Saturday, 15 April 2017
Wasn’t the victory of One For Arthur in the Grand National a sensational performance for all the connections, not least the Two Golf Widows and Lucinda Russell. As far as I know it is only the second Scottish victory in the race, the last being Rubstic in 1979, and this win should hopefully provide impetus for Northern NH racing which has declined to such a dire state in recent decades.
My wife and I went up for the whole Aintree festival and thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly as the weather favoured the meeting – especially an absolutely gorgeous Saturday. It may not have helped the ITV viewing figures, but the enormous crowd had a superb time. Indeed I don’t think I’ve ever seen a larger crowd on a British racecourse, and the revenue generated must have been colossal. This is also the case for the bookmaking industry with over £0.25bn staked on the race, which makes it over ten times more popular with punters than the FA Cup final.
It is certainly not a cheap meeting to attend, however. Our two badges for the Earl of Derby Stand and the car park cost over £300 on Grand National day. Having said that, for anyone who is a member of the ROA badge scheme, Day 1 is a bargain with free entry, and one of the best days’ jumping of the whole season. On that day we were thrilled to see one of our favourite horses in training, Defi Du Seuil, confirm his dominance and remain unbeaten. Philip Hobbs did a great job playing a straight bat on whether this super horse will go to the Champion Hurdle or the Arkle at next year’s Cheltenham Festival – a lovely problem to solve. Also delighted for Anthony and Rachael Honeyball when their Fountains Windfall ran the field ragged in the opening race of the final day under an extremely enterprising ride from David Noonan.
A final observation is that the partnership between Ann and Alan Potts, Colin Tizzard and Robbie Power has got off to the most incredible start. Indeed the wins of Finians Oscar, Fox Norton and Sizing Cadelco netted the Potts a total of £207,900 which they promptly spent at the boutique Goffs Aintree sale buying the top lot, Madison To Monroe, for £300,000. It says a lot about the price of NH bloodstock these days when even winning three races at Aintree barely pays for two thirds of a top-quality Irish point-to-pointer. Yet again the median in the sale rose considerably from last year’s £70,000 to this year’s £86,000. The dominance of top owners and top yards continues, with few opportunities for grassroots owners even to get a look in …. although having said that, One For Arthur was exceptionally well bought for “only” £65,000 as a youngster. Interestingly many NH owners are becoming more creative in how they go about buying young stock, as it is impossible to compete in the top sales. Finian’s Oscar was bought as a yearling in the Autumn Arqana sale for €20,000 and that is a sale that Owners for Owners is really enthusiastic about. Our Black Prince with Anthony Honeyball came from that sale and although only a 3yo he is a horse who will hopefully come through as a lovely NH prospect in time. We’ll definitely go back to that sale this Autumn.
It is becoming apparent that both keen racegoers and the general public love the big occasion of racing festivals. The four days of Cheltenham and the three of Aintree are probably attracting well over 400,000 attendees now. It is not that long ago that these meetings were very much dominated by die-hard enthusiasts who went along every day. I’m convinced that pattern is changing, with many now going for just one or two days. Indeed a huge percentage of the crowd don’t really seem to have much knowledge of, or be particularly interested in, the horses as such. It is the festival as an event that matters, rather than just the championship races on the track. Many argue that by extending these meetings you dilute the experience, and while that may be true for racing’s intelligentsia, I doubt if it is the case for the vast bulk of attendees.
If that conclusion is correct, then it probably now makes sense for both Aintree and Cheltenham to capitalise on the festival experience and maximise their revenue by increasing the meetings by a day. Without knowing the profit figures, this could lead to another very substantial injection of funds into the sport, particularly for investment in grassroots racing. Both Cheltenham and Aintree already have seven-race cards, so by reducing them back to six together with framing a number of additional races, another day could easily be filled. So for example at Aintree a “consolation” Grand National would be very popular with trainers and owners for those horses balloted out of the big one, and provide the crowds at each of the four days with an Aintree spectacle over the huge fences.
Whether my body could actually withstand the onslaught of an extra day at each of these festivals is debatable, so I suspect I would reduce attendance. However I do think there is a compelling financial argument for capitalising on the enormous popularity of the festivals.
