Sunday, 15 July 2018

Have You Ever Wondered Why Horses Snort? The Scientists Can Now Explain

I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the blog before that Margaret Thatcher’s husband Denis often needed some Dutch courage from a stiff drink, depending on the Blessed Margaret’s mood. He prepared himself either a pre-prandial G&T snifter or a much larger one that he called a snorter – or if absolutely needed, a huge snorteroony. So you can tell from this intro that the theme of today’s short blog has to be snorting (but of the equine variety).

Often when I’ve been in yards looking at our horses they have come across for a chat and a cuddle, and at the very moment you’re patting them on the neck they let out a big snort. I’ve often wondered why, and had always assumed that they were just trying to expel dust, straw, insects or whatever. While they obviously do do this, a piece of research by Mathilde Stomp (I know, this is beginning to sound like an April Fool blog) of the University of Rennes found that snorting actually corresponds to a horse’s welfare at a particular point in time. Most interestingly, she found that horses don’t snort with fear or astonishment, but with pleasure, and that the frequency of snorts rises as an environment becomes more pleasant and decreases as it becomes more stressful (and you are probably already saying that this is the opposite to what used to happen in the Thatcher household).

They also found that horses in natural pastures snorted more than those in stalls; horses facing a wall never snorted, and when horses were moved to a pasture with plenty of grass, snorting levels increased tenfold. Dr. Stomp was quoted in The Times report by their Science Editor Tom Whipple and she concluded that: “These results provide a potentially important tool as snorts appear as a possible reliable indicator of positive emotions, which could help identify situations appreciated by horses”.

For evermore, when a horse snorts in my presence I’m going to assume it is because he or she is a happy horse. It’s a wonderful thing, science, isn’t it?

I read about this at the same time that I met up with two researchers, Dr Siobhan Mullan and Dr Deborah Butler, from the University of Bristol’s Veterinary School, and we’re going to work with them on a study funded by The Racing Foundation entitled Measuring Racehorse Welfare: Development and Implementation of a Racehorse Specific Welfare Assessment. Over the next year they are going to come and visit our racehorses and do a structured assessment of their behaviour and wellbeing so that they can highlight the best practices in equine welfare that produce the most healthy and happy horses. Their intention is to draw their research together into a “welfare assessment protocol” that can then be used by the racing industry. I’m very much in favour of more research in racing so that conclusions on best practices in training and horse welfare are grounded in facts and data rather than just intuition, experience and doing things in the same way they have always been done.

Not surprisingly when I met the researchers I shared with them the conclusions on snorting. It’s an interesting life I lead!?! I can feel a snort coming on …

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Sunday, 1 July 2018

From the Ridiculous to the Sublime: The Racecourse Experience at Worcester, Bangor and Royal Ascot

On average I go racing twice a week, so around 100 times a year. Indeed many people like me, who organise partnerships or syndicates, probably see more variety of racecourses, Owners & Trainers facilities and the overall racecourse experience than almost anyone other than jockeys and trainers. However, because trainers by and large are far better looked after and treated than owners, our insights are probably much nearer the reality of British racing. Indeed the Racehorse Syndicates Association (RSA) has been lobbying for more input into the corridors of power on this subject, but so far have been cold-shouldered by bodies such as the Racehorse Owners Association (ROA), which is a real pity.

Anyway, over the last six weeks, three experiences have stood out: one terrible, two excellent.

First the terrible one. On 2nd June, Worcester staged its annual Ladies’ Day, with a huge crowd of over 10,000. Unfortunately the result was that temporary Owners & Trainers facilities had to be used and there was an outcry from such trainers as Alan King, Warren Greatrex and Paul Nicholls. Owners described it as the “worst track they’d ever attended”. This is a real pity, because the track itself is a fair, flat, galloping one which I like a lot, and indeed on the day our horse, Dr Dunraven, lost his maiden tag, winning a 2m handicap chase. It’s not really the fault though of the local management. Jenny Cheshire, who heads their marketing, does a fantastic job and is always incredibly helpful. The bottom line is that the owners of the track, ARC, desperately need to make significant capital investment. At the moment the Worcester owner experience is so dire that it is dissuading owners from going. A recent survey showed that 44% of owners who leave British racing do so because of the poor raceday experience. If they all went to Worcester regularly we’d have no owners left.

