Saturday 15 April 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sunday 2 April 2017

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

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

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.