Sunday, 2 April 2017
How was the Cheltenham Festival for you? Personally I found it the best ever from a pure enjoyment standpoint, even though it takes its toll – particularly on the liver. It has definitely been a case of recovery and detox over the last few weeks ahead of going up to Aintree for more fabulous fun on Merseyside. Hardly surprising, as it is the NH Olympics, there was an enormous amount of views shared and arguments raging throughout the Festival week. As ever in racing, mostly clap-trap, but here are ten reflections.
- It certainly wasn’t the highest standard of Festival that we’ve seen. The general view was that both the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup were 10lbs below normal, and there weren’t that many races that were truly memorable. For me personally, the highlight was one of my favourite horses, Defi Du Seuil, winning the Triumph Hurdle for Philip Hobbs and Richard Johnson. Such a hardy, game horse. Indeed I think Philip would run him every fortnight if he could. The best race to watch, I thought, was the Mares’ Championship with Apple’s Jade, Vroom Vroom Mag and Limini battling it out. Great to see Noel Fehily showing again what a champion he is, winning the top race on each of the first two days.
- Definitely the best ever for the Irish, who are now dominant. The somewhat meaningless Prestbury Cup was a shoo-in for the Irish, with 19 vs. 9. Willie Mullins won over £750k and Gordon Elliott over £600k. The late 1980s seem more than a couple of decades ago, when it was a complete whitewash to the British on one occasion, and another year 17/1. The key question is why GB is falling behind.
- Bloodstock prices continue to spiral into the stratosphere. I went along to the Tattersalls Ireland sale during the meeting and was flabbergasted to see 13 horses go for £100k plus, with a median of £120k and an average of £142,857. As the auctioneer said, “There is now fierce demand and a ferocious appetite for young horses with form.” You can say that again. The grass-roots owner clearly isn’t going to get a look-in.
- The declining state of UK National Hunt racing. There was a working party to look at the decline in Northern NH racing, and maybe their remit should be broadened to the whole of the country. Yes, there is superb prize-money available at Cheltenham but it is lousy almost everywhere else. There is an interesting statistic to confirm that: the difference in prize-money between the top and everyday racing in many countries is four times, whereas in the UK it is now 100 times. Horses always follow the prize-money, and it is hardly surprising that top owners are migrating to Ireland where they can scoop up easy pickings in Graded races and easy handicaps.
- The gap between the top and the bottom of the sport has never been greater. This really reiterates points 2-4 above. Is it time to change some of the rules and conditions for races to encourage the grass-roots owner? I did an analysis for the Racehorse Syndicates Association and amazingly there were only 40 syndicate horses at the Festival, even though there were quite a few partnerships. Many of us are now fishing in a different pond.
- Was the drink crack-down worthwhile, and did it work? After the excesses of 2016 with some very unsavoury incidents, Cheltenham and the Jockey Club clearly needed to do something. It seems to have worked, although most people wouldn’t get many problems getting round the four-drinks-per-buyer rule. I saw lots of people buying four for themselves! There was also a crack-down in the town centre with on-the-spot fines. Sad, but necessary.
- Rumblings about the bookmakers. There were no sympathies for the bookies, as they won on almost every race and there were numerous Festival flops, notably Douvan at 2/9, reportedly the shortest loser in a hundred years. There was more misery with Yanworth, Tombstone, Death Duty, Unowhatimeanharry and Djakadam. However it is rumoured that the BHA had a meeting with the Association of British Bookmakers, who want help in a rearguard action against imminent changes to do with fixed-odds betting terminals. I have zero sympathy with the bookmaking industry, who need to focus far more on innovation and collaboration with their racing partners.
- Well done, ITV with their terrestrial coverage. Encouragingly for the whole sport, they lifted the viewing figures by 250,000, massively ahead of Channel 4’s last effort of 526,000 average viewers. It’s a lighter style and seems to be far more appealing to the general audience. A good start has been made by them.
- Time to crack down on abuse of the whip again. Charlie Longsdon was desperately unlucky that his horse Pendra was collared in the final strides of the Kim Muir by Gina Andrews on 40/1 shot Domesday Book. She mercilessly flogged her horse, and rightly received a three-day ban for it. It seems really unfair that a rider who stays within the rules is beaten by one who doesn’t. Stewards should be given discretion to reverse the placings and behaviour would soon change, particularly if the culprits had to make a financial contribution to the owner for lost prize-money.
