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In the last blog I summarised the ten proposals from the BHA designed to reduce the number of non-runners, i.e. horses withdrawn after declaration.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to self-certify, there will be a two-day quarantine period during which a horse will not be able to race if it has been withdrawn under a vet’s certificate and there could be an increase in payment to jockeys for late non-runners after 9:00 am from the current 40% to a full riding fee.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On the penalties, I am strongly opposed to owners having to pay full jockey fees if their horse is withdrawn.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!

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.