So on to a much better one: Bangor. The ROA does a jumps racecourse league table based on prize-money, and in that Bangor is very lowly at 39th of 41 tracks (Worcester is 34th). So you might think that Bangor is a course that owners wouldn’t like. When I went there recently I couldn’t help but notice that it is punching massively above its weight. They have recently built a brand-new Owners & Trainers room that provided a sumptuous buffet with complimentary wine for owners. There may be no stands, with viewing being from a bank at the side of the track, but all the owners I spoke to could not have been more complimentary. It just shows what inspired leadership can achieve, even at one of the lesser tracks. I’ve always subscribed to the adage that “Ships sink from the Bridge”, and with the excellent management of Chester and Bangor, these ships are definitely full steam ahead. Bravo, Bangor.

Then the third one, which is an obvious selection, being Royal Ascot. Having studied the style guide, ensured that there were no missing socks or naked shoulders, my wife and I were duly togged up for the Royal Enclosure and had the most magnificent time on one of the best days of the Flat season, Day 1 of the meeting. Admittedly we were being wined and dined in a private box, but the whole occasion was British racing at its absolute best. No complaints over prize-money at over £7.3m during the week, and I gather that there were over 300,000 spectators. The attention to detail was the best I’ve ever seen on a racecourse – not just for humans but also for the equine stars. As an example I was really impressed by the misting machines that the horses could stand by in the unsaddling area to cool down.

Encouragingly, as far I could see, there were no problems with crowd violence, although it was strange to observe sniffer dogs trying to find drugs, amnesty boxes and breathalysers at turnstiles in case anyone showed (in lovely Ascot phraseology) “overt signs of inebriation”. Apparently there were more than 100 extra security staff.

A few highlights of the meeting for me were:
  • Accidental Agent: really magnificent to see this winner for Eve Johnson Houghton and her mother, Gaie, in the Queen Anne. It was Eve’s first success at Royal Ascot and it was an extremely emotional one. She said that “you’ll have to man the lifeboats” to escape all her tears. The horse was named after her maternal grandfather, John Goldsmith, who was a member of the Special Operations Executive in the Second World War. The horse was bred by Gaie, but led out of Tattersalls Book 2 in 2015 unsold at 8,000 guineas. This gives hope to all of us!

  • Calyx: won a really strong edition of the Coventry over 6f, and in the process became the market leader for the 2000 Guineas next year. Talk about a chip off the old block – he was the spitting image of his dad, Kingman.

  • Stradivarius: the Gold Cup has always been one of my favourite races of the season, and this was a vintage finish with three horses battling it out right to the line. Exhilarating. The horse is on track to land the £1m bonus designed to encourage the owning and breeding of stayers. All he has to do (?!?) is win the Qatar Goodwood Cup and then the Weatherbys Hamilton Lonsdale Cup at York. Who knows, he might even go to Australia for the Melbourne Cup in November.

  • Landmark successes: everyone seemed delighted for Sir Michael Stoute to record 76 winners on the first day, beating Sir Henry Cecil’s record. Both Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore passed significant milestones with 60 and 50 Royal Ascot winners respectively.

  • Startling moments: two horses, Vintage Brut and Main Street, each only beat one horse home in their respective races at the meeting. Incredibly they had changed hands at the Goffs Ascot sale on Monday night for £280,000 and £300,000. The buyer was Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the Chairman of Leicester City. He actually spent considerably more than that and was well into seven figures. The phrase “more money than sense” comes to mind.

The day-to-day fare of grass-roots racing will seem something of an anticlimax for a few weeks.

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, 15 June 2018

Farewell to Denman. A Truly Great Horse and the End of a Magnificent NH Era.

When I was a kid, growing up in Chester, the wonder horse Arkle was owned by the Duchess of Westminster and would spend holiday time on the Eaton Estate just outside my home town. He was probably the first racehorse that I readily identified with, and although memories of his races have only really come from grainy TV recordings, it was his ability to win under huge weights in handicaps that for me made him a true champion. Only one horse since has made such an impression, and that was the mighty Denman, who passed away on Tuesday 5th June. By the early part of the new century I was living just outside Lambourn and always went to the Newbury meetings. I’ll never forget Denman’s unbelievable performance in the Hennessy Gold Cup on 1st December 2007. Without any doubt it was the best handicap performance I’ve ever seen in my life. Brutal and magnificent in equal measure. He destroyed a top-quality field (and earned an amazing OR of 182 in the process, which puts it into perspective), thoroughly deserving his nickname of “The Tank”. Racing Post journalist Tom Kerr wrote a magnificent article in the Racing Post and I reproduce it with full acknowledgements below. I couldn’t agree more with Tom in his comments about the horse and his contribution to promoting our wonderful sport.

