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In the last blog I summarised the ten proposals from the BHA designed to reduce the number of non-runners, i.e. horses withdrawn after declaration.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self-certify, there will be a two-day quarantine period during which a horse will not be able to race if it has been withdrawn under a vet’s certificate and there could be an increase in payment to jockeys for late non-runners after 9:00 am from the current 40% to a full riding fee.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On the penalties, I am strongly opposed to owners having to pay full jockey fees if their horse is withdrawn.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

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