of money. As the old wisecrack goes, the only way to make a small fortune in racing is to start with a large one.

The financial contribution to racing of all these owners is vast. If sales are factored in, the figure runs into billions of pounds per year, but just keeping horses in training costs British owners around £290 million in 2015, a sum more than five times as large as that realised by the bookmaker levy scheme of the same year. According to the most recent numbers provided by the Racehorse Owners Association (ROA), the average cost of keeping a horse in training is £22,595 per year on the Flat and £16,325 over jumps. For many, that is an unsustainable or unappetising burden when the return on investment is so low and success frequently elusive.

Relying on the benevolent madness shown by owners like Davis has served the sport well in the past but it is no sort of business model for the future. Already the strains are clearly showing. In the past decade thousands of owners have left the sport, particularly at the grassroots end, and many of their places in the sport have not been filled. Racing’s ability to halt and reverse this trend – to save racehorse ownership – is the single greatest challenge facing the sport today.

Where have all the owners gone?

Since 2008, when the number of owners with horses in training peaked at 9,551, the ranks have thinned by 17 per cent in just eight years, hitting 7,947 last year. The decline has been been particularly pronounced in certain areas: the number of sole owners (those who own without partners) has declined from 2,632 in 2005 to just 1,852 in 2015, a fall of 30 per cent, while the number of owners with a single horse in training has fallen by almost 25 per cent since 2008. In Ireland the decline is even more alarming. Since the number of owners hit a high of 5,588 in 2007, just before the financial crisis struck, it has fallen precipitously, slumping to 4,195 in 2012 and 3,663 in 2016.

There is the odd ray of light for racing. Partnerships have performed well relative to other models of ownership and now account for almost three-quarters of all active owners. Also, the number of owners with more than 21 horses in training has soared from 40 in 2002 to 79 in 2015, indicative of how the sport has become increasingly reliant on a small but growing group of mega-investors such as Godolphin, Qatar Racing and Al Shaqab. But as these behemoths grow they threaten to further squeeze out the small owner.

“IT’S a massive issue for the sport that we have lost that level of ownership,” says BHA chief operating officer Richard Wayman, who is leading several initiatives to halt the decline. “We don’t operate in a bubble, there’s been a double recession through that period which clearly will have had an impact on this. “But that to one side, this has to be one of the key priorities for the sport in the coming years, to reverse that decline and begin to grow ownership again at all levels. This is a cross-industry challenge and the sport’s future depends on us being able to reverse the decline of recent years.”

A sport that in the course of a single decade loses almost one in five of anything – fans, players, punters – is in trouble. When those lost participants are as economically vital as owners are to racing, it is clear there is a crisis brewing, one that if not checked will cripple the sport.

The Racing Post, with the help of more than a dozen interviews conducted with owners, syndicate managers and others from across the racing industry, has sought to understand why the decline has occurred and how it might be reversed. To that end, this newspaper has identified five areas where action should be, and sometimes is being, taken to make the ownership experience more appealing.

  1. Prize-money

    It is impossible to address the question of ownership without first confronting the impoverished elephant in the room: the sport, always expensive to get into, is in Britain uniquely unaffordable. In 2016, the ROA found that more than 80 per cent of lapsed owners cited the expense of owning as a reason for quitting, while over 60 per cent mentioned poor prize-money, making them the two most commonly cited reasons for leaving the sport.

    Famously, British owners receive less than a 25p in the pound return on their investments in racing, around half what their counterparts in France can expect, but recent research carried out by the BHA shows that, as prize-money is not equally distributed among owners, an owner of a modestly talented Flat horse can actually expect to lose an average of 92p in every pound invested.

    “The economics of it are so unattractive that it is very hard to retain people,” says Wayman. “The sport works very hard to recruit new people, but as they come in you’re losing people out the other end and working very hard just to stand still.”

    While prize-money has reached record levels in Britain, hitting £137.6m in 2016 (up from £93.9m at its nadir in 2011), it has largely been spent at the top end of the sport, lavished on festivals and feature races at the expense of grassroots racing. Little of that spending has found its way into the pockets of ordinary owners. With the advent of the reformed levy and the transfer of funding control to British racing, exercised through the new Racing Authority, an opportunity to address this problem has emerged and a two-stage plan set to be rolled out next year has been proposed.

    First, money will be ploughed into low-level racing, where many races have not risen in value for a decade or more (Wayman suggests a £3,000 race could become a £6,000 race). Second, the sport plans to begin paying prize-money down to eighth place, a scheme designed to return more to owners and encourage competitive field sizes.

    “Eight runners is important to us in terms of creating a product people want to bet on,” says Wayman. “If we can reward horsemen for creating eight-runner fields, then potentially everyone is benefiting from that.”

    Although much can be done to improve the prize-money situation for those at the bottom of the sport, the reality of Britain’s levy-based funding model means the return-on-investment figure is only ever likely to shift from appalling to unappetising. That does not preclude ownership from being successful, but it does mean the sport must seriously consider the value for money its product offers prospective owners.

  2. Racecourse experience

    According to the ROA, the average cost per run for owners is over £3,000, making each trip to the racecourse equivalent in cost to a luxury holiday. Yet for many the racecourse experience is more Butlins than Bahamas. Owners’ complaints indicate something bordering on indifference from some of the tracks visited, while tired and overcrowded owners’ areas are a common complaint.

    “One thing our members want is a warm welcome by someone who is expecting them to arrive rather than a rather bleak entrance,” says Charlie Liverton, chief executive of the ROA. “It’s not all about champagne and caviar. The average age of an owner is 59 – a cup of tea and a sit down actually would make the world of difference.”

    A lack of something as basic as comfortable seating indicates a sport that is far off its aspiration to offer owners a luxury experience. The owner experience is now at the centre of farsighted track administrators’ vision for the future, especially as media rights payments – a lucrative source of income for racecourses – are increasingly linked to field sizes.

    “All our thinking about the future is what we can do for the owners to improve their experience,” says Bill Farnsworth, general manager at Musselburgh, which holds an ROA gold standard award for its owner experience and is one of several courses planning new facilities. “The cost of owning a racehorse and frustration of owning a racehorse is huge, so it’s a major achievement just getting to the racecourse and the least we can do is treat them like it’s a special day out.”

  3. Catering for syndicates

    Racehorse ownership’s most promising area of growth, at least outside of the ultra-wealthy, is syndicates and partnerships, a model that has been successful in other parts of the world, notably Australia, which in 2015-16 had almost 80,000 people involved in ownership (up from 68,000 a decade earlier). Yet while syndicates grow, drawing owners to racecourses in larger numbers than ever before, many tracks are unable or unwilling to adjust to the new reality. Speaking to those who run and join syndicates, the most common complaint relates to securing access to the paddock before racing.

    One syndicate manager recounted taking 25 members – each of whom had paid £3,000 to be part of the venture – to Kempton for a recent Wednesday evening meeting. The track was typically underpopulated, but nonetheless only 14 owners’ tickets were forthcoming from the racecourse. The result? “I had to piss off almost half the owners,” the syndicate manager says.

