Friday, 15 December 2017

Trust, Transparency and Integrity in Racing – The Concluding Part 4 of the Series.

It’s been interesting as I’ve written the blog series around the subject of trust, transparency, integrity and corruption that not a single owner I’ve talked to about it has disagreed with anything I’ve raised. As in everything to do with life and commerce, perception really matters and unfortunately the overriding perception is that the breeding supply chain that brings horses through to owners is inherently stacked against the owner. On occasions it is almost certainly corrupt, and almost daily there are practices being perpetrated that while probably not illegal, lack the necessary standards of integrity.

It is clearly very difficult to gauge the overall impact of this on racing and ownership, but I definitely believe that the BHA is taking the right stance by putting a much greater focus on integrity in all aspects of our sport and is prepared to examine breaches of the necessary standards in the context of the whole sales process.

There must be an irony that I’m writing this blog having just bought a foal today at Goffs in Ireland, and when this blog goes live I’ll be attending the Tattersalls Cheltenham sale with some friends who are prepared to invest deeply. Unfortunately I can’t help but feel that owners are receiving inadequate value for money on too many occasions and cumulatively that must be acting as a potential barrier to new owners coming into the sport while discouraging retention of the owners who are already active supporters.

So I thought it timely to reflect on my “top ten” recommendations for addressing these problems. They are not in any priority order but I do believe that if the BHA puts a searchlight on them, it will definitely be to the greater benefit of the whole ownership community.
  1. Develop an end to end integrity framework. What I mean by this is to map out every stage in the equine supply chain from breeding through to the eventual retirement of the racehorse. At every step in the chain there is potential for corruption, and this should be mapped out so that the level of risk is made explicit.
  2. Set integrity standards. Having mapped out the supply chain, it is then possible to state unambiguously what the necessary personal, professional and commercial standards should be, and what is acceptable or unacceptable behaviour.
  3. Monitor and police those standards. Having developed an integrity framework and set the appropriate standards, the BHA then needs to have inspectors who can then monitor and identify the perpetrators of unacceptable practice. The whole industry through the various stakeholder groups to have been warned in advance of what is unacceptable behaviour and for this to be built into the rules of racing.
  4. Identify and copy best practice. Other countries, particularly Germany, are determined that the breed is strengthened on an ongoing basis by not allowing substandard mares to produce foals. The performance record of stallions should be tracked and minimum standards set for mares. The recent requirement for horses with first-time wind ops to be reported is a step in the right direction because over time it should be possible which stallions are passing on higher than average wind problems.
  5. Give every horse a log book from day one. In the last blog I commented that you wouldn’t buy a £100,000 car without a log book, and I don’t see why you should do the same with horses. The racing authorities in England and Ireland as a minimum should make it a requirement that any veterinary treatment to any racehorse is logged, and that when the horse goes into any sale, a PDF of that document can be accessed online for one month before the sale date.
  6. Improve pre-sale veterinary inspections and change the charging policy. All horses being sold at public auctions should be inspected properly and thoroughly once, with the cost of that being paid by the vendor. A full inspection report should be available. Furthermore the vet making that inspection should be held liable for the quality of it. If the report is inaccurate, the vet should be held to account both commercially and professionally.
  7. Full declaration of anything performance-enhancing. I know that many trainers argue that owners and the racing public don’t understand the pros and cons and limitations of many veterinary treatments and procedures, but I do believe that they should be declared. It is why I’m in favour of transparency on wind operations, but I would extend that to all major interventions.
  8. No limits to transparency. The simple guiding principle should be that if access to a piece of information can provide a trainer, owner or punter with a commercial advantage, then that information should be in the public domain wherever possible. So for example should there be a requirement to disclose when a horse’s tendons have been fired?
  9. Fund more evidence-based research. Owners are losing money every day buying horses which are genetically predisposed to certain maladies and conditions that will significantly constrain their performance during their life as racehorses. The BHA should fund research to collect evidence over time that will identify more of these conditions. As they will be recorded in the horse’s log book, then an informed owner can make an appropriate decision not to invest.
  10. Have all the information readily available. In the age of social media, all information should be at owners’ and prospective buyers’ fingertips. There may well be an accusation of information overload, but it would be better for the information to be there if an owner wants to access it, than to be left in the unacceptable position of buying horses where there is significantly asymmetrical information, i.e. where the prospective purchaser knows far less than other interested parties upstream in the supply chain.
I’ve now been involved in buying and owning about 100 horses, either on my own or with co-owners. Unfortunately I believe that if I’d had full information I wouldn’t have bought at least 20% of them. Assuming an average total cost of £50,000, that’s £1m of money in effect wasted. This issue is that serious. I hope that in ten years’ time I won’t have to write another series raising the same ten recommendations. I fear that the first horse of the sale today ought to be called “Pigs May Fly” (Apologies to Lot 1, Ilsnepasserontpas, who I hope turns out to be a magnificent horse giving superb pleasure to whoever buys him.)

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, 1 December 2017

Why Disclosing Wind Operations is the Right Approach for British Racing. Part 3 of a Series Examining Issues in Integrity, Transparency, Trust and Corruption.

Anyone who’s been reading my blogs will know that a major theme, right from the start of Owners for Owners, is the need for British Racing to be far more transparent at every level of its operation – whether that is the governance of the BHA, the actions of trainers and owners, and across the whole breeding industry. So it’s hardly a surprise that I’m very much in favour of the change to the Rules of Racing whereby the BHA will introduce, on 19th January 2018, a requirement for trainers to declare when a horse in training in the UK has had wind surgery. Trainers will be compelled to do this prior to a horse’s first run after such surgery, and it will be revealed in race cards and newspapers with the initials WS. Trainers will have to tick a box at declaration time and indicate which of five procedures is relevant to that particular horse, even though there will be no indication to the racing public as to which has taken place.

The five procedures in upper airway surgery which will have to be declared are tie-back (prosthetic laryngoplasty), hobday (ventrilectomy / cordectomy), epiglottic surgery, tie-forward (dorsal displacement soft palate surgery) and soft palate cautery.

Since becoming an owner, I’ve been with vets, particularly Ben Brain, in the assessment of horses requiring all of these procedures and indeed have witnessed the operations themselves. As an example, Ben always assesses our horses initially through scoping of the larynx and palate and then, before deciding on an operation, does an overland scope where a small camera is put into the horse’s wind pipe and the horse is galloped. Ben then records the broadcast and reviews it to assess whether any surgical intervention is required to improve breathing. Normally it is obvious when that is the case, and particularly when the soft palate flips during a gallop, it is immediately apparent on the video, and usually the rider is equally aware of the moment when this takes place.

