Tuesday, 10 January 2017
It was certainly a tremendously exciting end to 2016 on the National Hunt scene, not least because of the superb runnings of the Colin Tizzard superstars, Thistlecrack, Cue Card, Native River and then, more recently the highly promising staying youngster, Finians Oscar. There is a feel of a movement in the tectonic plates of top British NH racing here, with so much concentration of firepower in a yard that is as popular as it is professional. It is hardly grassroots racing, but I’m convinced that most owners and racegoers feel that this is a super trainer, without necessarily being a super-power yard full of the very richest owners in the land.
Christmas also demonstrated the enormous popularity of racing, particularly over jumps, with record crowds. Apparently over 204,000 racegoers turned out on Boxing Day, which was more than ever before. It would be mean-spirited to make any negative comments on the so-called “brilliant raceday experience”, which is how one of the Racecourse Association (RCA) officials described it, but there is still a real need to convert this racing enthusiasm into higher levels of attendance throughout the year. Apparently most racegoers only attend one, or possibly two maximum, race days per year and then only at their local track. If British racing could encourage them to attend just one more day, it would be one huge step forward in the economics of the sport – definitely a challenge for those who promote and market it.
Maintaining a high profile for the sport on terrestrial television has always been a tremendously important element in that marketing and promotion. People need to grow up with the sport and become enthusiastic when young, because it has been demonstrated that when this happens they tend to stay with racing throughout their lives. Certainly when I was a teenager I was an avid follower of BBC and Peter O’Sullevan, and also the pioneers of ITV such as John Oaksey and Brough Scott, and I can still remember the “pleasures” of losing money steadily every Saturday on the ITV-7. Indeed, the Little Oak in Chester was the pub I always went to, and last time I called in it hadn’t changed much over the years ….. although the TV was massively bigger. The switch from ITV to Channel 4 was a positive one in terms of the quality of presentation, but like the Little Oak it needed a fair bit of refurbishment after 32 years. Channel 4 Racing and the Morning Line had definitely become flat and stale (unlike the excellent hand-pumped beer in the Little Oak), and most racegoers and owners that I’ve spoken to were happy to see a change.
It wasn’t a propitious start, with the new ITV line-up committed to broadcast live from the winner’s enclosure at Cheltenham regardless of the drenching they received. The friendly and professional Ed Chamberlin appeared to cope manfully with everything, though apparently all his notes were destroyed in seconds, and his iPad gave up the ghost in the terrible weather. Oli Bell and Luke Harvey were well received, though unfortunately Matt Chapman confirmed the “Marmite” reaction that you either love him or loathe him. If you throw in A.P. McCoy, Mick Fitzgerald, Alice Plunkett and Richard Hoiles and (to be sexist for a moment) some eye-candy in Victoria Pendleton and the good-looking weather forecaster whose name I can’t remember, it seemed a decent team. The first edition of The Opening Show also seemed modern and professional, with some excellent features and a much lighter tone than the old Morning Line.
Unfortunately the overall reaction has been quite mixed, with the viewing figures on New Year’s Day being higher than previous years although not massively so, and The Opening Show, which goes out on ITV4, wasn’t especially popular. Personally I really hope that they can build up the numbers, and do so dramatically, as it really matters to the sport. It seems clear from the initial broadcasts that they have made a decision to pitch the commentary, tone and style of the shows at a much broader audience, rather than the die-hard enthusiasts and punters. That led quite a few to criticise them for “dumbing down” racing, although that seemed a bit harsh when set against the high quality of the production.
ITV has a four-year contract as racing’s exclusive terrestrial broadcaster, and we wish them well. We definitely need them, and high viewing figures, if terrestrial coverage is to be guaranteed into the future.
Sunday, 1 January 2017
I know it’s a bit hackneyed but it always seems appropriate to reflect on the past year and focus on New Year’s resolutions. Mine are easy: weight down, alcohol down, exercise up. Job done then (same every year).
On the horse front, I already know that 2017 is going to see Owners for Owners involved with more horses either in training or in the pipeline than we’ve ever had, at 23. We’ve come a tremendous way in less than five years and it just shows the latent demand that exists for owners to come into the sport or increase their involvement if the whole experience is made easy and enjoyable. I’m not blowing our trumpet here, because that’s what the vast majority of our owners tell us. Indeed the other day I worked out that if you add up all the horses that our owners and friends are now associated with, it is well over 100, whereas it was fewer than 10 in 2012. Just shows what can be done.
