Wednesday 15 March 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 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.

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.