It has been obvious for a while that wind operations would need to be disclosed because they can certainly be performance-enhancing. The problem with this however (as punters will soon discover) is that wind operations themselves have a very mixed success rate and it can be very difficult to predict what the outcome is going to be. Like many aspects of veterinary practice, there is a need for a holistic perspective. With horses the challenge is whether the problem with respiratory conditions is to do with the structural operation of the wind pipe and larynx or whether it is more a mental issue with the horse being wary of exerting itself properly. However, I believe that everyone, and particularly punters, should be aware of wind operations and I’m certainly not someone who feels that the information is privileged and should only be available to trainers and owners.

In the context of this series of blogs on transparency, trust and corruption, there is a broader issue here which is that information asymmetry is at the heart of bad practice. If one group has access to information that another group doesn’t, then it is very easy for the privileged group to manipulate that knowledge for its own purposes and gain. I would argue that privileged access to information, or the limited release of it, is potentially the bedfellow of corruption.

So full marks to the BHA for taking this step, even though it wasn’t universally welcomed. One group, the Racehorse Owners Association, seemed to get hot under the collar about it, saying that they “did not feel it is in the best interests of the industry” and that it would be the owners who “would be compromised the most”. I find this disturbing because the ROA appears to have been at odds with the BHA on a couple of issues recently, and I fail to understand their stance at the moment. I’ve always been very much in favour of the ROA campaigning for improvement on fronts such as prize-money and the owner experience, but I don’t think they should be advocating a privileged position for owners in this area.

Obviously there are likely to be some negative commercial consequences as a result of the declarations, as indeed there most certainly should be. For some time it has been clear that a number of stallions are passing on respiratory defects, so you would expect their fees to decline. Equally there are a number of mares who probably shouldn’t be producing foals. I’ve long argued that the German system under which mares have to be assessed for conformation, racing standard and wellbeing should be adopted in the UK. There is clearly a risk that because we are adopting a different approach to France and Ireland, there will be a disincentive for horses racing and breeding in the UK. It will be interesting to see if any trainers elect to run horses for the first time after a wind operation outside the jurisdiction of the BHA. On the other hand, one of the greatest benefits that may come from the disclosure is proper research into the effect of wind operations. Over time it should become clear what their impact can be, and hopefully also on the stallions and mares which are genuinely improving the breed rather than passing on harmful defects.

In the next blog I will draw this series to a close by identifying ten practices that I’d like to see adopted under the greater transparency heading. In the meantime, despite a number of trainers and stakeholders grumbling about the declarations required on 19th January next year, I think it is a positive and bold step forward.

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 November 2017

Trust, Transparency and Teeth: Addressing Corruption in the Sales Ring. Part 2 of a Series.

In the last blog I raised a number of concerns about ethics, integrity and corruption in the equine supply chain, in the context of the launch by the BHA of their first annual Integrity Survey. The BHA quite rightly is determined to ensure that the public and participants in racing are confident that British Racing is run fairly and in accordance with the rules, that crime and corruption are deterred, prevented or penalised and that there is a level playing field for all competitors. The intention of the survey is to measure perceptions and the level of confidence around integrity in British Racing and to identify areas for improvement. The data for the survey will form a baseline against which the industry will be challenged to improve every year, and it will help racing identify where the greatest integrity risks to the sport are perceived to lie.

I completely agree with this emphasis because, without trust and confidence in the sport, it is impossible to grow it and increase the numbers of racegoers, punters and owners.

I also flagged up the review that has been launched by the BHA into the buying and selling of horses, and whether the current sales environment could be deterring existing and potential owners from pursing their involvement in racing. This struck home with a number of readers of the blog, and one comment encapsulated the reaction: “My experience of the sales ring is that it is an absolute snake-pit for the uninitiated. Good luck to the BHA trying to clean it up – the system is open to abuse where collusion between consignors and bloodstock agents is widespread, to the detriment of both the end client and the original seller.”

The reactions to this review have definitely been bipolar. On the one hand the auction houses, agents and a number of senior executives in the industry were complacent in the extreme, with the view being that “our auctions are the fairest and best in the world”, “integrity is our priority”, “we set the best possible standards” and “we’ve received no complaints”. All fine and dandy? At the other end of the scale, not a single owner in my network agrees with those comments and all believe that a tightening up of the sales process is long overdue. So with that in mind, this would be my checklist of areas for the review team to consider.

  1. Re-state and reset standards and expectations. Make it clear that illegal, fraudulent and corrupt practices will not be tolerated and will lead to exclusion of guilty parties from racing. To do that, a number of dubious practices need to be made explicit and illustrated with straightforward examples of what is acceptable and unacceptable.
  2. Independent scrutiny. The industry cannot be allowed to monitor and police its own practices. There needs to be a proper framework for assessment of bad / illegal practices, reinforced by a clear set of penalties.
  3. Require transparency on veterinary treatments and actual ownership. Would you buy a £100,000 car with no service record and no log book, and where your only real insight is a bit of tyre-kicking? From the date of a horse’s birth there should be an equine log book recording every single treatment. This log book should go online one month before the horse is sold so that it can be properly studied. All of the owners of the horse up to and including the date of the sale should be listed so that the prospective purchaser can assess who is actually selling the horse and whether (currently non-disclosed) interested parties are unduly influencing price.
  4. Introduce a Crimestoppers line. At the moment no-one is prepared to complain, particularly the consignors. Stallion masters and major agents are such dominant players that if they antagonise them they could be put out of business. To say that there are “no complaints” completely ignores the problem. Topically, that has certainly been the case with sexual harassment as well, in the media world and in politics.
  5. Ban luck money. No buyer, trainer or agent should be able to demand a financial reward from a vendor. It should neither be expected nor requested. Any money exchanged beyond the hammer price at an auction should be formally disclosed to the auction house, and recorded.
  6. Require immediate disclosure of reserve prices. Anyone who has been to a sale will have seen the bidding charade of “off the wall” bids, which is where the auctioneer reports non-existent bids to get the horse up to the reserve price. If a vendor puts a reserve on the horse, it should come up on the screen the second the horse walks into the ring.
  7. Ban the running up of prices by the vendor / connections. Bidding in the ring should only be done by genuine prospective purchasers. At the moment vendors are permitted to bid horses up. If the horse is bought back in, the connection between the person who does that and the vendor should be completely clear. There are dark rumours that a number of vendors are bidding up horses to huge levels and then splitting differences between themselves and agents when bought back in. Easy to do if you’re buying for overseas clients. As part of this, the under-bidder should be recorded to see whether they are connected or not.
That’ll do for the moment. I’m going to be extremely interested to see what the review identifies as unacceptable practices, but even more so, what anyone is prepared to do about them. Indeed it raises the critical question of whether the BHA itself has any regulatory power in this area. Who is going to regulate it, and how? More on that in the third part of this series.