- And possibly some other changes are needed. We are in an era now when top horses, owners and trainers can cherry-pick valuable Graded races and avoid all meaningful competition. This doesn’t do much for competitiveness, nor public interest. Should there be some qualifications added whereby horses for championship races must have competed in a minimum number of Graded races prior to the Festival? With the grass-roots owner not getting much of a look-in, should race conditions be framed to encourage them? So for example should there be more caps on second-tier races to force top owners to take their best horses up into the championship races? I would also have a syndicates-only race, but then I have been arguing for that for quite a few years.
Wednesday, 15 March 2017
My wife and I were invited to the road show at Cheltenham Racecourse at the beginning of March. It was exceptionally well organised and informative, and well hosted by Lydia Hislop. I don’t think I’ve ever seen quite so many of racing’s leaders at the same venue; I chatted to Steve Harman, Chairman of the BHA, and then listened to Nick Rust (CEO of the BHA), Richard Wayman (COO, BHA), Philip Freedman (Chairman, Horsemen’s Group), Stephen Atkin (CEO, Racecourse Association), Rod Street (CEO, Great British Racing) as well as the leaders of the Professional Jockeys Association and Arena Racing Company. There was also a presentation dedicated to staffing, training and welfare issues with a panel led by the Human Resources Director of the BHA and well supported by other specialists in this field. Those who know me well will know that I was not sufficiently intimidated to refrain from asking questions, which I addressed to Messrs. Rust and Atkin.
Just to summarise the key targets that the tripartite group of the BHA, Horsemen’s Group and Racecourse Association signed up to in 2015, and which still guide the industry:
- 1,000 additional horses in training by 2020;
- Betting participation levels up 5% by 2018;
- Racecourse attendances to reach 7 million by 2020;
- £120m of extra income for the sport per annum by 2018.
At the same time there was open acknowledgement of the challenges that face British Racing, particularly:
- Sole ownership in decline;
- Shortage of skilled stable staff;
- Statutory Levy forecast to drop under £50m in 2017;
- Need to develop a constructive partnership with the British betting sector;
- Low returns to horsemen at grassroots level.
Within the various presentations there was certainly plenty of encouraging news, with good progress including:
- £30-40m potential increase in revenue to be raised by the new Levy; ABP scheme expected to raise more than £10m in extra revenue in 2016/17; 2% growth in total betting activity since 2014; ITV channel.
- £8m prize-money paid to the industry via Plus 10 bonus scheme; ownership decline halted; 505 additional horses in training since 2014; 3% growth in number of syndicates and partnerships.
- In The Paddock web site launched to promote syndicates; 2.9% growth in racecourse attendance since 2014; 12% growth in prize-money to almost £138m since 2014; new approach to the Fixture List under way; 4.7% growth in races with 8+ runners since 2014; 5.4m social media followers.
Phew! Lots of statistics there. Lydia did a show of hands on “optimism” for the industry, and very encouragingly it was skewed positively. There are many initiatives under way or in the pipeline, and there was a definite feeling of momentum for the next couple of years – hence the “onwards and upwards”.
But that doesn’t mean that all will necessarily be plain sailing. The questions I raised were all to do with “Grassroots Racing”. Very encouragingly the leaders of our sport are planning to focus much more effort and money on to the base of the racing pyramid, as they need to, because the most startling figure I heard was that the average cost recovery for those at the bottom of the sport is now only 8p in the £. When you look closely at the various graphs, the horses in training figure over the last five years has barely increased (13,716 to 14,033 in five years) while ownership has actually declined, although apparently that trend has now been halted (8,215 to 7,946 registered owners in five years).
I genuinely believe that this grassroots racing focus is both long overdue and absolutely essential to the long-term sustainability of the sport. If the grassroots owner retires or leaves the sport, the economics and competitiveness crumble. When you look at a race meeting such as the Cheltenham Festival on this week, all looks exciting with prodigious prize-money everywhere, but that is most definitely not how it seems on “normal” racedays. In fact I prefaced my question to Messrs. Rust and Atkin with a statement: “With Owners for Owners involved in 23 horses, I am an archetypal grassroots owner, enjoying 8p in the £ cost recovery, the dubious pleasures of minimum value racing when the total prize-money is only £3,500, endless hassles on badges, over-crowded lounges and nowhere to sit …. and yet I still remain optimistic.” I am just hoping that we see significant improvement over the next few years to 2020 to justify that optimism.