    “It’s easy to forget how much people spend in syndicates,” says Adrian King, who runs Henacre Racing Club, a new low-cost syndicate designed to get new owners into the sport. “We’ve got one guy who works in Tesco for a couple of days a week to support his pension and allow him to be involved in racing. “Some of the racecourses are brilliant. But some of them, to put it quite bluntly, need to pull their finger out.”

    The ROA recently piloted a scheme at Lingfield and Windsor where syndicates could apply for up to 50 extra paddock passes (health and safety restrictions allowing) and are in talks with racecourses about rolling it out across Britain. Although some racecourses are limited by their facilities, ensuring syndicate members have access to the paddock is so vital to the experience tracks must do everything in their power, including redevelopment work, to allow access. To do otherwise is to deprive owners of the most precious part of racehorse ownership: being part of the action.

  4. Administration and signing up

    A really slick registration process for racehorse owners might not be the sexiest advert for the sport, but it shouldn’t be underestimated just how burdensome, unappealing and antiquated the byzantine setup in use right now is.

    “The current system is very much paper-based, so it’s pretty much been in place all along,” says Wayman. “Right now if you want to become an owner we would ask you to complete a significant number of registration forms. That’s very time-consuming, and there’s an element of duplication where you are asked the same questions twice or more.”

    After signing up, owners don’t get a glossy welcome pack congratulating them on joining the exciting world of racehorse ownership, as might be expected. Instead they get “a little bit of administrative stuff”, says Wayman, and then bills, bills and more bills. As a reward for signing up to spend tens of thousands a year, it is more than a little underwhelming.

    This is an area the BHA and Weatherbys, which provides the sport’s administrative systems, are hard at work on. Originally slated for a spring launch but now pushed back to July, a new digital system is being designed to allow prospective owners to sign up in just 20 minutes and the applications to be processed within a working day. Owners will also have access to the racing calendar, whereas at the moment they would need to subscribe to the programme book (another bill to pay) if they wish to review race options for their horse. The many fees levied on owners are also being reviewed, with £150,000-worth abolished and others condensed into a single annual bill.

    All this is vital, particularly in terms of making ownership attractive to those generations used to seamlessly managing their life from the comfort of a phone or laptop. “It’s about providing a customer friendly service, in the same way as the banks have moved almost everything online,” says Wayman.

  5. Communication and the off-course experience
    “The average owner goes racing five times a year with his horse,” says the ROA’s Liverton, “so effectively the industry has got to – got to, got to – give them action the other 360 days.”

    There is no area with greater potential to enhance ownership than communication, with the full range of digital platforms offering racehorse trainers and syndicate managers unprecedented ability to share information, pictures and videos with owners. At the moment, in this respect trainers and syndicate managers unsurprisingly run the gamut from garrulous to JD Salinger.

    When trainers are good, the approval from owners is table-rattling. Matt Pryce, who began as a syndicate member at Jeremy Gask’s before going on to create his own partnership, explains what made his experience so positive: “I always felt you got treated the same if you owned the ear of a 50-rated horse or you had Medicean Man. They provided weekly audio updates, videos and a feeling you were involved in decisions. The yard also do a weekly newsletter so you can support their other runners too.”

    Communication like this makes an enormous impact and the sport as a whole can do much to help trainers. Many don’t have the technical know-how to take advantage of the digital tools at their disposal, something which the ROA’s Liverton suggests should become part of their training modules and revisited frequently to ensure the latest technology is understood and being utilised. These days it is the work of a moment for videos and audio updates to be pinged off to owners and the sport should be looking at working with technology companies to develop custom software and apps to make the process as simple and rewarding as possible.

    Racing should also be thinking about where it wants to be in ten, 20 or 30 years’ time. One day, owners should be able to tap a button on their smart device and pull up a live stream of their racehorse, with details of workouts, schedule and upcoming targets all at their fingertips.

    Working hard to get ahead

    Owning racehorses is a rewarding experience that can provide enormous pleasure. Its success over the decades, despite all the frustrations and expenses, is testament to a product with genuine staying power. Yet racing can’t take owners for granted, nor assume the model that once worked will do so into the future.

    Racing needs to do more than just address the concerns of current and former owners. It must also make the product appealing to a younger generation of prospective owners that has higher expectations and more choice on where to spend their leisure pound than ever before.

    Racing is working hard to stand still right now. It must work even harder to get ahead.



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Monday, 15 May 2017

More Fabulous Festivals, the Remarkable Roodee … and the Scary FOBTs


A fairly short blog for the mid-month, as we’re in the middle of racing festivals. We were down at Newmarket for both days of the Guineas meeting and thoroughly enjoyed it. Tremendously impressed by the nonchalant win of Churchill in the 2000 Guineas, and clearly Ballydoyle is firing on all cylinders at the moment. Their run of form continued into Chester last week, notably with the first three home in the Chester Vase. During the trip to Newmarket we had a morning in the Palace House Museum & Art Gallery. This is the original palace used by Charles II, and has been renovated superbly. The exhibits really bring to life the fabulous history and legacy of racing, and some of the artwork is truly awesome. An excellent time was spent there, and well worth a visit or two.

You may know that Chester is my home town, and my interest in racing was really kindled there. I had an uncle who was very keen on racing, who always used to go to the Chester Cup meeting. The grammar school in Chester was just round the corner from the Roodee and, particularly when I was in the sixth form, we had a lot of private study periods which meant I could easily bonk off and go racing. I used to keep one eye on the form and one for teachers who were doing exactly the same. If I enjoyed Chester as a race track then, it is absolutely incredible the way facilities and quality have improved in the intervening 50 years. Not least, it is probably one of the most progressive tracks in the country when it comes to the owner experience, and can only be congratulated for the £500 appearance money that is now paid to owners for running there. This is a model initiative that should be vigorously fought for by the ROA and the Horsemen’s Group. As an absolute minimum owners ought to be able to recover the costs of supporting all the key revenue streams associated with the racecourses and the betting industry. Also the quality of food and hospitality in the owners’ marquee is absolutely second to none. All in all, Chester is a course that you really want to go to.

At the other end of the scale I also saw an encouraging note about Newton Abbot, which is now promising over £1m of prize-money during its summer racing. This is a notably well-run racecourse and it just shows what can be done with enthusiastic and progressive leadership. They are also very supportive of owners and one of the few courses where entry to races is free. They also have the best free cake for owners of any course that I know in the country.