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 November 2017

Where Does Racing Stand, on the Scale From Maximum Integrity Through to Frequent Corruption? Part 1 of a Series Examining This Issue

Back in my management consulting career I specialised in procurement and supply chains across major industries on a worldwide basis. In that capacity I advised companies with a total third party spend of well over £3 trillion. I once sat down and worked out how many suppliers in total our clients had, and it was many millions. Hardly surprising that by the end of my career any rose-tinted spectacles about commercial practices were well and truly shattered. I encountered corrupt supply chains every day of the week, usually as the result of cartels or quasi-cartels and overly dominant players, able to stitch up markets.

Indeed, in 1997 I actually co-authored a book entitled Transform Your Supply Chain: Releasing Value in Business. I’m sure you’ll be anxious to track down this “best-seller”. There are still copies sitting in a box in my spare bedroom and who knows you might even stumble upon one as a remainder item in a second-hand bookshop. However I still receive royalties so someone, somewhere out there is still interested in the subject. In 1998 my publisher, Thomson Business Press, told me that I was their “best seller in Belgium”. What an epitaph to put on my gravestone: “Big in Belgium”! I felt so proud until I asked them what that actually meant. Apparently the definition of a best-seller in the rather arcane world of business books is if it sells 1,000 copies in the first year. 90% of all books launched sell fewer than that. 90% of the remaining 10% never get beyond 2,000. That in itself just shows you how easy it is to misrepresent commercial practices in a supply chain – in this case, publishing.

Anyway I went to this “best-seller” ahead of writing the blog, and looked up Chapter 10 entitled Governance, ethics and supply sustainability. On the first page of each chapter I flagged up an overview and then a “bottom line”. There were seven points in the overview that I examined more closely in the chapter: (1) Corporate governance and ethical integrity, (2) Social commitment and ethical auditing, (3) Reducing environmental impact, (4) Responsible supply, (5) Dealing with manipulation in supply chains, (6) Countervailing measures for anti-competitive behaviour and (7) Remedies for supply collusion and monopolies. As you can see, it was hardly a light-hearted breeze through the subject. You only had to read the “bottom line” statement to see where I was coming from: “Everyone in an organisation needs to know the difference between acceptable and unacceptable commercial, social and environmental practice. Without such precision in ethical stance, the risk of a company severely damaging its reputation is unacceptably high. This can wreak havoc on brands, morale and shareholder value. Indeed, it can undermine the very sustainability of the business.”

It's hardly surprising that ever since I’ve been involved in buying and owning horses I’ve looked at the whole operation through the prism of ethical or unethical supply chain practices. Unfortunately I soon came to the conclusion that the racehorse supply chain is unacceptably prone to manipulation at best, and illegal corruption at worst.

Twelve years on from becoming an owner I was pleased to see that the BHA has launched a review into the buying and selling of horses. This is long overdue. There are all sorts of reasons why this is being done, not least the increasing concern that the processes adopted and the sales environment that owners encounter could be deterring existing and potential owners from pursuing or increasing their involvement in our sport. I suspect it isn’t a coincidence but the BHA has also recently done its first ever annual Integrity Survey (which I completed), aiming to measure perceptions and confidence around integrity in British racing and identify areas for improvement. The BHA emphasised that their integrity function is there “to ensure that the public and participants can be confident that British racing is run fairly and in accordance with the rules, that crime and corruption is deterred, prevented or penalised, and that there is a level playing field for competitors.”

Delighted to hear this, and an excellent sentiment. It is going to be extremely interesting to see whether the BHA and British racing has the necessary determination to map out exactly where distortion / corruption take place and then introduce the changes necessary to “deter, prevent or penalise”. Hopefully the review into the buying and selling process will be a good starting point.

Most interestingly though, when the review was launched, was the immediate reaction of agents and auction houses, both of whom collectively stated that they’d never encountered any malpractice at any stage in their lives. No-one had ever complained to them. Clearly everything in racing’s garden is just fine and dandy. Indeed, Goffs’ CEO, Henry Beeby, with mind-bending complacency, stated: “I am adamant British and Irish bloodstock auctions are as fair and transparent as they can possibly be.”

Well, well, well. The auction houses sit astride billion-pound supply chains with thousands of operators. Who would have thought that they’ve never, ever in their lives encountered any malpractice. The ethics and integrity hill, methinks, is going to be a hard one to climb. To be continued in the next 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.

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Well Done to the ROA on Passing the 8,000 Member Milestone – Do Join If You’re Not A Member

Owners for Owners have always been a big supporter of the Racehorse Owners Association and have worked closely with a number of their key executives over recent years, not least when supporting the BHA’s Pillar Team on Ownership and drives to encourage syndicates to become more transparent. Nothing at all has changed in our view about the ROA – it is absolutely vital that owners are properly represented as THE key stakeholder in racing, and this very much remains the case.

So full marks to the ROA who announced last week that they have reached their 8,000th member, which is a really significant milestone. They have doubled the membership base in the last 20 years and according to their press release there are ten times as many members now as there were in the late 1960s. Charlie Liverton, Chief Executive, emphasised that: “Owners have never had such a strong voice, and our involvement with the Horsemen’s Group and soon the Racing Authority means owners, as the single biggest investors in the sport, cannot be ignored.”

In the total scheme of things for owners, to join the ROA for a mere 63p per day (£230 per year) is an absolute bargain when you consider all the benefits provided. Don’t worry, I’m not paid to be their PR supremo, but here is a summary:

  • Free racecourse admission: members with 50% or more of a horse in training, or those running syndicates, enjoy free admission to over 1,300 fixtures through the Racecourse Badge Scheme for Owners, now administered through the PASS card. If you have less than 50% ownership, you still enjoy free admission at a choice of over 800 fixtures. The value of that, if you are a regular racegoer, is huge, with the ROA estimating that it is worth £500 per year alone.
  • Third party liability insurance: hopefully no-one ever has to use it, but it is a vital element to have, and annual membership of the ROA provides automatic cover for up to £10 million, worth almost £300 if you were taking out insurance on your own.
  • SIS Owner Sponsorship: which allows owners to reclaim VAT on the costs of ownership. Absolutely vital for those in yards that don’t have a sponsor. The ROA estimates this is worth on average at least £4,000 in reclaimed VAT.
  • 20% discount on most BHA registration fees: every little helps, as they say. On average this is worth £57 per member.
  • Thoroughbred Owner & Breeder magazine: as a member you receive a free copy every month, whereas to buy it costs £55 per year.
  • Car park label: which gives priority parking at racecourses on virtually all race days, which is a good saving as well.
  • £2,000 weekly Owners’ Jackpot: offering members the opportunity to win bonuses on top of prize-money.
  • Expert advice: the ROA is an excellent source of information to owners and, should it be necessary, can arrange legal advice as well.
  • Hospitality and social events: there are regular offers for exclusive hospitality facilities as well as a wide range of social events and visits.