So what is the collective view of Owners for Owners on ten resolutions for British racing? The top three are critical and the other seven are enablers.
- Transform the governance of integrity. A huge issue, but from Mahmood al-Zarooni in April 2013 to the resolution of the Jim Best scandal in December 2016, British racing has seriously damaged its credibility and reputation. This isn’t the blog to dig into the detail of the problem, but we’re pointing the finger at the three Cs: complacency, cronyism and corruption. The whole of the supply chain of racing, from breeding to training and ownership to sales, needs to come under the searchlight with substantial tightening of governance and far greater transparency and scrutiny. Our real fear is that the first C on that list – complacency – will inhibit the significant changes now required.
- Secure far more funds for racing. Hopefully in April the new post-Levy arrangements will come into force with full Government support, and that should be a huge step forward. But it remains to be seen whether the hostilities with major bookmakers can be properly overcome and equally whether racecourses will share far more of their income with owners and the sport. Our view is that at least £50m of additional funding needs to be captured and reinvested. Maybe more.
- More owners and a much better experience. Without more owners coming in to the game, increasing their involvement and being retained by the sport, then racing’s economics are fundamentally impaired. There are two dynamics that we’ll be examining in more detail in 2017 blogs: firstly whether there is a fundamental decline taking place at the grass roots ownership level, and secondly whether foal over-production is a real issue or not. If there were more owners buying more young horses, there wouldn’t be a problem. Indeed globally it looks as though stallions, mares and foals have declined by up to 50% since 2007. The real market dynamic looks to be lack of demand rather than over-supply.
- Bridge the gap between the top echelons and the grass roots. A resounding view of all our owners is that money needs to flow into the grass roots of racing rather than continually pump-priming the top end of the sport. The day I win the Derby or the Cheltenham Gold Cup, I really don’t believe prize-money will be bothering me. On the other hand, running in £5,000 total prize-money novice hurdles at so-called good tracks is insulting. Racecourses are taking the proverbial in some of this.
- Active promotion of co-ownership in all its forms. 50% or more of all owners start off in some form of partnership or syndicate. The sport needs to make it even easier to come into the game through this route. As always, simplify the administration, actively promote and market syndicates and reinforce best practice and good standards through proper guidelines and codes of practice.
- Boost business skills of trainers. We believe that trainers are the number one “gatekeepers” of the sport. The initial owner contact with an enthusiastic and skilled trainer who combines being a horseman with being a businessman has the greatest impact on ownership. Alas the vast majority of trainers are borderline insolvent and sadly lacking in the necessary marketing, communication, promotion and finance skills. In conventional business there would be a huge emphasis on coaching and professional development. It is a sign of the problem that even raising this would probably lead to resistance from most trainers.
- Smarten up racecourses. With a few very obvious exceptions, many racecourses are just tatty from an owner experience standpoint. Signage is poor, car parks muddy, owner and trainer rooms scruffy and so on. Each racecourse should appoint a non-executive director to scrutinise the whole of their owner experience, and in particular, look at it from the perspective that the average age of owners is almost 60.
- Build more partnerships. Racing, trainers and syndicates try to do far too much on their own. There is immense goodwill for the sport, which is barely tapped into. There are a huge number of natural alliances between racing, other sports, the hospitality industry, retailers etc. I am going to do some work in this area in 2017 for one of our trainers, and have been itching to do so for quite a time.
- Teach the authorities the basics of change management. There have been two pathetic failures of “process change” in 2016, with Weatherbys Bank and the RCA / ROA pass card. This is self-inflicted damage. We have even heard of owners saying that rather than face any more hassle they will quit the sport, which is completely unacceptable. Before launching any more systems, will the authorities please properly test them, with user groups of owners. Non-owning, technology-savvy youngsters designing change for low-tech 60-something owners is a recipe for disaster.
- A better year for Owners for Owners horses. While we have had some terrific times, on and off the track, this year will always be remembered for the sad demise of The Fugitive at the beginning of the year and Lord Ben Stack at the end of it. Huge sadness, which is taking some time to get over. May all our horses win in 2017, but more importantly, still be with us at the end of the year.