On a completely different subject, I saw a positively scary analysis done by Landman Economics earlier in May on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs). As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, I’m a huge critic of the betting industry, particularly the retail bookmakers. Just consider this analysis:
  • £45.5bn has apparently been staked on FOBTs since their legal status was clarified by the Gambling Act, 2008.
  • Punters have lost £11.4bn in total during that period. The average lost by every FOBT player in the UK is £8,000.
  • Almost 40% of the losses are from an estimated 300,000 “problem” FOBT players, who have lost an estimated £15,000 each.
  • The study estimates that the loss of that money and its impact on the families concerned has cost 186,000 jobs over nine years.
There is very little that I would agree with in Labour’s Manifesto, but I’m definitely in favour of one of the recommendations whereby they want the stake on FOBTs to be reduced to a maximum of £2. At the moment, the machines allow customers to bet / lose up to £100 every 20 seconds on the likes of electronic roulette. This is a social issue that really must be addressed. True to form, the antediluvian Association of British Bookmakers described the report as “pure fantasy”. So much for the meaningless and trite statement that the bookmakers use in their marketing materials of “when the fun stops, stop”. If only the retail bookmakers would stop, reconsider almost the whole of their strategy and start rebuilding betting with a committed emphasis on innovation and fair play. Not much sign of that!

Which is another reason why I’m such a fan of Chester: they were the first course to set up their own Tote, and I’m really hoping that the whole of British racing gets behind the initiative to set up racecourse-owned totes, so that the profit from them can be invested in British 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.

Monday, 1 May 2017

The Bizarre World of Bloodstock Prices vs. Prize-Money for Grassroots Owners. Change is much needed.


Sometimes in British racing it can feel as though you are occupying a parallel universe. Whenever you go to the sales, you cannot help but be astounded by the enormous prices now being paid for bloodstock. So, for example, at the Tattersalls’ Cheltenham sale on 21st April, twelve lots sold for more than £100,000, five for £200,000 +, with an average price of £85,729 (up 89% on last year) and a median of £50,000 (up 25%). Last year, 34 lots sold for £1,546,000 while this year 35 went for £3,500,000. You can only agree with the auctioneers when they said it was “yet another remarkable sale”. But that was nothing compared with the Craven Breeze-Up sale which I also went to earlier that week at Newmarket. Records were smashed in every direction, with the average being 144,082 guineas and a median of 110,000. Global demand has never been higher, and there seems to be no shortage of ultra-high net worth individuals prepared to pay these sums.

So when you step out of this rarefied level into another universe, i.e. that occupied by the grassroots owner, you can’t help but be startled by the paucity of prize-money. Earlier in April, trainers Richard Hannon and William Haggas aired their criticism, drawing on the example of pitiful prize-money at Windsor and Southwell. Hannon Jnr. struck the right chord, stating that prize-money is now “bordering on the outright disrespectful to racing professionals”. They intend to reduce their runners and withdraw support for tracks such as this.

That’s not to say that there isn’t substantial prize-money available at some meetings, as was seen at the Cheltenham Festival, Aintree Grand National meeting and the All-Weather Championships at Lingfield on Good Friday. The key problem though is that the prize-money as you come down through the ranks, particularly to Classes 5 and 6, becomes derisory.

Encouragingly the racing industry is well aware of this problem. When I went to the British Industry Road Show held at Cheltenham in early March, there was a reaffirmation of the four prime targets: 1,000 additional horses in training by 2020 + betting participation levels up 5% by 2018 + racecourse attendances to reach 7 million by 2020 + £120m extra income for the sport per annum by 2018. Even more encouraging is the latest news that the European Commission has finally given state-aid approval to the Government’s plans for levy reform. Betting operators who had previously evaded levy because they were based offshore must now contribute to British racing’s funding, from betting on the sport. All operators will have to pay 10% of their gross profits on betting on British racing and it is estimated that this will bring in £30-40 million plus per year, which can be reinvested into the sport.

While there is bound to be a fairly lengthy queue to get their hands on that additional income, Richard Wayman, the Chief Operating Officer of the BHA, at the Road Show demonstrated that he is fully aware of the serious problem at grassroots level. A figure of 26p in the £ cost recovery has been used for some time (i.e. owners on average lose 74p in the £), but in fact when you look at the lower end of the sport it drops to an even more pathetic 8p. In a persuasive presentation, Richard stated that it is vital to get more money into the hands of ordinary owners while also improving the raceday experience and simplifying the needlessly complex racing administration.

I’m hoping that a number of initiatives are pursued with real conviction once the additional levy funds start to flow:
  • Renegotiate the minimum values for low-end racing in Britain. £3,500 total prize-money for a race means that the winner of that race doesn’t even cover their costs for a month. That has to be increased, and will give more return to owners in Class 5 / Class 6 races.
  • Redirect prize-money away from top Group / Graded races and improve the return at Class 3 and below.
  • Do the same for races where there is a huge gap between win prize-money and 2nd and 3rd places. Raise the money considerably for those in the frame.
  • Monitor what race tracks are actually doing, and penalise those that run a meeting with races only at the minimum values. Be similarly strict with tracks that have one valuable race, but at the expense of their lesser races.
  • Set a clear goal for increasing cost recovery by the average grassroots owner by 2020. This should be a clear objective for both the BHA and the Racecourse Association.
Finally Philip Freedman, the much-admired Chair of the Horsemen’s Group, has emphasised that the decline in owners since 2007 has actually been greater than the decline in horses in training. The huge risk is that new owners don’t come into the sport in the numbers needed, and equally that existing owners exit or reduce their involvement. It is definitely time now for major change …. and hopefully levy reform will provide the funds. Grassroots prize-money should become the #1 focus of attention for the BHA and the other bodies in the Tripartite Agreement. Without that, the base of the pyramid will crumble, with very serious consequences.



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 April 2017

Festival Fever Fuels the Fortunes of Racing: Time to Extend Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals?


Wasn’t the victory of One For Arthur in the Grand National a sensational performance for all the connections, not least the Two Golf Widows and Lucinda Russell. As far as I know it is only the second Scottish victory in the race, the last being Rubstic in 1979, and this win should hopefully provide impetus for Northern NH racing which has declined to such a dire state in recent decades.

My wife and I went up for the whole Aintree festival and thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly as the weather favoured the meeting – especially an absolutely gorgeous Saturday. It may not have helped the ITV viewing figures, but the enormous crowd had a superb time. Indeed I don’t think I’ve ever seen a larger crowd on a British racecourse, and the revenue generated must have been colossal. This is also the case for the bookmaking industry with over £0.25bn staked on the race, which makes it over ten times more popular with punters than the FA Cup final.

It is certainly not a cheap meeting to attend, however. Our two badges for the Earl of Derby Stand and the car park cost over £300 on Grand National day. Having said that, for anyone who is a member of the ROA badge scheme, Day 1 is a bargain with free entry, and one of the best days’ jumping of the whole season. On that day we were thrilled to see one of our favourite horses in training, Defi Du Seuil, confirm his dominance and remain unbeaten. Philip Hobbs did a great job playing a straight bat on whether this super horse will go to the Champion Hurdle or the Arkle at next year’s Cheltenham Festival – a lovely problem to solve. Also delighted for Anthony and Rachael Honeyball when their Fountains Windfall ran the field ragged in the opening race of the final day under an extremely enterprising ride from David Noonan.