Denman reminded all us devotees it is the legends who sell racing best

It has been a mere ten years since Denman wrote his name indelibly into racing history as he steamed in all his fury to 2008 Gold Cup victory; just seven since he and Kauto Star chased home Long Run in that glorious last hurrah at Cheltenham in 2011. It is hard to believe that now both halves of that great rivalry are no more already, but while an era ended with Denman's death this week the legacy of those two great horses will echo down the decades.

No one who saw the two titans in all their pomp will ever forget them. They will provide us with anecdotes long into the future, give us stories with which to bore future generations as they obsess over the next bright young thing, until, at last, when all of us who saw them run turn to dust, Denman and Kauto Star pass into the ranks of legend – long gone stars whose light still flickers in the dead of night.

Perhaps the greatest service those two horses gave racing was in how they drew to the sport a generation of fans who might otherwise never have fallen under its spell. Not since Desert Orchid has there been a horse who captivated a new generation as did Kauto Star and Denman and none, not even Frankel, has achieved such a feat since.

I was part of that generation and without those two horses, their soaring performances and their enduring rivalry, my journey through life would have been so much the poorer. There are countless thousands of us out there who were introduced to racing's glory by their exploits and their tussles.

Everyone drawn into the sport by Denman, and they are legion, will have their own moment of indoctrination: perhaps it came during his first Hennessy in 2007, when he lugged top weight around Newbury and pulled up the trees as he swept away his opposition. Perhaps it was that 2008 Gold Cup, which I hold to be one of the finest races of all time, for all that I lost almost every penny I had punting Kauto Star for the months leading up to it. Maybe it came later, when he overcame a heart scare to win that emotional second Hennessy and run heroic placed efforts in the Gold Cup.

I still recall the dawning realisation that racing was more than just a fun day out and an engaging way to bet a few quid, that instead it was a world of epic heroes, mud-splattered beasts that seemed to have leapt from the pages of ancient lore into our sterile modern world. Only horses like Kauto Star and Denman can awaken such thoughts.

By the very nature of being once-in-a-generation horses, animals like that do not come around often. The Red Rums, the Dessies, the Dancing Braves, the Frankels, the Secretariats, the American Pharoahs – it is their scarcity that makes them so intoxicating to watch and follow. They are the Usain Bolts, the Muhammad Alis, the George Bests, the Roger Federers of our sport. Yet when they do roll around, that once in a decade moment when a superstar emerges out of obscurity to light up our lives for a short few years, they revitalise the sport, bringing into the racing fold thousands of new believers. We can market the sport every way we like, tinker with conventions and conditions to our hearts' content, but nothing will ever change the fact that it is equine heroes who drive racing.

This is the fundamental flaw of so many marketing wheezes dreamt up to promote racing. They are all very well in and of themselves, and some do have a positive impact, but racing's appeal – at least as sport rather than a betting medium – rests heavily on the exploits of its most talented equine stars.

Take the mooted Championship Horse Racing enterprise, which is scheduled to begin next summer and will supposedly invigorate the sport by bringing team sensibilities to racing, with sponsored Formula 1-style sides of trainers, horses and jockeys competing against each other over several weeks.

The idea is that by doing this we will create new loyalties, that new fans will be drawn to the sport by the prospect of calling themselves followers of the Emirates Eagles, John Lewis Jaguars or the Qipco Quails. It is laughable stuff, really, the notion that something as soulless as corporate tribalism is ever going to take root. But take away the corporate branding and it still doesn't make sense, this idea that racing needs teams, because it ignores the reality that it is not humans, homelands or identities that people follow in racing, but horses.”

Denman (left) with his stablemate and rival Kauto Star
Edward Whitaker
Kauto Star and Denman inspired ferocious loyalty and dedicated followings, the like of which has not been seen in racing for decades and may not occur again for a generation, despite living side by side, despite sharing the same trainer, despite sharing three jockeys over their career. They created that passion by simply being the best, by inspiring awe, by being something that so many of us had never seen before.

Now, too soon, they are gone. We should not mourn what we have lost, but celebrate all that they gave us – passions to last a lifetime, memories to last forever.