So it is a no-brainer really, isn’t it, to be a member?

Having said all that, I’d still like to see the ROA have a much more active role in British racing, and be increasingly assertive in arguing the case for owners at racing’s top table, particularly the owners who represent the grass roots of the sport. I still believe that across racing the top trainer / owner / breeder perspective is given too much credence, and on occasions there can still be a rather patronising approach adopted towards those who are racing primarily at Class 4 levels and below at the lesser tracks.

From a strategic perspective I believe a lot more could be done to give real visibility to the improvement gaps necessary across every element of racing and the racehorse supply chain. And, most importantly, the steps needed to address them properly. In other words I don’t just want the ROA to be a representative body; I’d like them to step up to the plate and become much more a campaigning group. The more members they have, the better, and I hope in the not too distant future we see them hit the huge milestone of 10,000 members. Well done to Charlie Liverton and his team.

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.

Sunday, 1 October 2017

We’ve Had the NH Trainers’ Owners’ Days – So Proper Racing is About to Start

For enthusiastic National Hunt owners, September is usually all about attending the elaborate owners’ days put on by the vast majority of National Hunt trainers. Not many Flat trainers do this, as it is pretty challenging to organise a parade of skittish yearlings or 2yos, but it is an enjoyable feature of the National Hunt world which owners really look forward to. As we’ve gone through September all our NH trainers have had these days, so a special thank-you to Messrs. Hobbs, Honeyball, Keighley, Longsdon and Snowden, and also their wives, assistant trainers, secretaries, head grooms and all the staff and helpers. Oh yes – and the horses.

An immense amount of work goes into these owners’ days, and they can come with a not inconsiderable cost. Yard improvements that have been under way over the summer have to be completed; boxes scrubbed clean and repainted; invitations sent out; brochures written and printed; marquees assembled and various purveyors of plentiful food and wine contracted for the day. Stress levels and blood pressure inevitably rise as a million and one last-minute things have to be done. But it’s definitely worthwhile, with a huge amount of goodwill engendered and a really strong sense of yard identity fostered.

It is interesting how the format of the owners’ day can vary between trainers. Philip organised a formal lunch in a marquee with horses not paraded (unless the owners requested this), but a full commentary provided by Philip, Richard Johnson, Johnson White and Mick Fitzgerald. Anthony held his event inside his enormous indoor school from mid/late afternoon, with a plentiful supply of top-quality canapes and cakes, champagne and wine. Martin paraded all his horses and then cantered them around his brand-new, state-of-the-art, two-furlong carpet loop before the owners demolished a hog roast and a prodigious amount of soft drinks, Pilsner lager and wine (served by the author of this blog, with enthusiasm if not a particularly great amount of skill). Charlie organised a mid-morning gourmet brunch for owners, followed by a parade of horses. He was also brave enough to school a number of horses. The parade and schooling were also open to the general public, proving very popular, with several hundred non-owners turning up. Finally Jamie had a parade of horses with the commentary supported by the amusing Richard Pitman, followed by a Thai-themed lunch and bar. Great variety in timings, formats, food and drink, but a strong common denominator of lots of enjoyment.

Everyone in British Racing talks about the need to “maximise the owner experience” as a prime means of attracting new owners into the sport and retaining the current ones. For me, the organisation by trainers of owners’ days is one of the greatest contributions to helping owners really enjoy the sport. It’s very interesting listening to the trainers’ comments on their various horses; the hopes and dreams that we all have at this stage of the year are firmly alive, with so much to look forward to; and it is one of the few opportunities where owners can meet and network with all the other owners, friends and families associated with the yard.

Despite the cost and the considerable workload, long may our NH trainers continue with these enjoyable events. Many thanks to everyone concerned, and may all the yards I have mentioned have a tremendously successful season – not least with our Owners for Owners horses.

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 September 2017

Dealing with “Non-Runners”, Part 2 – It’s All About Who Enjoys the Incentives and Suffers the Penalties

In the last blog I summarised the ten proposals from the BHA designed to reduce the number of non-runners, i.e. horses withdrawn after declaration. Three categories of this account for 90% of the absentees: self-certification by trainers (which was granted to them as an appeasement when 48-hour declarations were introduced), vets’ certificates and going changes. Apparently in 2016 there were 8,393 of such non-runners, around 8.5% of all declarations. On balance I agree that the withdrawal of these horses is bad for racing, particularly because it reduces overall competitiveness of the sport, has a negative impact on betting with Rule 4 deductions and changes to each-way terms, and reduces the income of jockeys when they don’t ride the horses.

On the face of it the proposals seem pretty reasonable and are designed to make trainers think twice about withdrawing horses after declaration, so there will be quarterly league tables, trainers may lose the right to self-certify, there will be a two-day quarantine period during which a horse will not be able to race if it has been withdrawn under a vet’s certificate and there could be an increase in payment to jockeys for late non-runners after 9:00 am from the current 40% to a full riding fee.

Doubtless there is a small minority of trainers who regularly misuse the current system, and it is legion how many horses with unfavourable draws seem to develop problems after they are declared at tracks with pronounced biases such as Beverley, Chelmsford and Chester. I have absolutely no problem with punishing those trainers and naming and shaming the worst abusers, but I definitely take issue with the proposals on a number of fronts, particularly related to penalties, incentives and the risk of unintended consequences.

On the penalties, I am strongly opposed to owners having to pay full jockey fees if their horse is withdrawn. The default position in racing is always to assume that the owner will pay, and I am fundamentally in opposition to any more increases in cost for owners. Also this decision is taken by trainers primarily (although hopefully in consultation with the owner). One of the proposals is that the decision time is moved to 9:00, which also seems logistically complex. It means that trainers might now need to talk to owners before 9:00, 10:00 and 12:00 because of the different times required for entries and declarations. That shouldn’t be allowed.

