Wednesday 15 February 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Wednesday 1 February 2017

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

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

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

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

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

What have the Jockey Club actually proposed?

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

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

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

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.