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 June 2018

Keep Prize-Money Simple, and Motivating for Owners – Some Thoughts on Prize-Money Distribution

I’m only doing this blog because I was invited today by the ROA to complete a survey on Owners’ Prize-Money Distribution. No problems at all with that, and I duly completed it. You may know that prize-money is currently allocated between owners of winning and placed horses in line with the following distribution

Owner of Winner
Owner of 2nd
Owner of 3rd
Owner of 4th

The first observation of course is that there doesn’t appear to be any logic whatsoever between the various percentages, none of which are the same so there is no consistency between Flat vs. Jumps or Pattern vs. Non-Pattern races.

Equally it is worth noting that these percentages don’t add up to 100% because an amount is taken out to split between trainers, jockeys and stable staff. I’m not going to address this subject in any detail today, other than saying that I’ve felt for a long time that the trainer percentage should be allocated much more to the grass-roots trainer. Do John Gosden, Aidan O’Brien, Nicky Henderson or Willie Mullins really need a percentage top-up to their already huge income from premium training fees? On the other hand, for many lesser trainers and their stable staff, this percentage is a lifeline without which they would probably go under.

Anyway, back to the prize-money distribution issue. Doubtless as a result of the ROA survey there will be some tinkering around with the percentages, but doesn’t that really miss the point? Wouldn’t it be so much better to have a prize-money allocation that owners can both understand easily and find motivating and “felt fair” …. and wouldn’t need a calculator to try to work it out? The Owners for Owners proposal would be that any horse that finishes 4th in any class of race picks up a minimum of £500 (thereby covering most of the costs on most race-days of getting the horse to the track); the 3rd, £1,000; 2nd, £2,000; and the winner, £4,000 (plus the percentage of stakes as now). Obviously this would be an overall increase of prize-money in each race, and I would fund that by reducing the total prize-money for Group and Listed races, and reallocating it to the bottom of the pyramid.

Before leaving the subject, I am very appreciative of the way prize-money now goes down to 8th in some races, particularly on those race tracks run by Jockey Club Racecourses. Again I’d argue for setting a figure for 5th to 8th that isn’t derisory, however, and then working up to the winner using the same principle as described above. I believe the current figure is £300, which isn’t a bad starting point when you think that jockey fees and entry fees (and then only for the lowest grades of races) take up the best part of £200, before you even get the horse to the course.

Rather than tinkering around with percentages, it would be far more positive for attracting and retaining owners to have a fundamental change. Alas, I would imagine that there is little chance of this being adopted, although hopefully the principle behind this blog might at least get an airing in the corridors of power.

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.

Tuesday, 15 May 2018

A Clampdown Has to Come on Unacceptable Racecourse Behaviour. Racing is Well Aware that the Recent Scenes of Violence at Goodwood and Ascot Cannot Be Dismissed as One-Offs

For all of us who love racing and have always regarded it as one of the safest and most enjoyable sports to attend, it has been a really sad couple of weeks reading about the outrageous scenes at top tracks such as Goodwood and Ascot. And of course in an era when any incident is beamed out on social media and goes global rapidly, the reputational damage to our sport is potentially massive. Every right-minded person can only echo the comment of Stephen Atkin, Chief Executive of the Racecourse Association (RCA): “The incident (at Goodwood) clearly has absolutely no place in society, let alone on a racecourse.” The Goodwood brawl in particular looked appalling with a large mob fighting and kicking each other senseless, while the Ascot skirmish in the main grandstand, while on a lesser scale, would still have been frightening to all other racegoers and ruin their whole customer experience. This is a really nasty development, although unfortunately it has been emerging for some time. Indeed at Cheltenham a racegoer had his eye socket fractured after the Gold Cup and not that long ago at Lingfield, where there was a problem with over-crowding at a music concert, ill-tempered scuffles broke out. There was a similar problem at a Newmarket Friday race / music night as well.

Of course, putting everything into perspective, over six million people go racing every year and the vast majority have a great experience, and are most unlikely to encounter any of the unpleasantness seen recently. Unfortunately the publicity gained by these events could easily persuade a worried minority to find another sport to support. Equally, former jockey and now trainer Richard Hughes argued depressingly in the Racing Post that there is a risk that the violence itself draws in a very unsavoury element attracted by the prospect of it.

Not surprisingly these incidents have had a lot of coverage in the press and on TV, with four clear themes emerging. At a society level there has been commentary about decades of decline in personal behaviour and the need for much greater respect for the rights of citizens to go unmolested and free of any violent or insulting interference. Secondly there has been a profound change in racing and the race-goer experience as the sport has evolved from being primarily supported by knowledgeable and enthusiastic racing fans to encouraging a much wider audience of customers drawn to events, festivals, ladies’ days and music where the racing is largely a backdrop to the entertainment. Thirdly, and related to this has been the way in which racecourses have been far more commercially aggressive in promoting a day out at the races and the considerable increase in facilities designed to sell the maximum amount of alcohol, not only in bars but across the whole racecourse. Finally, there is a strong feeling that “something must be done”.