A final observation is that the partnership between Ann and Alan Potts, Colin Tizzard and Robbie Power has got off to the most incredible start. Indeed the wins of Finians Oscar, Fox Norton and Sizing Cadelco netted the Potts a total of £207,900 which they promptly spent at the boutique Goffs Aintree sale buying the top lot, Madison To Monroe, for £300,000. It says a lot about the price of NH bloodstock these days when even winning three races at Aintree barely pays for two thirds of a top-quality Irish point-to-pointer. Yet again the median in the sale rose considerably from last year’s £70,000 to this year’s £86,000. The dominance of top owners and top yards continues, with few opportunities for grassroots owners even to get a look in …. although having said that, One For Arthur was exceptionally well bought for “only” £65,000 as a youngster. Interestingly many NH owners are becoming more creative in how they go about buying young stock, as it is impossible to compete in the top sales. Finian’s Oscar was bought as a yearling in the Autumn Arqana sale for €20,000 and that is a sale that Owners for Owners is really enthusiastic about. Our Black Prince with Anthony Honeyball came from that sale and although only a 3yo he is a horse who will hopefully come through as a lovely NH prospect in time. We’ll definitely go back to that sale this Autumn.

It is becoming apparent that both keen racegoers and the general public love the big occasion of racing festivals. The four days of Cheltenham and the three of Aintree are probably attracting well over 400,000 attendees now. It is not that long ago that these meetings were very much dominated by die-hard enthusiasts who went along every day. I’m convinced that pattern is changing, with many now going for just one or two days. Indeed a huge percentage of the crowd don’t really seem to have much knowledge of, or be particularly interested in, the horses as such. It is the festival as an event that matters, rather than just the championship races on the track. Many argue that by extending these meetings you dilute the experience, and while that may be true for racing’s intelligentsia, I doubt if it is the case for the vast bulk of attendees.

If that conclusion is correct, then it probably now makes sense for both Aintree and Cheltenham to capitalise on the festival experience and maximise their revenue by increasing the meetings by a day. Without knowing the profit figures, this could lead to another very substantial injection of funds into the sport, particularly for investment in grassroots racing. Both Cheltenham and Aintree already have seven-race cards, so by reducing them back to six together with framing a number of additional races, another day could easily be filled. So for example at Aintree a “consolation” Grand National would be very popular with trainers and owners for those horses balloted out of the big one, and provide the crowds at each of the four days with an Aintree spectacle over the huge fences.

Whether my body could actually withstand the onslaught of an extra day at each of these festivals is debatable, so I suspect I would reduce attendance. However I do think there is a compelling financial argument for capitalising on the enormous popularity of the festivals.



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Sunday, 2 April 2017

Form, Facts, Feelings and Formulations about the Festival – Reflections on Cheltenham


How was the Cheltenham Festival for you? Personally I found it the best ever from a pure enjoyment standpoint, even though it takes its toll – particularly on the liver. It has definitely been a case of recovery and detox over the last few weeks ahead of going up to Aintree for more fabulous fun on Merseyside. Hardly surprising, as it is the NH Olympics, there was an enormous amount of views shared and arguments raging throughout the Festival week. As ever in racing, mostly clap-trap, but here are ten reflections.
  1. It certainly wasn’t the highest standard of Festival that we’ve seen. The general view was that both the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup were 10lbs below normal, and there weren’t that many races that were truly memorable. For me personally, the highlight was one of my favourite horses, Defi Du Seuil, winning the Triumph Hurdle for Philip Hobbs and Richard Johnson. Such a hardy, game horse. Indeed I think Philip would run him every fortnight if he could. The best race to watch, I thought, was the Mares’ Championship with Apple’s Jade, Vroom Vroom Mag and Limini battling it out. Great to see Noel Fehily showing again what a champion he is, winning the top race on each of the first two days.
  2. Definitely the best ever for the Irish, who are now dominant. The somewhat meaningless Prestbury Cup was a shoo-in for the Irish, with 19 vs. 9. Willie Mullins won over £750k and Gordon Elliott over £600k. The late 1980s seem more than a couple of decades ago, when it was a complete whitewash to the British on one occasion, and another year 17/1. The key question is why GB is falling behind.
  3. Bloodstock prices continue to spiral into the stratosphere. I went along to the Tattersalls Ireland sale during the meeting and was flabbergasted to see 13 horses go for £100k plus, with a median of £120k and an average of £142,857. As the auctioneer said, “There is now fierce demand and a ferocious appetite for young horses with form.” You can say that again. The grass-roots owner clearly isn’t going to get a look-in.
  4. The declining state of UK National Hunt racing. There was a working party to look at the decline in Northern NH racing, and maybe their remit should be broadened to the whole of the country. Yes, there is superb prize-money available at Cheltenham but it is lousy almost everywhere else. There is an interesting statistic to confirm that: the difference in prize-money between the top and everyday racing in many countries is four times, whereas in the UK it is now 100 times. Horses always follow the prize-money, and it is hardly surprising that top owners are migrating to Ireland where they can scoop up easy pickings in Graded races and easy handicaps.
  5. The gap between the top and the bottom of the sport has never been greater. This really reiterates points 2-4 above. Is it time to change some of the rules and conditions for races to encourage the grass-roots owner? I did an analysis for the Racehorse Syndicates Association and amazingly there were only 40 syndicate horses at the Festival, even though there were quite a few partnerships. Many of us are now fishing in a different pond.
  6. Was the drink crack-down worthwhile, and did it work? After the excesses of 2016 with some very unsavoury incidents, Cheltenham and the Jockey Club clearly needed to do something. It seems to have worked, although most people wouldn’t get many problems getting round the four-drinks-per-buyer rule. I saw lots of people buying four for themselves! There was also a crack-down in the town centre with on-the-spot fines. Sad, but necessary.
  7. Rumblings about the bookmakers. There were no sympathies for the bookies, as they won on almost every race and there were numerous Festival flops, notably Douvan at 2/9, reportedly the shortest loser in a hundred years. There was more misery with Yanworth, Tombstone, Death Duty, Unowhatimeanharry and Djakadam. However it is rumoured that the BHA had a meeting with the Association of British Bookmakers, who want help in a rearguard action against imminent changes to do with fixed-odds betting terminals. I have zero sympathy with the bookmaking industry, who need to focus far more on innovation and collaboration with their racing partners.
  8. Well done, ITV with their terrestrial coverage. Encouragingly for the whole sport, they lifted the viewing figures by 250,000, massively ahead of Channel 4’s last effort of 526,000 average viewers. It’s a lighter style and seems to be far more appealing to the general audience. A good start has been made by them.
  9. Time to crack down on abuse of the whip again. Charlie Longsdon was desperately unlucky that his horse Pendra was collared in the final strides of the Kim Muir by Gina Andrews on 40/1 shot Domesday Book. She mercilessly flogged her horse, and rightly received a three-day ban for it. It seems really unfair that a rider who stays within the rules is beaten by one who doesn’t. Stewards should be given discretion to reverse the placings and behaviour would soon change, particularly if the culprits had to make a financial contribution to the owner for lost prize-money.
  10. And possibly some other changes are needed. We are in an era now when top horses, owners and trainers can cherry-pick valuable Graded races and avoid all meaningful competition. This doesn’t do much for competitiveness, nor public interest. Should there be some qualifications added whereby horses for championship races must have competed in a minimum number of Graded races prior to the Festival? With the grass-roots owner not getting much of a look-in, should race conditions be framed to encourage them? So for example should there be more caps on second-tier races to force top owners to take their best horses up into the championship races? I would also have a syndicates-only race, but then I have been arguing for that for quite a few years.
Hopefully some food for thought there. Bring on Aintree!