At the same time, from an owner perspective, the comments in the press once the proposals were announced about “marginal changes in going” missed some of the key points. For the grass-roots owner, racing at Class 4 and below, we all know that the financial return is miserly and the costs not inconsiderable. We also know that most horses have a clear preference for certain types of ground. Unfortunately we also know that racecourses are incentivised to have races of eight or more runners, with the result that Clerks of the Course to make an assessment of the going that they know will lead to non-runners. Many is the time when I’ve been racing to find that the ground is different by a considerable margin from that which is officially stated. Taking into account the cost of jockeys, stable staff and transport, never mind the cost for the owner of getting to the racecourse, It is likely to cost between £500 and £1,000 every time a horse races. In the last ten days I’ve had one horse come 3rd winning £252 and another 4th winning £275. Unless you are pretty confident that the ground is going to be right and the horse is going to run well, there often isn’t a lot of point in racing.

If these proposals are introduced, I think another set needs to be framed making explicit the accountabilities of the racecourses for objectively assessing the state of the ground. Let’s have league tables of racecourses where race times indicate when the tracks have clearly got it wrong. Indeed, going further, if the racecourses really want to increase the number of runners they should incentivise owners to race their horses by giving them a minimum of £100 appearance money. I wouldn’t mind arguing for a greater amount of money than this, but I’m being realistic. I have always felt that owners shouldn’t be paying to enter their horses, but courses should pay us for the privilege of having our horses race on their tracks.

Finally, and it should go without saying, any trainer should be allowed to withdraw their horse on welfare grounds if it is clearly unwell, suffering or not right. Perhaps, though, the definition of these terms could be tightened up so that trainer assessments are logged and analysed. But racing must put welfare first and to be fair to the BHA, from the chief executive down they passionately agree with that argument.

The whole issue of applying penalties and incentives is worth more detailed consideration right across racing. That feels as though a properly funded research study would be of value. Without that, there is always a risk that levers are inappropriately applied and unintended consequences occur. Many owners at the moment are so discouraged by the very poor returns that it is actually a much easier decision than many believe to decide not to run a horse rather than to run it. Let’s have far more incentives to run, rather than too many punishments being applied for not doing so.

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, 1 September 2017

Dealing with “Non-Runners” – Not a Non-Issue but Not a Nuclear One, Neither – Part 1, The Proposals

Firstly, apologies for the poor grammar of the heading. Shocking from a former Head Boy of Chester City Grammar School, where I first developed my passion for racing. Many a so-called private study afternoon was spent on the Roodee. Indeed, as a leading question into today’s blog, how many readers remember the redoubtable Pee Mai? Although they didn’t exist in the early 1970s, this horse was a veritable ATM for me. The poor horse was completely blind in his right eye, so his trainer would run him on right-handed tracks to get the weight down, then switch him on to the left-handed track of Chester. Usually starting at double-figure prices, if he had a low draw he would go round the running rail like a greyhound and was unstoppable. On the other hand, if he was drawn high it was funny how he seemed to develop a snuffle or cough on the morning of the race and was withdrawn. Or there was a convenient stone for him to step on.

That trend of non-runners at Chester, and similar tracks such as Beverley, is just one contributing factor that has disturbed the officer’s mess of British racing. In the middle of the dog-days of August, the spirit of collaboration and consensus of our sport’s tripartite structure blew up. Captain Wayman, gallant and dapper, of the BHA put forward ten proposals to curb the curse of late withdrawals. Such a reasonable chap as ever, his proposals were described as “proportional, balanced and targeted”. They had no sooner been launched than a huge barrage was fired off from Lieutenant Liverton of the ROA, decidedly hot under the collar. “The protection of the welfare of its horses and people” must come first. In waded Padre Arnold of the NTF with cautious support. Before you could blink, the tin hats were on again, with Corporal “Clot” Clare of Corals sniping between the eyes with audacious comments such as: “What business would be happy to deliver such major and costly customer dissatisfaction so frequently? Only a business that is happy to decline in popularity ….” Not to be outdone, up popped Sapper Dale Gibson of the PJA demanding that trainers were taken away and bull-whipped, and requiring owners to pay for jockeys who had lost their rides on the day. Mutineer Mottershead of the Racing Post, as usual, went right over the top (but not the trenches) and questioned whether the whole regulatory tripartite structure of the BHA should be reviewed.

Crikey! What on earth triggered this bombardment of bluster? Actually it is a pretty serious issue and not as straightforward necessarily as it looks. I’ll deal with some of the issues in Part 2 of the blog. Here is the context: since 2016, there has been an 8% rise in the number of non-runners. Three categories account for 90% of absentees after declaration time: self-certificates (from trainers), vet’s certificates, and withdrawals due to going changes. While the “vast majority of trainers operate within the spirit of the rules” (Wayman), that is clearly not always the case. In 2016 there were 8,393 non-runners equating to 8.56% of all declarations. So, to deal with this, ten proposals have been made:

  1. The BHA will publish tables showing individual trainer non-runner rates from the previous 12 months at the end of each quarter.
  2. Any trainer with more than 100 declarations in the period with a non-runner rate above a published threshold percentage (namely 50% above the average non-runner rate) will be suspended from using self-certificates for 12 months.
  3. Any trainer above the threshold but not included within the published data (owing to having fewer than 100 declarations during the previous 12 months) would have their situation reviewed. Any such trainer may be suspended from using self-certificates if it is considered appropriate by the BHA.
  4. Any horse who has been declared as a non-runner with a vet’s certificate would not be able to race on the two days following the race.
  5. Stewards to hold an enquiry where a horse is scheduled to run on identical going as that on which it had been withdrawn during the previous month because of the ground. Where a pattern arises, or where it is considered circumstances warrant it, action may be taken such as preventing the horse from running.
  6. The number of going-related non-runners will remain under close scrutiny, particularly when there has been only a marginal change in the going description. Should there be insufficient decline in the number of going-related non-runners, consideration will be given to the possibility of introducing a scale of going changes within the rules of racing and requiring a more significant change of going for a horse to be withdrawn, albeit with a greater degree of tolerance at the extremes of going.
  7. All cases of a late change to going descriptions (i.e. once racing has started), to be recorded and reviewed by the BHA, alongside situations in which a high percentage of horses are withdrawn having already arrived on the course. Where records indicate cause for concern, the BHA Racecourse Inspectorate Team will increasingly visit the relevant racecourse prior to race meetings to assess ground conditions and compare with the Clerk’s going description.
  8. BHA to encourage the ROA and PJA to agree that an owner will pay the full riding fee to the jockey of a non-runner declared after 9:00 on the day of the race. It is also proposed that this would take the place of any increase to the riding fee in 2018.
  9. In cases where non-runners incur a fine, the fixed £140 fine is to be substantially increased for any such non-runners declared after 9:00 on the day of the race.
  10. When considering whether to extend the 10:00 deadline for declarations under Rule F(90), any trainer who has declared more than one horse will be treated as if a maximum of one declaration has been made.
So there you have it. On the face of it, all perfectly reasonable. You’ll have to wait for the next blog to see why it has caused so much vituperation. Stretcher parties to the ready!