To be fair to the RCA, they have actually had all of this on the radar screen for some time, with quite a few campaigns under way to influence racegoers who are over-indulging in either alcohol or drugs. The Responsible Drinking Campaign, “Pace Yourself”, has been in place for four years and was developed with Drink Aware. Recently the “Pace Yourself Plus” training programme was launched, equipping racecourse staff with more knowledge and skills about how to deal with the problem, although whether e-learning tools and similar media are likely to have much effect is pretty debateable. There is also the campaign, “End Your Day on the Right High”, which tries to nudge people in the direction of a bit more sobriety, although I have to say that I had never heard of this, neither was I aware of the Horseracing Police Practitioners Forum which is looking into the problems of drug abuse and various measures of deterrence such as greater use of sniffer dogs.

There is a paradox here which has parallels with the “When The Fun Stops, Stop” slogan that is used to dissuade punters from chasing losses and losing too much money. It is impossible to get away from the reality that bookmakers make their profits by punters losing significant amounts of money and equally racecourses derive huge profits from racegoers who drink considerably overpriced alcohol to excess. The impression gained is that many of these campaigns are as much for PR reasons as they are to bring about significant changes in behaviour.

So what can be done about it? My impression is that racecourse staff themselves, even if described as security personnel, are woefully ill-equipped to deal with the problem. Let’s face it, many of them are kind, often elderly and rather ineffectual lovers of racing who completely lack the ability to confront a brawling mob. Equally the kids serving in bars struggle to take an order and pour a drink, and would sooner ignore any problem with drunks than make any attempt to curtail the drinking. Essentially this whole issue has to start top-down with racecourse management and it is inevitable that staff profiles will have to be redefined, and potentially significant amounts of money spent on well-trained security personnel who actually have the wherewithal to keep racecourses secure and safe. Those staff need to be very visible and trained to react extremely quickly to problems as they emerge, while at the same time liaising closely with the police, both inside racecourses and outside.

It also increasingly looks as though it is not just drink that is the problem, but drug-taking as well. Recently at leading Flat meetings sniffer dogs have been present as well as amnesty bins so that miscreants can dump their drugs without fear of prosecution. I have very mixed views about this, as it seems almost to be tolerating the problem. There are probably many specialist bodies that can advise racing on how best to deal with the drug issue.

I am also hoping that those hooligans involved in violence are actually brought to justice and severely punished. While social media makes everyone aware of the problem so quickly, it can also help apprehend the culprits and hopefully that will be the case with the Goodwood incident.

Finally the BHA is determined to raise the focus on this whole problem area. After Goodwood they indicated that they are going to pay increased attention to crowd control and security in the future licensing of racecourses.

Clearly this is a very complex and challenging area for racing to deal with. It is absolutely essential though that the problems that have been emerging over recent years are contained. It would be a very sad day indeed if unsavoury behaviour associated with drink, drugs and violence became even more commonplace.

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.

Tuesday, 1 May 2018

Hats Off to the Mighty Mullins and the Punchestown Festival. Great Racing, But Are Duopolies Good For the Sport?

Well, yet another National Hunt season drew to a close last weekend. Personally I didn’t think it was one of the best we’ve experienced in the UK, marred as it was by terrible weather, the lack of the best horses running frequently against each other and in particular Messrs. Henderson and Nicholls’ domination of small field novice races, particularly the chases. The main reason though is that we’re now obviously in an era where the Irish completely dominate the sport.

The concentration of buying power in the hands of a small number of billionaire owners such as Michael O’Leary and J.P. McManus has led to the whole supply chain of top horses being routed into a small number of top yards. The virtuous circle of acquiring these horses and then harvesting the top races with them appears to have moved to an altogether new level in the last few years. There’s probably never been a period when the grass-roots owner has had less chance of acquiring a top horse. As readers of this blog know, it has forced a major rethink of how Owners for Owners purchases its NH horses, as we’ve deserted the ready-to-go but very expensive ex-point-to-pointer in favour of foals, yearlings and store horses. So far we’ve been very lucky with Acey Milan and Melekhov, but I suspect we’ll find that the prices of these youngsters will steadily climb as many owners and trainers do exactly the same as us. I’m expecting the 3yo store horse sales to be very competitive indeed this Spring / Summer.