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Wednesday, 15 March 2017

British Racing Industry Road Show: A Case of Onwards, Upwards and Occasionally Sideways.


My wife and I were invited to the road show at Cheltenham Racecourse at the beginning of March. It was exceptionally well organised and informative, and well hosted by Lydia Hislop. I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so many of racing’s leaders at the same venue; I chatted to Steve Harman, Chairman of the BHA, and then listened to Nick Rust (CEO of the BHA), Richard Wayman (COO, BHA), Philip Freedman (Chairman, Horsemen’s Group), Stephen Atkin (CEO, Racecourse Association), Rod Street (CEO, Great British Racing) as well as the leaders of the Professional Jockeys Association and Arena Racing Company. There was also a presentation dedicated to staffing, training and welfare issues with a panel led by the Human Resources Director of the BHA and well supported by other specialists in this field. Those who know me well will know that I was not sufficiently intimidated to refrain from asking questions, which I addressed to Messrs. Rust and Atkin.
Just to summarise the key targets that the tripartite group of the BHA, Horsemen’s Group and Racecourse Association signed up to in 2015, and which still guide the industry:

  • 1,000 additional horses in training by 2020;
  • Betting participation levels up 5% by 2018;
  • Racecourse attendances to reach 7 million by 2020;
  • £120m of extra income for the sport per annum by 2018.

At the same time there was open acknowledgement of the challenges that face British Racing, particularly:

  • Sole ownership in decline;
  • Shortage of skilled stable staff;
  • Statutory Levy forecast to drop under £50m in 2017;
  • Need to develop a constructive partnership with the British betting sector;
  • Low returns to horsemen at grassroots level.

Within the various presentations there was certainly plenty of encouraging news, with good progress including:

  • £30-40m potential increase in revenue to be raised by the new Levy; ABP scheme expected to raise more than £10m in extra revenue in 2016/17; 2% growth in total betting activity since 2014; ITV channel.
  • £8m prize-money paid to the industry via Plus 10 bonus scheme; ownership decline halted; 505 additional horses in training since 2014; 3% growth in number of syndicates and partnerships.
  • In The Paddock web site launched to promote syndicates; 2.9% growth in racecourse attendance since 2014; 12% growth in prize-money to almost £138m since 2014; new approach to the Fixture List under way; 4.7% growth in races with 8+ runners since 2014; 5.4m social media followers.

Phew! Lots of statistics there. Lydia did a show of hands on “optimism” for the industry, and very encouragingly it was skewed positively. There are many initiatives under way or in the pipeline, and there was a definite feeling of momentum for the next couple of years – hence the “onwards and upwards”.

But that doesn’t mean that all will necessarily be plain sailing. The questions I raised were all to do with “Grassroots Racing”. Very encouragingly the leaders of our sport are planning to focus much more effort and money on to the base of the racing pyramid, as they need to, because the most startling figure I heard was that the average cost recovery for those at the bottom of the sport is now only 8p in the £. When you look closely at the various graphs, the horses in training figure over the last five years has barely increased (13,716 to 14,033 in five years) while ownership has actually declined, although apparently that trend has now been halted (8,215 to 7,946 registered owners in five years).

I genuinely believe that this grassroots racing focus is both long overdue and absolutely essential to the long-term sustainability of the sport. If the grassroots owner retires or leaves the sport, the economics and competitiveness crumble. When you look at a race meeting such as the Cheltenham Festival on this week, all looks exciting with prodigious prize-money everywhere, but that is most definitely not how it seems on “normal” racedays. In fact I prefaced my question to Messrs. Rust and Atkin with a statement: “With Owners for Owners involved in 23 horses, I am an archetypal grassroots owner, enjoying 8p in the £ cost recovery, the dubious pleasures of minimum value racing when the total prize-money is only £3,500, endless hassles on badges, over-crowded lounges and nowhere to sit …. and yet I still remain optimistic.” I am just hoping that we see significant improvement over the next few years to 2020 to justify that optimism.



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Wednesday, 1 March 2017

Does British Racing Really Want a Large Increase in the Number of Owners? A Frustrating Tale from “Lovely” Ludlow


The last few weeks have seen a number of fabulous horses sidelined with injuries. We’ve now lost Thistlecrack from the Gold Cup (as an aside, who at the Racing Post came up with the appalling headline, “Thistlecrocked”?) as well as Don Cossack, retired with recurrent tendon damage, Coneygree, plagued with all sorts of maladies, and of course the tragedy of Many Clouds collapsing and dying after his gallant win at Cheltenham. And this is on top of Faugheen’s stress fracture taking him out of the Champion Hurdle, Annie Power’s knee injury and Min’s bruising that will keep him out of the Arkle. Heartfelt commiserations to all these horses’ connections.

Many of our owners know exactly how they feel, so it’s always glorious when a horse who has been sidelined comes back, and on his reappearance puts in an absolutely belting run. He’s A Bully had been off for 450+ days with tendon tissue damage on one leg, but was superbly looked after by Polly Curling who did all the pre-training on a horse who only knows one way of moving, which is flat out at full gallop. Polly loved the challenge of teaching him to settle before he went back to Philip Hobbs for final training before coming out in a 3m handicap chase at Ludlow on 22nd February. Unfortunately, in the race prior to this, Richard Johnson aggravated a shoulder injury so we had a last-minute change of jockey with the talented claimer Ciaran Gethings taking the ride. Our horse galloped to the front after a couple of fences and then led the field a merry dance for the next 2½ miles, jumping for fun and clearly enjoying the whole experience of being back on the racetrack. Going into the last, it still looked as though he would win, but he was just run out of it by a very well-handicapped horse as HAB, not surprisingly, faded. It really was a superb performance though to come 2nd and all the owners were absolutely thrilled.