Wednesday, 1 March 2017
Does British Racing Really Want a Large Increase in the Number of Owners? A Frustrating Tale from “Lovely” Ludlow
The last few weeks have seen a number of fabulous horses sidelined with injuries. We’ve now lost Thistlecrack from the Gold Cup (as an aside, who at the Racing Post came up with the appalling headline, “Thistlecrocked”?) as well as Don Cossack, retired with recurrent tendon damage, Coneygree, plagued with all sorts of maladies, and of course the tragedy of Many Clouds collapsing and dying after his gallant win at Cheltenham. And this is on top of Faugheen’s stress fracture taking him out of the Champion Hurdle, Annie Power’s knee injury and Min’s bruising that will keep him out of the Arkle. Heartfelt commiserations to all these horses’ connections.
Many of our owners know exactly how they feel, so it’s always glorious when a horse who has been sidelined comes back, and on his reappearance puts in an absolutely belting run. He’s A Bully had been off for 450+ days with tendon tissue damage on one leg, but was superbly looked after by Polly Curling who did all the pre-training on a horse who only knows one way of moving, which is flat out at full gallop. Polly loved the challenge of teaching him to settle before he went back to Philip Hobbs for final training before coming out in a 3m handicap chase at Ludlow on 22nd February. Unfortunately, in the race prior to this, Richard Johnson aggravated a shoulder injury so we had a last-minute change of jockey with the talented claimer Ciaran Gethings taking the ride. Our horse galloped to the front after a couple of fences and then led the field a merry dance for the next 2½ miles, jumping for fun and clearly enjoying the whole experience of being back on the racetrack. Going into the last, it still looked as though he would win, but he was just run out of it by a very well-handicapped horse as HAB, not surprisingly, faded. It really was a superb performance though to come 2nd and all the owners were absolutely thrilled.
Nothing at all to dislike from this run. Unfortunately the rest of the owner experience at Ludlow left a huge amount to be desired. My wife and I drove to the course and, being unfamiliar with it, followed the Car Park signs on to the track, parked our car and went to the entrance that had a clear sign outside including the word “Owners”. It was rather odd when we went through to be greeted with the rather brusque challenge, “You’ve come to the wrong entrance”. Not the ideal start, particularly when you are on the inside of the course and to get to the “right” entrance would have meant getting back into the car, driving round the perimeter road and into another car park, a distance of about two miles apparently. However, the lady in charge of issuing badges relented and I handed over my PASS card. I wasn’t particularly amused when she immediately commented, “We don’t see many of these”, as readers of this blog will know that I’m having endless problems with the PASS scheme. Anyway, we obtained our badges and went on to the track for the first race.
Unfortunately, when we meet up with two friends for whom we’d arranged badges, they told us that they had been refused entry initially, though they had eventually persuaded the O&T official to admit them. Then we met up with a co-owner and her husband, who had also been denied a badge and had had to pay £11 to get in. This despite the fact that we had emailed the course the previous day, as advised to do in accordance with the latest PASS FAQs, setting out which owners were going to attend and how many badges should be allocated to each. The personnel at both O&T entrances denied ever having seen the email – which was doubtless true, but says little for the administrative systems at the racecourse. We therefore remonstrated with the O&T desk and were referred to the Office, where we eventually secured the return of our co-owner’s husband’s money. (He reinvested it e/w on He’s A Bully at 20/1 and was well pleased.)
My negotiations with racecourse management in their offices on track are becoming a fairly regular occurrence, and this is all primarily because the PASS system just does not work for partnerships, as readers of the blog are well aware.
Which brings me back to the title of the blog, does British racing really want to see a big increase in owners (and, of course, paying for the additional 1,000 horses by 2020 which is an explicit goal for the BHA in their Strategy for Growth)? My impression is that the industry most definitely wants the horses, the owners and their money, but I don’t think it has genuinely thought through the operational implications of how racecourses will accommodate new owners, particularly when they are in partnerships, syndicates and similar co-ownership structures.
A practical example illustrates this. Many Owners & Trainers’ lounges just cannot accommodate the number of owners. We have tracks such as Wincanton and Warwick that now restrict the number of badges they give out because the lounges are too small. This is a completely ridiculous situation. Even an idiot would say that the more obvious answer is to find or build a bigger lounge so that when you have attracted more owners to the course you can properly accommodate them.