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Tuesday, 15 August 2017

On Apprentices, their Earnings and Expenses: Speaking Up for Both Trainers and Trainees in an Unfortunate Public Disagreement, Stirred up by the Racing Post

Two personal observations before getting into the debate on apprentices, their earnings and expenses. It’s very noticeable that all the Owners for Owners trainers – Karl Burke, Philip Hobbs, Anthony Honeyball, Martin Keighley, Charlie Longsdon and Jamie Snowden – are not just great trainers of horses but great trainers of people as well, whether their riding staff, conditionals or apprentices. They have helped many a young rider get on to the ladder and then go right to the top. I hadn’t really thought about this before, but it is all part of their ethos and approach, which is why they are training our horses. The second observation only happened yesterday, when one of our trainers shook hands with a youngster who is going to join the yard as a 7lb claimer, obviously able to claim 10lbs on occasion when he rides for the yard. What really impressed though was the look of real pleasure on the faces of both of them. The lad has ridden out at the yard and can’t wait to join the team, all of whom like him, so he will fit in well and is a really hard worker. The yard has a number of top riders working for them as well as an excellent jockey coach, so the lad is bound to get a tremendous amount of help, support and encouragement. The trainer involved knows what a good young rider he is taking on, and has already had excellent feedback from owners who are keen for him to ride their horse whenever appropriate. A classic win-win, and great to see.

However, Lee Mottershead triggered an unpleasant spat when he wrote an accusatory article in the Racing Post on 10th July pointing out: “the scandal involving Flat trainers knowingly exploiting apprentices attached to their yards”, which he saw as “a pretty appalling state of affairs”. Paul Struthers, CEO of the Professional Jockeys Association, strongly backed Mr. Mottershead, stating that “too many Flat trainers, and almost certainly the majority, are happy to take a share of their apprentice’s earnings …. without paying the expenses that the Rules of Racing require” (my italics). No-one was named, and Mr. Struthers indicated that the force of his statement was based on “anecdotal evidence”.

Hardly surprisingly, a number of trainers were upset by all of this, notably Richard Hannon, Andrew Balding and Karl Burke. I know the operation at Karl’s extremely well, and have had a lot of his young riders on board our horses over the years, often with great success. Indeed only last year, Clifford Lee (who was flagged up in the Racing Post articles because of his excellent and valuable winning ride for David Barron on Above The Rest in the Bunbury Cup) rode both Timeless Art and the late, lamented Lord Ben Stack to victory. Karl wrote a very detailed response that was published in the paper, and I heartily agree with the sentiments he expressed, not least that “trainers use (apprentices and conditionals) because of the value of their claim, not any financial gain (to the trainer). That is secondary.”

So what is the position, and the rights and wrongs of the current arrangement? Trainers pay the apprentice wages and reimburse them for equipment together with half their expenses while their allowance is at 7lbs or 5lbs including 22.5p per mile driven. There are clearly costs involved in training them, and as they become more experienced and take on external rides, they are not available to work for the trainer even though they are still being paid. In exchange, Flat trainers take a share of the apprentice’s earnings: 50% of any prize-money and between 50% and 20% of their riding fee, depending on their claim.

That system clearly can work well, provided that the trainer who receives the percentages of the apprentice’s earnings is properly paying the expenses. Messrs. Mottershead and Struthers assert that this is not the case, although no evidence was presented and there was no “naming and shaming”.

Personally, I would have thought that this whole issue could be resolved very quickly by a BHA working party to bring together the National Trainers Federation and the Professional Jockeys Association with a clear remit to “examine the nature and working practice of the training and commercial relationship between trainers and apprentices / conditional riders and, where appropriate, thoroughly modernise that relationship so that it demonstrably works well for both parties while encouraging young people to enter and remain in the sport”.

Doubtless there are some trainers who are exploiting the relationship and where the apprentices involved are too frightened to do anything about it for fear of losing rides. All yards have an annual BHA inspection, so why couldn’t the inspector ask to see evidence that expenses have been submitted and paid? Encouragingly there are many trainers who don’t want or earn anything from the apprentices, Paul Nicholls being a notable example. Finally a number of contractual frameworks and models are available that can be evaluated with improvements made where necessary. So for example changes could be adopted along clearer sliding scales whereby as the young rider loses some of the claim, so they retain a greater percentage of the prize-money.

The biggest risk must be one of unintended consequences whereby trainers decide it is too much hassle to take on and train youngsters, which would be a great loss to the sport. Less tangibly, it could also have a lifelong impact on the young people concerned. For apprentices in the right relationship with the right trainer, it can be a life-changing experience, not just about learning to ride, but how to handle themselves properly and professionally with a wide range of people. Alastair Down always said of David “The Duke” Nicholson that he was a “maker of riders; maker of men”. Many trainers across the country can hold their heads high as they shape the lives of a large number of young men and women. Improve the relationship where needed, but here’s hoping that it remains a productive and constructive one for the future.

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Tuesday, 1 August 2017

The Seven Sins of Racecourses and a Segway into Grass-Roots Owning Optimism

When preparing for this blog I had a think about the worst ownership experiences that I’ve endured. I remember back in management consulting days that for some unknown reason everyone talked about the “seven secrets of success”, so I thought I would build this blog around “seven sins of sloppy, surly service”. Regular readers of this blog will know that I suffer from the irritating habit of a love of alliteration – one of Hughes’ horrible habits. Maybe there should be an Owners for Owners award, and I’m definitely open to suggestions as to what the prize should be. I’ve done them in alphabetical sequence.

Catterick and its meal vouchers: on New Year’s Day my wife and I trekked all the way up to Catterick to watch Future Gilded win – which was fabulous. They had run out of meal vouchers. “Don’t worry”, they said at the O&T Desk, “they’ll see you right”. I went off to enjoy an exquisite Catterick lunch, queued for ages and then was refused service. Back to O&T desk. Still no vouchers and was told to go back and mention the name of the attendant. Back to the queue. Still a refusal to serve me. Sent off to “the Office”. They found me a voucher. Third time lucky, back to the queue. Bingo – served a beautiful, cold, gristly bap. A delightful owner experience.