Nothing at all to dislike from this run. Unfortunately the rest of the owner experience at Ludlow left a huge amount to be desired. My wife and I drove to the course and, being unfamiliar with it, followed the Car Park signs on to the track, parked our car and went to the entrance that had a clear sign outside including the word “Owners”. It was rather odd when we went through to be greeted with the rather brusque challenge, “You’ve come to the wrong entrance”. Not the ideal start, particularly when you are on the inside of the course and to get to the “right” entrance would have meant getting back into the car, driving round the perimeter road and into another car park, a distance of about two miles apparently. However, the lady in charge of issuing badges relented and I handed over my PASS card. I wasn’t particularly amused when she immediately commented, “We don’t see many of these”, as readers of this blog will know that I’m having endless problems with the PASS scheme. Anyway, we obtained our badges and went on to the track for the first race.

Unfortunately, when we meet up with two friends for whom we’d arranged badges, they told us that they had been refused entry initially, though they had eventually persuaded the O&T official to admit them. Then we met up with a co-owner and her husband, who had also been denied a badge and had had to pay £11 to get in. This despite the fact that we had emailed the course the previous day, as advised to do in accordance with the latest PASS FAQs, setting out which owners were going to attend and how many badges should be allocated to each. The personnel at both O&T entrances denied ever having seen the email – which was doubtless true, but says little for the administrative systems at the racecourse. We therefore remonstrated with the O&T desk and were referred to the Office, where we eventually secured the return of our co-owner’s husband’s money. (He reinvested it e/w on He’s A Bully at 20/1 and was well pleased.)

My negotiations with racecourse management in their offices on track are becoming a fairly regular occurrence, and this is all primarily because the PASS system just does not work for partnerships, as readers of the blog are well aware.

Which brings me back to the title of the blog, does British racing really want to see a big increase in owners (and, of course, paying for the additional 1,000 horses by 2020 which is an explicit goal for the BHA in their Strategy for Growth)? My impression is that the industry most definitely wants the horses, the owners and their money, but I don’t think it has genuinely thought through the operational implications of how racecourses will accommodate new owners, particularly when they are in partnerships, syndicates and similar co-ownership structures.

A practical example illustrates this. Many Owners & Trainers’ lounges just cannot accommodate the number of owners. We have tracks such as Wincanton and Warwick that now restrict the number of badges they give out because the lounges are too small. This is a completely ridiculous situation. Even an idiot would say that the more obvious answer is to find or build a bigger lounge so that when you have attracted more owners to the course you can properly accommodate them.

Not surprisingly I will be revisiting this theme throughout the year. There is no point at all marketing and promoting ownership and then providing a poor, and I’m afraid on occasions declining, experience. I’ve just taken a shot at Ludlow and I think it’s only a matter of time before I do the same at other tracks that are failing to embrace the need for a better owner experience. And this of course is before we’ve even touched again on owner prize-money – which in Ludlow’s defence is one of their stronger features.


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Wednesday, 15 February 2017

PASS System, Round 2 …. and Has the Race Course Association Learnt the Lesson?


Dealing with racing administration makes you want to tear out your hair, and drives you to drink. Actually I don’t have any hair to tear out, and as an enthusiastic wine drinker I need little encouragement, but you get the drift. Before moving on to the frustrations of the PASS system, I noted that Cheltenham is going to tighten up its drinks policy and apparently one won’t be able to order more than four drinks at a time at the Festival. I’ll be amused to see how that policy works out in practice!

At the end of last year I wrote a couple of blogs looking at the shambles of the Weatherbys Bank upgrade, and then equally the launch of the new PASS card system for owner admission to the racecourse. Both were handled badly, and I hammered both organisations for what seemed to be a woeful lack of user testing prior to launch, which resulted in considerable frustration for many owners. This has rumbled on over the last few months, and indeed I’ve heard a number of owners say that they are going to quit the game because of the endless hassle and seeming lack of progress in simplifying, integrating and automating owner administration in a way that actually works. Amazingly on both counts we seem to have gone full circle, with Weatherbys and the RCA reintroducing important aspects of the old system that shouldn’t have been taken out in the first place, and would not have been if a half-hearted attempt had been made to ask users what was important.

I’d argue that there is a huge mind-set issue behind all of this. Weatherbys and the Race Course Association (RCA) have shown an arrogant disdain for owners. In effect there is a culture clash between young, non-owning, technology-loving types designing and implementing the systems for considerably older, technology-wary owners. All of which argues for well-planned, highly sensitive user testing and feedback to ensure that the complexities of British racing and the subtleties of the various ownership structures are properly incorporated within any administrative process and change, which definitely didn’t happen throughout 2016.

However, as we move through this year, there is a massively bigger change in the system with the proposed introduction of an online owner portal. My wife and I were involved in an early meeting to review this and made a number of recommendations for improvement, and we are heading towards another meeting with the BHA administrative team, which interestingly is being held at Dan Skelton’s yard at Alcester next week, 21st February. I suspect I will be considerably more motivated by what is going on at the Skelton yard than on the computer screen in front of me, but I have promised to be on my best behaviour and provide constructive feedback. Will this be a case of “third time lucky”, and a system is eventually launched that works?

Interestingly the BHA is doing a series of road shows across the country, with invitations being sent out recently to all stakeholders, and I am going to the one at Cheltenham on 2nd March. They have asked for questions to be submitted in advance, and I’m assembling a barrage, particularly to do with change management. It is no good whatsoever for strategic proposals to be discussed, if the execution of them is lamentable. At the last road show I raised a number of points about integrity, which were quite frankly ignored, and yet with hindsight I don’t think I had appreciated how big an issue this was, as it blew up with the Jim Best incident. A long time ago, one of my mentors in business argued that the most deadly combination of behaviours in a senior executive team is arrogance + complacency + incompetence. As readers of this blog will know, I’ve been a big supporter of a number of the changes being made by the BHA, so will be really angry if the launch of the online owner portal turns out to be another own goal. Most of my questions at the Skelton yard meeting will be to do with not just the functionality of the system, but the change management plans for implementing it.

I’ll be absolutely delighted if 2017 sees a significant improvement in owner administration and the launch of the new systems, and am really hoping that in future blogs on this subject over the year I will be able to report on successful, sensitive and user-friendly implementation. Alas, I still fear that won’t be the case. BHA, RCA and ROA, please do everything possible to prove me wrong!


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Wednesday, 1 February 2017

“Come Friendly Bombs and Drop on Kempton Park” (amongst other courses), with Apologies to Sir John Betjeman


There’s a super book by Chris Pitt entitled A Long Time Gone, which examines the history of racecourses which have closed down. If you ever enter a pub quiz on the subject it is a must-read: “Which track had the Grand Nationals during the First World War, one of which was won by Lester Piggott’s grandfather?” (Gatwick); “Which track has the record of the world’s longest continuous bar?” (Bromford Bridge, Birmingham); “Where does John McCririck want his ashes to be scattered?” (Alexandra Park); “Which track provided the turf for Ascot’s National Hunt course?” (Hurst Park). Easy, eh?