Not surprisingly I will be revisiting this theme throughout the year. There is no point at all marketing and promoting ownership and then providing a poor, and I’m afraid on occasions declining, experience. I’ve just taken a shot at Ludlow and I think it’s only a matter of time before I do the same at other tracks that are failing to embrace the need for a better owner experience. And this of course is before we’ve even touched again on owner prize-money – which in Ludlow’s defence is one of their stronger features.
Wednesday, 15 February 2017
Dealing with racing administration makes you want to tear out your hair, and drives you to drink. Actually I don’t have any hair to tear out, and as an enthusiastic wine drinker I need little encouragement, but you get the drift. Before moving on to the frustrations of the PASS system, I noted that Cheltenham is going to tighten up its drinks policy and apparently one won’t be able to order more than four drinks at a time at the Festival. I’ll be amused to see how that policy works out in practice!
At the end of last year I wrote a couple of blogs looking at the shambles of the Weatherbys Bank upgrade, and then equally the launch of the new PASS card system for owner admission to the racecourse. Both were handled badly, and I hammered both organisations for what seemed to be a woeful lack of user testing prior to launch, which resulted in considerable frustration for many owners. This has rumbled on over the last few months, and indeed I’ve heard a number of owners say that they are going to quit the game because of the endless hassle and seeming lack of progress in simplifying, integrating and automating owner administration in a way that actually works. Amazingly on both counts we seem to have gone full circle, with Weatherbys and the RCA reintroducing important aspects of the old system that shouldn’t have been taken out in the first place, and would not have been if a half-hearted attempt had been made to ask users what was important.
I’d argue that there is a huge mind-set issue behind all of this. Weatherbys and the Race Course Association (RCA) have shown an arrogant disdain for owners. In effect there is a culture clash between young, non-owning, technology-loving types designing and implementing the systems for considerably older, technology-wary owners. All of which argues for well-planned, highly sensitive user testing and feedback to ensure that the complexities of British racing and the subtleties of the various ownership structures are properly incorporated within any administrative process and change, which definitely didn’t happen throughout 2016.
However, as we move through this year, there is a massively bigger change in the system with the proposed introduction of an online owner portal. My wife and I were involved in an early meeting to review this and made a number of recommendations for improvement, and we are heading towards another meeting with the BHA administrative team, which interestingly is being held at Dan Skelton’s yard at Alcester next week, 21st February. I suspect I will be considerably more motivated by what is going on at the Skelton yard than on the computer screen in front of me, but I have promised to be on my best behaviour and provide constructive feedback. Will this be a case of “third time lucky”, and a system is eventually launched that works?
Interestingly the BHA is doing a series of road shows across the country, with invitations being sent out recently to all stakeholders, and I am going to the one at Cheltenham on 2nd March. They have asked for questions to be submitted in advance, and I’m assembling a barrage, particularly to do with change management. It is no good whatsoever for strategic proposals to be discussed, if the execution of them is lamentable. At the last road show I raised a number of points about integrity, which were quite frankly ignored, and yet with hindsight I don’t think I had appreciated how big an issue this was, as it blew up with the Jim Best incident. A long time ago, one of my mentors in business argued that the most deadly combination of behaviours in a senior executive team is arrogance + complacency + incompetence. As readers of this blog will know, I’ve been a big supporter of a number of the changes being made by the BHA, so will be really angry if the launch of the online owner portal turns out to be another own goal. Most of my questions at the Skelton yard meeting will be to do with not just the functionality of the system, but the change management plans for implementing it.
I’ll be absolutely delighted if 2017 sees a significant improvement in owner administration and the launch of the new systems, and am really hoping that in future blogs on this subject over the year I will be able to report on successful, sensitive and user-friendly implementation. Alas, I still fear that won’t be the case. BHA, RCA and ROA, please do everything possible to prove me wrong!
Wednesday, 1 February 2017
“Come Friendly Bombs and Drop on Kempton Park” (amongst other courses), with Apologies to Sir John Betjeman
There’s a super book by Chris Pitt entitled A Long Time Gone, which examines the history of racecourses which have closed down. If you ever enter a pub quiz on the subject it is a must-read: “Which track had the Grand Nationals during the First World War, one of which was won by Lester Piggott’s grandfather?” (Gatwick); “Which track has the record of the world’s longest continuous bar?” (Bromford Bridge, Birmingham); “Where does John McCririck want his ashes to be scattered?” (Alexandra Park); “Which track provided the turf for Ascot’s National Hunt course?” (Hurst Park). Easy, eh?