Ludlow and its Owners’ & Trainers’ Admission: off to Ludlow for the first time and followed signs to the car park, then to the Owners’ & Trainers’ entrance on the inside of the track. Bounded in and presented my PASS card, they commented, “We don’t see many of them”. Told that I was at the wrong entrance – despite the sign. Equally told that I was in the wrong car park, and to get into the “right” one I’d have to drive back out again and proceed some distance to the other side of the course. However they relented and let me in. The first of our owners I bumped into on the course hadn’t been so lucky and had been asked to pay. Fortunately I had printed a copy of the email I had sent to the course listing the names of the owners who would be there. Again I was sent to “the Office” to clarify the situation. Their response was that they hadn’t received the email. Funny that. Every time I go to “the Office” brandishing an email, I’m told they hadn’t had it.

Plumpton and its Owners’ car park: arrived at the Sussex Riviera in a monsoon, tried to park the car, pointing to the ROA badge on the windscreen. The attendant refused to acknowledge it and wanted to see “the badge”. He made me get out of the car to find it in the boot. It wasn’t a badge but the PASS card he wanted. Allowed to park in the middle of a swamp. As with Ludlow I’d followed the signs correctly but arrived at the “wrong” car park.

Southwell and the winner’s room hospitality: half a dozen owners and friends travelled up to Southwell for the last race on the card. The horse won and we were taken to the winner’s room to celebrate with a glass of fizz. We were given the smallest quantity of champagne that I’ve ever received and, like Oliver Twist, I dared ask for more. After receiving another thimble full, the jobsworth then raised his arm, pointed to his watch and said, “Drink up, I’ve got a home to go to”. Charming.

Wincanton and prize-money: like many tracks, Wincanton is inclined to put the money into one or two races at the expense of the others, so the prize-money is derisory. Our horse came 4th in a really competitive, 17-runner handicap hurdle that will have driven a tremendous amount of Levy money. Our return? £238.

Wolverhampton and its lino: as far as I’m concerned, the least enjoyable race track in the world. To stand on its artificially surfaced paddock on a wet Wednesday evening in mid-winter is as dire as it gets.

Worcester and “family fun” days: what a dread phrase! Probably only rivalled by its “Ladies’ Day”, a term used extremely generously to describe the participants. A most awful experience.

And yet, despite all of this, I adore going racing and am still optimistic about the sport – which is where the segway comes in (or segue, as my wife would have it). There was a really encouraging announcement recently that grass-roots racing is going to receive an extra £9.7m in 2018 as the BHA tries to halt a decline in the number of horses taking part in races at Class 4-6 level. Richard Wayman, the Chief Operating Officer for the BHA, stated encouragingly that: “Although there has been growth in total prize-money in recent years, much of this has been at the top end. The returns to our sport’s participants further down the scale are simply not sufficient at present to be sustainable. Targeting grass roots with extra funding will help racing’s participants to maintain their involvement in the sport and keep more horses in training.” Hear, hear.

I’ll raise a glass of Champagne to this, while eating a pork bap on a family fun day on my next racecourse visit, once I’ve found the correct car park and been allowed on to the course. Champion!

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 July 2017

The Ballad of Thady Quil – A Parable on Financial vs. Emotional Return on Ownership

It’s always very interesting talking to owners about what they want from the ownership experience. The more you’re involved in racing and the better you get to know owners and trainers, so the more complex the whole equation becomes around the various factors that contribute to a really positive owner experience.

At one end of the spectrum a lot of owners I know couldn’t really care less whether the horse wins or not. They just want to be on the inside track of racing, close to trainers and, most importantly, close to the absolutely superb animal that is the racehorse. They don’t mind standing in the mud on a cold winter’s day, cheering on a mediocre horse as it (slowly) makes its own way home in a Cl.5 or Cl.6 at a country track. If the horse manages to win it is a fantastic bonus for them, but it is not the economics that determine whether they enjoy owning racehorses or not. For them, the emotional return on ownership is everything.

However at the other end of the scale I know an equal number of owners for whom the financial return on ownership is extremely important. While they love the whole experience of racing and owning, they look at everything through the prism of finances and commercial return. Because we all know that the prize-money in British racing is amongst the worst in the world, this financial perspective is often more to do with stopping loss rather than making any profit. So they tend to take a very realistic and pragmatic view on horses and if the animal is unlikely to win at, say, Cl.4 or better, then it has to be moved on as soon as possible.

The more horses you own, the more you tend to move along that spectrum where the commercial return matters. Because with mediocre horses you are losing 92p in the £, you soon develop the mentality that it is better to come out of the horse rather than stay with it. The dynamic between these two very different types of owner and owner experience is probably the hardest aspect to manage when running partnerships, as in Owners for Owners.

One of our horses, Thady Quil, neatly illustrates both ends of the spectrum. He was bought at the Brightwells sale as a gorgeous prospect. We were dreaming of Cheltenham successes with this beautiful, big and sturdy son of Stowaway. We didn’t name him, but his namesake (actually spelt “Quill”) was a well-known Irish character immortalised in The Ballad of Thady Quill. Listen to it on the following link: You can even sing along to it, as we adapted the ballad for our horse. Here’s our verse:

For runnin’ and jumpin’ and winnin’ his races
And leadin’ the field up the Cheltenham hill,
In all your days’ racin’ you’ll see nothing finer
Than the great chestnut gelding, the bold Thady Quil.

What dreams we had. Unfortunately when we took him home to Martin Keighley’s and trained him, we soon realised that his wind wasn’t everything it should have been. His debut for us was at Newton Abbot on 7th May 2015, and he was pulled up – the first of six such occurrences. The renowned wind surgeon, Ben Brain, worked through three operations of increasing severity until there was nothing more that could be done. In between the disappointing episodes of pulling up, there were a number of encouraging performances, most notably at Warwick when Thady came 2nd to Paul Nicholls’ El Bandit, who is now running off OR 141. But these were rare glimpses of the potential within, and for most of the time the wind prevented our horse showing his “inner racehorse”. The mark dropped steadily until on 5th July this year at Worcester he was running off 82 in the Worcester News Handicap Chase, Class 5, 0-100.

By then, half the partnership had dropped out, the economic return on ownership having kicked in. Not enough fun for the money. Not everyone relishes Family Fun Days of summer jumping.

Thady Quil – Spot the Owner
So what does Thady do on 5th July … he wins by 12 lengths from Cry Fury, with the 3rd horse another 20 lengths back. Finally, finally, he gets his day in the sun, winning the huge purse of £3,119. Racing Post comments were along the lines of: “travelled smoothly, jumped well, drew away for a comfortable win”. Those of us close to Thady, who absolutely adore him, shot straight off the scale of the emotional return on ownership – huge pleasure, deep joy and a profound delight that our lovely horse had finally showed us a glimpse of what we always thought he was capable of.