It now looks as though Kempton Park could well be added to the list. Just before I went on holiday, an announcement was made by the Jockey Club that they want to sell off 200+ acres and close down the course, raising at least £100m which together with extra injection of £400m+ over the next decade will unlock the potential of Sandown Park, build a new floodlit all-weather track at Newmarket and put substantial extra sums into prize-money.

I must admit that I didn’t give it a huge amount of thought while on holiday, with the attractions of chilled South African chardonnay and the gorgeous vistas on the Cape blotting out British racing for a while. So I was rather surprised when I got back to find out that the proposal had generated an enormous amount of invective and controversy. I should probably nail my prejudices to the mast before going any further – I have a top 10 of courses that I really dislike going to, and in alphabetical order they are Chelmsford, Ffos Las, Kempton, Lingfield, Newcastle (A/W), Plumpton, Southwell, Towcester, Wolverhampton and Worcester. I wouldn’t mind any of Sir John Betjeman’s bombs landing on these courses. The owner experience is dreadful at all of them, and with the exception of the King George VI on Boxing Day, Kempton is one of the dreariest, most soulless places that can be envisaged.

Increasingly, I think, racecourses are segmenting into three groups: the top tracks with fabulous facilities and festivals; the bottom tracks where quite frankly it doesn’t matter whether there are any customers or not, as their profitability is to do with betting and media rights; and then those in between which have a strong local following even when the experience is somewhat lacking. Kempton I would put firmly into the category where attendance doesn’t matter, even though I’m more than prepared to accept the counter-argument that substantial investment might be able to change that. But even then, if I had a choice between a souped-up Kempton or a transformed Sandown, I know where I’m going.

What have the Jockey Club actually proposed?

  • Close Kempton and sell the land for housing: dispose of 230 acres with the potential for building 3,000+ homes, raising at least £100m. It is uncertain whether Spelthorne Borough Council is in favour of this, but in line with national planning policy over the next 20 years they have got to find somewhere to put 15,000+ additional dwellings. Seems an inviting proposition to me.
  • Transfer the Kempton fixtures: disperse 13 prime jumps fixtures to other courses around the country, both small and large, and particularly in the north. This spreads the benefits of the meetings to other tracks and the Jockey Club have also promised further investment at these courses. The King George VI would go to Sandown. Of course it wouldn’t be the same race, but I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be a spectacular Christmas event. Surely many of the great names of the past could just as easily have won at Sandown: Arkle, Captain Christy (and I can still see so clearly in my mind’s eye his thrashing of Bula by 30 lengths in the 1975 race), Desert Orchid, Kauto Star and now Thistlecrack.
  • Substantial ongoing investment: starting with a transformational rebuilding of Sandown, its facilities and track and building a new A/W course near The Links at Newmarket. The Sandown proposal sounds particularly exciting, as it is a course which has looked pretty jaded for a while. They want it to become London’s premier dual-code racecourse. In addition to the £100m+ from the sale they are going to raise and invest a further £400m (presumably from profit and / or bonds similar to that which funded the £45m Cheltenham transformation) over the next decade, with over half of that money going into owner prize-money: an increase of 54% on the previous level over 10 years and which is very welcome at £25m per annum.
What’s not to like about this? Clearly a lot, as the press / social media reaction was 99% against all of it, the arguments being: the Jockey Club remit / Royal Charter is to be a guardian of racing and protector of courses (Nicky Henderson in particular described the role of his father in setting up Racecourse Holdings Trust in the 1960s that bought Cheltenham, Market Rasen, Nottingham and Wincanton and then United Racecourses that brought in Epsom, Sandown and Kempton); National Hunt can’t afford to lose such a course, that has very reliable ground, and Sandown is too vulnerable to wet weather; Londoners need local courses; it will disadvantage trainers in the South-West and Lambourn with much further travel for the A/W; and it erodes the heritage, heart and soul of jumps racing. Phrases such as “absolute disgrace” and “cultural vandalism” have been freely bandied about. Lots of heat under lots of collars.

When I read about all of this, I wondered how many people had actually been to Kempton to experience its dubious delights. With the notable exception of the King George meeting on Boxing Day, there is no particular reason for wanting to go there. I can’t see why one wouldn’t take horses to similar tracks, such as Huntingdon and Newbury, or further afield Aintree, Doncaster, Haydock or Southwell. I accept that the ground at Sandown in the middle of the winter can be poor, but so many NH trainers are now avoiding the depths of the winter to concentrate on the two “shoulders”, so it is not quite the problem it is often made out to be. In terms of the all-weather, if you look at this strategically, where would you want courses to be – near Newmarket, Lambourn and Middleham. Having a course at Newmarket seems to me an extremely good idea, although many argue that HQ should only be about top quality horses. I don’t have the statistics but I wouldn’t mind betting there are several thousand horses who don’t fit that description and are regularly seen out on the Heath. Presumably lots of these will appear on an A/W surface.

This controversy is bound to run and run, and there will be a huge amount of negotiation and fine detail to develop. As you can tell, I’m firmly in support and I believe that Simon Bazalgette and his colleagues at the Jockey Club are to be applauded for taking a strategic perspective that I am convinced is in the best interests of racing. It will strengthen the long-term financing of the sport and be good for owners. I hope they succeed.



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Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Let’s Give ITV Racing and the Opening Show a Chance to Demonstrate their Worth


It was certainly a tremendously exciting end to 2016 on the National Hunt scene, not least because of the superb runnings of the Colin Tizzard superstars, Thistlecrack, Cue Card, Native River and then, more recently the highly promising staying youngster, Finians Oscar. There is a feel of a movement in the tectonic plates of top British NH racing here, with so much concentration of firepower in a yard that is as popular as it is professional. It is hardly grassroots racing, but I’m convinced that most owners and racegoers feel that this is a super trainer, without necessarily being a super-power yard full of the very richest owners in the land.

Christmas also demonstrated the enormous popularity of racing, particularly over jumps, with record crowds. Apparently over 204,000 racegoers turned out on Boxing Day, which was more than ever before. It would be mean-spirited to make any negative comments on the so-called “brilliant raceday experience”, which is how one of the Racecourse Association (RCA) officials described it, but there is still a real need to convert this racing enthusiasm into higher levels of attendance throughout the year. Apparently most racegoers only attend one, or possibly two maximum, race days per year and then only at their local track. If British racing could encourage them to attend just one more day, it would be one huge step forward in the economics of the sport – definitely a challenge for those who promote and market it.

Maintaining a high profile for the sport on terrestrial television has always been a tremendously important element in that marketing and promotion. People need to grow up with the sport and become enthusiastic when young, because it has been demonstrated that when this happens they tend to stay with racing throughout their lives. Certainly when I was a teenager I was an avid follower of BBC and Peter O’Sullevan, and also the pioneers of ITV such as John Oaksey and Brough Scott, and I can still remember the “pleasures” of losing money steadily every Saturday on the ITV-7. Indeed, the Little Oak in Chester was the pub I always went to, and last time I called in it hadn’t changed much over the years ….. although the TV was massively bigger. The switch from ITV to Channel 4 was a positive one in terms of the quality of presentation, but like the Little Oak it needed a fair bit of refurbishment after 32 years. Channel 4 Racing and the Morning Line had definitely become flat and stale (unlike the excellent hand-pumped beer in the Little Oak), and most racegoers and owners that I’ve spoken to were happy to see a change.