It now looks as though Kempton Park could well be added to the list. Just before I went on holiday, an announcement was made by the Jockey Club that they want to sell off 200+ acres and close down the course, raising at least £100m which together with extra injection of £400m+ over the next decade will unlock the potential of Sandown Park, build a new floodlit all-weather track at Newmarket and put substantial extra sums into prize-money.
I must admit that I didn’t give it a huge amount of thought while on holiday, with the attractions of chilled South African chardonnay and the gorgeous vistas on the Cape blotting out British racing for a while. So I was rather surprised when I got back to find out that the proposal had generated an enormous amount of invective and controversy. I should probably nail my prejudices to the mast before going any further – I have a top 10 of courses that I really dislike going to, and in alphabetical order they are Chelmsford, Ffos Las, Kempton, Lingfield, Newcastle (A/W), Plumpton, Southwell, Towcester, Wolverhampton and Worcester. I wouldn’t mind any of Sir John Betjeman’s bombs landing on these courses. The owner experience is dreadful at all of them, and with the exception of the King George VI on Boxing Day, Kempton is one of the dreariest, most soulless places that can be envisaged.
Increasingly, I think, racecourses are segmenting into three groups: the top tracks with fabulous facilities and festivals; the bottom tracks where quite frankly it doesn’t matter whether there are any customers or not, as their profitability is to do with betting and media rights; and then those in between which have a strong local following even when the experience is somewhat lacking. Kempton I would put firmly into the category where attendance doesn’t matter, even though I’m more than prepared to accept the counter-argument that substantial investment might be able to change that. But even then, if I had a choice between a souped-up Kempton or a transformed Sandown, I know where I’m going.
What have the Jockey Club actually proposed?
- Close Kempton and sell the land for housing: dispose of 230 acres with the potential for building 3,000+ homes, raising at least £100m. It is uncertain whether Spelthorne Borough Council is in favour of this, but in line with national planning policy over the next 20 years they have got to find somewhere to put 15,000+ additional dwellings. Seems an inviting proposition to me.
- Transfer the Kempton fixtures: disperse 13 prime jumps fixtures to other courses around the country, both small and large, and particularly in the north. This spreads the benefits of the meetings to other tracks and the Jockey Club have also promised further investment at these courses. The King George VI would go to Sandown. Of course it wouldn’t be the same race, but I can’t see any reason why it wouldn’t be a spectacular Christmas event. Surely many of the great names of the past could just as easily have won at Sandown: Arkle, Captain Christy (and I can still see so clearly in my mind’s eye his thrashing of Bula by 30 lengths in the 1975 race), Desert Orchid, Kauto Star and now Thistlecrack.
- Substantial ongoing investment: starting with a transformational rebuilding of Sandown, its facilities and track and building a new A/W course near The Links at Newmarket. The Sandown proposal sounds particularly exciting, as it is a course which has looked pretty jaded for a while. They want it to become London’s premier dual-code racecourse. In addition to the £100m+ from the sale they are going to raise and invest a further £400m (presumably from profit and / or bonds similar to that which funded the £45m Cheltenham transformation) over the next decade, with over half of that money going into owner prize-money: an increase of 54% on the previous level over 10 years and which is very welcome at £25m per annum.
When I read about all of this, I wondered how many people had actually been to Kempton to experience its dubious delights. With the notable exception of the King George meeting on Boxing Day, there is no particular reason for wanting to go there. I can’t see why one wouldn’t take horses to similar tracks, such as Huntingdon and Newbury, or further afield Aintree, Doncaster, Haydock or Southwell. I accept that the ground at Sandown in the middle of the winter can be poor, but so many NH trainers are now avoiding the depths of the winter to concentrate on the two “shoulders”, so it is not quite the problem it is often made out to be. In terms of the all-weather, if you look at this strategically, where would you want courses to be – near Newmarket, Lambourn and Middleham. Having a course at Newmarket seems to me an extremely good idea, although many argue that HQ should only be about top quality horses. I don’t have the statistics but I wouldn’t mind betting there are several thousand horses who don’t fit that description and are regularly seen out on the Heath. Presumably lots of these will appear on an A/W surface.