The handicapper promptly banged him up by 15lbs, which I have to say is a complete disgrace for a horse who has had three serious wind ops and finally managed a win in a race that fell apart around him. Once again it highlighted the appalling economic return with the handicapper doing everything possible to block the luxury of a repeat. Who knows, maybe Thady will prove him right, and nothing would give me greater pleasure for the owners who elected to keep the faith. Their emotional return is something they will never forget. Go, Thady!

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 July 2017

Buckle Street and Belinda Keighley at York – My Most Enjoyable Day Ever on the Racecourse

I know we’ve just had a fantastic week’s racing at Royal Ascot, with the most magnificent performances from horses such as Lady Aurelia in the King’s Stand, Thomas Hobson in the Ascot Stakes, Highland Reel in the Prince of Wales, Big Orange in the Gold Cup, Caravaggio in the Commonwealth Cup, Winter in the Coronation Stakes …. but for me the absolute highlight of June was the superb win by Belinda Keighley in the Macmillan Charity Race at York the previous Saturday, 17th June, on Buckle Street (who is part-owned by my wife).

Regular readers of the blog will know that despite the many attractions and elegance of Ascot, for my money I’d always much prefer a day out on the Knavesmire. Not only is the racecourse top class, but the prize-money is always superb. Indeed this year’s Ebor Festival, which runs from 23rd to 26th August, has record prize-money totalling £4.4 million, a 48% increase over the last five years. That boost is not just in races such as the Juddmonte International, now worth £1 million, but every race at the Festival is worth at least £65,000 and the meeting has the richest maiden, nursery and apprentice races in the UK. Hats off to York.

Having said that, because Buckle Street ran in a charity race, the prize-money was absolutely zero, but it still definitely counts as a York win. Belinda comprehensively out-rode the field, not just on the track but in charity donations raised. As the chairman of Keighley Racing Ltd., I know I’m biased, but it was the most wonderful achievement, as described by Paul Davis, one of the co-owners who also organises The Condicote Clan partnership. I have never enjoyed a day’s racing so much, nor cheered on a winner with such pleasure. York looked after everyone magnificently, with the Champagne flowing long after racing. That continued right through the evening, with a large group of friends and owners going out for a celebratory dinner with Martin, Belinda and their boys Freddie and Harry.

Paul always does a post-race report for every run by the horses in partnerships that we organise at Martin’s. Here is the one he sent out after the race – it really does capture the excitement and emotion of this Knavesmire win.

Saturday June 17th 2017 - York - 1 mile 1 furlong, Good to Firm - Best Western Hotels & Macmillan Ride of their Lives

Just occasionally a day's racing will come along that is guaranteed to live long in the memory and yesterday at York was one such day. When Belinda and Buckle Street passed the line in front the tension, excitement and anticipation leading to this moment erupted into a euphoric outpouring of joy and emotion for all those connected with horse, rider and the yard. Indeed, Jon has stated it was definitely his best day's racing that he has ever had, and many of us feel the same.

Though Belinda had been aiming for this race for a very long time, the choice of her mount in the race wasn't confirmed until Buckle Street came back into the yard in early May. This allowed enough time for Martin to prepare Buckle for the race; for Belinda and Buckle to develop a solid partnership on the gallops; and for Jon, Jack and me to start assembling the new partnership.

But it wasn't just the owners of Buckle Street who were in attendance to support Belinda and Buckle Street, as there were also numerous other owners, Racing Club members and yard supporters in attendance to support them in their quest - and not one of them will have regretted their long journey to the newly crowned Racecourse of the Year on one of the hottest days of the year.

Belinda's day started with an appearance on The Opening Show two friends and owners in attendance who had won the privilege to see behind the scenes having been the highest bidders on the the extremely successful charity auction held last month at the renowned Cotswolds racing pub, The Hollow Bottom. There were also appearances on Racing UK and other media commitments for Belinda to fulfil, but soon enough the clock ticked round to the time for her to get changed into her racing colours and for Buckle Street to be saddled up. Even before the 10 noble horsewomen and horsemen had been legged up each could rightly by acclaimed winners having collectively raised enough money to employ a Macmillan nurse for over two years with Belinda raising a whopping £26,000 alone - a truly wonderful effort for a charity so close to her heart.

Great ride, great win, great cause.
In the parade ring, Buckle Street looked magnificent and took the preliminaries in his stride despite the searingly hot temperatures. After being legged up, Belinda and Buckle cantered steadily to the start of the appropriately named 'race of their lives'. The plan was simple, go to the front, try to dictate matters from there, and stick to the inside rail if possible kicking for home early to exploit Buckle's stamina since he was being opposed by some flat specialists some of whom were rated 10 pounds superior to him on the flat. And as the starter's flag went down, Belinda and Buckle did exactly what had been instructed by taking up the early pace. However, two or three others also wanted to dictate matters and so, after a couple of furlongs, these went past Buckle which, in a moment of cool tactical judgement, Belinda allowed them to do remembering her coach Warren Marston's wise instructions that some of the field may want to go too fast, so let them burn themselves out. So, for the next half a mile, Buckle was in 3rd or 4th place, about 5 lengths behind the clear leader. As the field swung into the straight, it looked for a moment that the other runners with their proven flat speed might sweep past Buckle and Belinda. But we needn't have worried. Belinda kept Buckle wonderfully balanced and as the others began to make ground on her, she let out an inch of rein and began to close in on the leader who was beginning to weaken. At the two furlong marker, Belinda and Buckle were disputing the lead with many of the field just one length behind her. Buckle's stamina now began to come into play and, bit by bit, he edged ahead. As they passed the furlong marker, the Condicote combination had nosed in front and quickly went a length clear. Pushing him out with hands and heels, Buckle responded admirably and galloped all the way to the line winning the race comfortably by 1 1/2 lengths.

A race full of winners.
And then, passing the line, a moment of pure theatrical magic. Belinda stood up in her irons and punched the air. It wasn't showboating. It was the realisation of a goal achieved; of many months dieting and hard work all being worthwhile; and the knowledge that the dream had come true. It was the release of the pressure and responsibility that she had felt knowing that she wanted to do the very best for the newly formed partnership that now owned Buckle Street. And perhaps, most of all, it was for her mum Kathy and her Dad John, both of whom she sadly lost in 2010 following Kathy's brave 18 year fight with cancer. It was magical, and the magic continued for the next hour in the winners' enclosure and parade ring as the presentations were made, all 10 jockeys rightly congratulated and then followed by all competitors and their supporters celebrating the fantastic occasion as one huge extended family with numerous glasses of champagne generously provided by the race sponsors. Each and every jockey was a winner yesterday and it was a privilege to be there.”

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 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.

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 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.

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.