It wasn’t a propitious start, with the new ITV line-up committed to broadcast live from the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham regardless of the drenching they received. The friendly and professional Ed Chamberlin appeared to cope manfully with everything, though apparently all his notes were destroyed in seconds, and his iPad gave up the ghost in the terrible weather. Oli Bell and Luke Harvey were well received, though unfortunately Matt Chapman confirmed the “Marmite” reaction that you either love him or loathe him. If you throw in A.P. McCoy, Mick Fitzgerald, Alice Plunkett and Richard Hoiles and (to be sexist for a moment) some eye-candy in Victoria Pendleton and the good-looking weather forecaster whose name I can’t remember, it seemed a decent team. The first edition of The Opening Show also seemed modern and professional, with some excellent features and a much lighter tone than the old Morning Line.

Unfortunately the overall reaction has been quite mixed, with the viewing figures on New Year’s Day being higher than previous years although not massively so, and The Opening Show, which goes out on ITV4, wasn’t especially popular. Personally I really hope that they can build up the numbers, and do so dramatically, as it really matters to the sport. It seems clear from the initial broadcasts that they have made a decision to pitch the commentary, tone and style of the shows at a much broader audience, rather than the die-hard enthusiasts and punters. That led quite a few to criticise them for “dumbing down” racing, although that seemed a bit harsh when set against the high quality of the production.

ITV has a four-year contract as racing’s exclusive terrestrial broadcaster, and we wish them well. We definitely need them, and high viewing figures, if terrestrial coverage is to be guaranteed into the future.


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Sunday, 1 January 2017

Yes, It’s Resolutions Season Again for British Racing – Time for the Sport to Kick On


I know it’s a bit hackneyed but it always seems appropriate to reflect on the past year and focus on New Year’s resolutions. Mine are easy: weight down, alcohol down, exercise up. Job done then (same every year).

On the horse front, I already know that 2017 is going to see Owners for Owners involved with more horses either in training or in the pipeline than we’ve ever had, at 23. We’ve come a tremendous way in less than five years and it just shows the latent demand that exists for owners to come into the sport or increase their involvement if the whole experience is made easy and enjoyable. I’m not blowing our trumpet here, because that’s what the vast majority of our owners tell us. Indeed the other day I worked out that if you add up all the horses that our owners and friends are now associated with, it is well over 100, whereas it was fewer than 10 in 2012. Just shows what can be done.

So what is the collective view of Owners for Owners on ten resolutions for British racing? The top three are critical and the other seven are enablers.

  1. Transform the governance of integrity. A huge issue, but from Mahmood al-Zarooni in April 2013 to the resolution of the Jim Best scandal in December 2016, British racing has seriously damaged its credibility and reputation. This isn’t the blog to dig into the detail of the problem, but we’re pointing the finger at the three Cs: complacency, cronyism and corruption. The whole of the supply chain of racing, from breeding to training and ownership to sales, needs to come under the searchlight with substantial tightening of governance and far greater transparency and scrutiny. Our real fear is that the first C on that list – complacency – will inhibit the significant changes now required.
  2. Secure far more funds for racing. Hopefully in April the new post-Levy arrangements will come into force with full Government support, and that should be a huge step forward. But it remains to be seen whether the hostilities with major bookmakers can be properly overcome and equally whether racecourses will share far more of their income with owners and the sport. Our view is that at least £50m of additional funding needs to be captured and reinvested. Maybe more.
  3. More owners and a much better experience. Without more owners coming in to the game, increasing their involvement and being retained by the sport, then racing’s economics are fundamentally impaired. There are two dynamics that we’ll be examining in more detail in 2017 blogs: firstly whether there is a fundamental decline taking place at the grass roots ownership level, and secondly whether foal over-production is a real issue or not. If there were more owners buying more young horses, there wouldn’t be a problem. Indeed globally it looks as though stallions, mares and foals have declined by up to 50% since 2007. The real market dynamic looks to be lack of demand rather than over-supply.
  4. Bridge the gap between the top echelons and the grass roots. A resounding view of all our owners is that money needs to flow into the grass roots of racing rather than continually pump-priming the top end of the sport. The day I win the Derby or the Cheltenham Gold Cup, I really don’t believe prize-money will be bothering me. On the other hand, running in £5,000 total prize-money novice hurdles at so-called good tracks is insulting. Racecourses are taking the proverbial in some of this.
  5. Active promotion of co-ownership in all its forms. 50% or more of all owners start off in some form of partnership or syndicate. The sport needs to make it even easier to come into the game through this route. As always, simplify the administration, actively promote and market syndicates and reinforce best practice and good standards through proper guidelines and codes of practice.
  6. Boost business skills of trainers. We believe that trainers are the number one “gatekeepers” of the sport. The initial owner contact with an enthusiastic and skilled trainer who combines being a horseman with being a businessman has the greatest impact on ownership. Alas the vast majority of trainers are borderline insolvent and sadly lacking in the necessary marketing, communication, promotion and finance skills. In conventional business there would be a huge emphasis on coaching and professional development. It is a sign of the problem that even raising this would probably lead to resistance from most trainers.
  7. Smarten up racecourses. With a few very obvious exceptions, many racecourses are just tatty from an owner experience standpoint. Signage is poor, car parks muddy, owner and trainer rooms scruffy and so on. Each racecourse should appoint a non-executive director to scrutinise the whole of their owner experience, and in particular, look at it from the perspective that the average age of owners is almost 60.
  8. Build more partnerships. Racing, trainers and syndicates try to do far too much on their own. There is immense goodwill for the sport, which is barely tapped into. There are a huge number of natural alliances between racing, other sports, the hospitality industry, retailers etc. I am going to do some work in this area in 2017 for one of our trainers, and have been itching to do so for quite a time.
  9. Teach the authorities the basics of change management. There have been two pathetic failures of “process change” in 2016, with Weatherbys Bank and the RCA / ROA pass card. This is self-inflicted damage. We have even heard of owners saying that rather than face any more hassle they will quit the sport, which is completely unacceptable. Before launching any more systems, will the authorities please properly test them, with user groups of owners. Non-owning, technology-savvy youngsters designing change for low-tech 60-something owners is a recipe for disaster.
  10. A better year for Owners for Owners horses. While we have had some terrific times, on and off the track, this year will always be remembered for the sad demise of The Fugitive at the beginning of the year and Lord Ben Stack at the end of it. Huge sadness, which is taking some time to get over. May all our horses win in 2017, but more importantly, still be with us at the end of the year.
That’s it for now. Hope the hangovers aren’t too bad, and have a great year. 


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.