This controversy is bound to run and run, and there will be a huge amount of negotiation and fine detail to develop. As you can tell, I’m firmly in support and I believe that Simon Bazalgette and his colleagues at the Jockey Club are to be applauded for taking a strategic perspective that I am convinced is in the best interests of racing. It will strengthen the long-term financing of the sport and be good for owners. I hope they succeed.
Tuesday, 10 January 2017
It was certainly a tremendously exciting end to 2016 on the National Hunt scene, not least because of the superb runnings of the Colin Tizzard superstars, Thistlecrack, Cue Card, Native River and then, more recently the highly promising staying youngster, Finians Oscar. There is a feel of a movement in the tectonic plates of top British NH racing here, with so much concentration of firepower in a yard that is as popular as it is professional. It is hardly grassroots racing, but I’m convinced that most owners and racegoers feel that this is a super trainer, without necessarily being a super-power yard full of the very richest owners in the land.
Christmas also demonstrated the enormous popularity of racing, particularly over jumps, with record crowds. Apparently over 204,000 racegoers turned out on Boxing Day, which was more than ever before. It would be mean-spirited to make any negative comments on the so-called “brilliant raceday experience”, which is how one of the Racecourse Association (RCA) officials described it, but there is still a real need to convert this racing enthusiasm into higher levels of attendance throughout the year. Apparently most racegoers only attend one, or possibly two maximum, race days per year and then only at their local track. If British racing could encourage them to attend just one more day, it would be one huge step forward in the economics of the sport – definitely a challenge for those who promote and market it.
Maintaining a high profile for the sport on terrestrial television has always been a tremendously important element in that marketing and promotion. People need to grow up with the sport and become enthusiastic when young, because it has been demonstrated that when this happens they tend to stay with racing throughout their lives. Certainly when I was a teenager I was an avid follower of BBC and Peter O’Sullevan, and also the pioneers of ITV such as John Oaksey and Brough Scott, and I can still remember the “pleasures” of losing money steadily every Saturday on the ITV-7. Indeed, the Little Oak in Chester was the pub I always went to, and last time I called in it hadn’t changed much over the years ….. although the TV was massively bigger. The switch from ITV to Channel 4 was a positive one in terms of the quality of presentation, but like the Little Oak it needed a fair bit of refurbishment after 32 years. Channel 4 Racing and the Morning Line had definitely become flat and stale (unlike the excellent hand-pumped beer in the Little Oak), and most racegoers and owners that I’ve spoken to were happy to see a change.
It wasn’t a propitious start, with the new ITV line-up committed to broadcast live from the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham regardless of the drenching they received. The friendly and professional Ed Chamberlin appeared to cope manfully with everything, though apparently all his notes were destroyed in seconds, and his iPad gave up the ghost in the terrible weather. Oli Bell and Luke Harvey were well received, though unfortunately Matt Chapman confirmed the “Marmite” reaction that you either love him or loathe him. If you throw in A.P. McCoy, Mick Fitzgerald, Alice Plunkett and Richard Hoiles and (to be sexist for a moment) some eye-candy in Victoria Pendleton and the good-looking weather forecaster whose name I can’t remember, it seemed a decent team. The first edition of The Opening Show also seemed modern and professional, with some excellent features and a much lighter tone than the old Morning Line.
Unfortunately the overall reaction has been quite mixed, with the viewing figures on New Year’s Day being higher than previous years although not massively so, and The Opening Show, which goes out on ITV4, wasn’t especially popular. Personally I really hope that they can build up the numbers, and do so dramatically, as it really matters to the sport. It seems clear from the initial broadcasts that they have made a decision to pitch the commentary, tone and style of the shows at a much broader audience, rather than the die-hard enthusiasts and punters. That led quite a few to criticise them for “dumbing down” racing, although that seemed a bit harsh when set against the high quality of the production.
ITV has a four-year contract as racing’s exclusive terrestrial broadcaster, and we wish them well. We definitely need them, and high viewing figures, if terrestrial coverage is to be guaranteed into the future.
Sunday, 1 January 2017
I know it’s a bit hackneyed but it always seems appropriate to reflect on the past year and focus on New Year’s resolutions. Mine are easy: weight down, alcohol down, exercise up. Job done then (same every year).
On the horse front, I already know that 2017 is going to see Owners for Owners involved with more horses either in training or in the pipeline than we’ve ever had, at 23. We’ve come a tremendous way in less than five years and it just shows the latent demand that exists for owners to come into the sport or increase their involvement if the whole experience is made easy and enjoyable. I’m not blowing our trumpet here, because that’s what the vast majority of our owners tell us. Indeed the other day I worked out that if you add up all the horses that our owners and friends are now associated with, it is well over 100, whereas it was fewer than 10 in 2012. Just shows what can be done.
So what is the collective view of Owners for Owners on ten resolutions for British racing? The top three are critical and the other seven are enablers.
- Transform the governance of integrity. A huge issue, but from Mahmood al-Zarooni in April 2013 to the resolution of the Jim Best scandal in December 2016, British racing has seriously damaged its credibility and reputation. This isn’t the blog to dig into the detail of the problem, but we’re pointing the finger at the three Cs: complacency, cronyism and corruption. The whole of the supply chain of racing, from breeding to training and ownership to sales, needs to come under the searchlight with substantial tightening of governance and far greater transparency and scrutiny. Our real fear is that the first C on that list – complacency – will inhibit the significant changes now required.
- Secure far more funds for racing. Hopefully in April the new post-Levy arrangements will come into force with full Government support, and that should be a huge step forward. But it remains to be seen whether the hostilities with major bookmakers can be properly overcome and equally whether racecourses will share far more of their income with owners and the sport. Our view is that at least £50m of additional funding needs to be captured and reinvested. Maybe more.
- More owners and a much better experience. Without more owners coming in to the game, increasing their involvement and being retained by the sport, then racing’s economics are fundamentally impaired. There are two dynamics that we’ll be examining in more detail in 2017 blogs: firstly whether there is a fundamental decline taking place at the grass roots ownership level, and secondly whether foal over-production is a real issue or not. If there were more owners buying more young horses, there wouldn’t be a problem. Indeed globally it looks as though stallions, mares and foals have declined by up to 50% since 2007. The real market dynamic looks to be lack of demand rather than over-supply.
- Bridge the gap between the top echelons and the grass roots. A resounding view of all our owners is that money needs to flow into the grass roots of racing rather than continually pump-priming the top end of the sport. The day I win the Derby or the Cheltenham Gold Cup, I really don’t believe prize-money will be bothering me. On the other hand, running in £5,000 total prize-money novice hurdles at so-called good tracks is insulting. Racecourses are taking the proverbial in some of this.
- Active promotion of co-ownership in all its forms. 50% or more of all owners start off in some form of partnership or syndicate. The sport needs to make it even easier to come into the game through this route. As always, simplify the administration, actively promote and market syndicates and reinforce best practice and good standards through proper guidelines and codes of practice.
- Boost business skills of trainers. We believe that trainers are the number one “gatekeepers” of the sport. The initial owner contact with an enthusiastic and skilled trainer who combines being a horseman with being a businessman has the greatest impact on ownership. Alas the vast majority of trainers are borderline insolvent and sadly lacking in the necessary marketing, communication, promotion and finance skills. In conventional business there would be a huge emphasis on coaching and professional development. It is a sign of the problem that even raising this would probably lead to resistance from most trainers.
- Smarten up racecourses. With a few very obvious exceptions, many racecourses are just tatty from an owner experience standpoint. Signage is poor, car parks muddy, owner and trainer rooms scruffy and so on. Each racecourse should appoint a non-executive director to scrutinise the whole of their owner experience, and in particular, look at it from the perspective that the average age of owners is almost 60.
- Build more partnerships. Racing, trainers and syndicates try to do far too much on their own. There is immense goodwill for the sport, which is barely tapped into. There are a huge number of natural alliances between racing, other sports, the hospitality industry, retailers etc. I am going to do some work in this area in 2017 for one of our trainers, and have been itching to do so for quite a time.
- Teach the authorities the basics of change management. There have been two pathetic failures of “process change” in 2016, with Weatherbys Bank and the RCA / ROA pass card. This is self-inflicted damage. We have even heard of owners saying that rather than face any more hassle they will quit the sport, which is completely unacceptable. Before launching any more systems, will the authorities please properly test them, with user groups of owners. Non-owning, technology-savvy youngsters designing change for low-tech 60-something owners is a recipe for disaster.
- A better year for Owners for Owners horses. While we have had some terrific times, on and off the track, this year will always be remembered for the sad demise of The Fugitive at the beginning of the year and Lord Ben Stack at the end of it. Huge sadness, which is taking some time to get over. May all our horses win in 2017, but more importantly, still be with us at the end of the year.