You only have to look at the prize-money of the top Irish trainers to see what is happening. Mullins finished the season on c. €6 million of prize-money, Gordon Elliott c. €5 million, then a long way behind them Joseph O’Brien (€1.5m), Henry de Bromhead (€1.3m), Jessica Harrington (€1.3m), Noel Meade (€1.2m) then a huge gap to Charlie Byrnes in 7th place with only €400k. In effect the lesser trainers can no longer compete and it must be extremely dispiriting coming up against the Elliott and Mullins juggernauts day in, day out. It’s hardly surprising that there’s been a continuous decline in the Irish NH trainer ranks as so many throw in the towel and quit the sport. Indeed, as another graphic example, Willie Mullins started the Punchestown Festival on Tuesday €0.5m down on Gordon Elliott yet finished €800,000 ahead, which is quite extraordinary. In fact if he’d only started the season on Tuesday, with no previous winners, he’d have been 2nd in the trainer ranks five days later. This was Willie’s 11th successive season as top trainer.

Almost every day at Punchestown there were startling and head-scratching performances by Mullins. He won six of the seven races on the second day. In the Champion Novice Hurdle, all nine runners came from Mullins and Elliott (actually that’s a lie – one was from Margaret Mullins!) I was very interested in this race as it was won by Dortmund Park, who I bought two years ago but then didn’t go ahead with the purchase because he was failed by the vet. The Champion 4yo Hurdle was the third time in a season that a Gr.1 race was contested only by the two major yards. There were seven runners and the first three home were all Mullins’. Gordon Elliott had set a trainer’s record earlier in the year for the number of runners in one race when he saddled 13 in the Irish Grand National; Mullins then topped that with 15 runners in one of the races. Apparently this is a world record and in my book, a very discouraging one.

You just have to ask whether this duopoly domination is good for the sport. I think for many of the betting public it probably has no effect, as they often revel in a head-to-head in the training ranks and on the track. There was certainly a lot of media hype going into Punchestown, and the overall quality of racing at the meeting last week was superb. Wasn’t it magnificent to see the mighty machine, Faugheen, bounce back to his best? That certainly stands out as one of the season’s best performances for me. The others would be Native River in the Gold Cup; Tiger Roll in the Cross-Country and Grand National; Altior unbeaten; and the horse I most enjoy watching, Samcro, when he strolled home in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle at the new Leopardstown Festival. I do hope they keep him hurdling and go for the Champion next year.

It’s impossible to see the dominance changing soon. In the world of business the academics argue that companies compete through their networks of suppliers and partners. In racing the key networks now are the small number of the very top trainers working with their agents and breeders to ensure that the very best bloodstock, regardless of price, ends up in their yard. While this has always been the case in Flat racing, it now unfortunately seems that the same applies to National Hunt. All sports need competition and diversity. While there is obviously going to be superb competition on the racetrack, as we saw at the Festivals that now dominate our sport – Cheltenham, Aintree and Punchestown – there is a risk that the lesser owners and trainers become discouraged and we end up with a two-tier sport. Not surprisingly, nothing would give me greater pleasure in the new season than our young horses Acey Milan, Lord Condi, Melekhov and the as yet unnamed 4yo Presenting managed to compete in the premier league. Everything crossed for the next year.

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.

Sunday, 15 April 2018

Vexatious Vets (Again) – Why They Need to Become Customer Focused and Offer Value for Money

I’ve done a number of blogs on the veterinary profession and I’m afraid they have normally been critical. Obviously, at their best vets can be superb and none of us as owners resent the “necessary” costs we have to pay to treat and look after our horses, both on a day-by-day basis and from time to time when the inevitable emergencies arise. But unfortunately the vets as a community of professionals are out of touch with modern values of customer service and don’t even really regard the owner as the customer. We all know there are three certainties in life: death, taxes and you’ll never find a poor vet.

In the space of three days last week I encountered three completely different experiences with vets: one brilliant, one mediocre and one terrible. That is about the average strike-rate, I find. I’m not going to go into the detail of the three episodes, but here are seven factors for evaluating vets.

  1. Clinical effectiveness. It is a disturbing feature of the treatment of racehorses that there is often an absence of proper, evidence-based research into the effectiveness of treatment, with a notable example being the various operations for wind problems. The same applies to tendon treatments: what is the effectiveness of stem cell injections vs. the medieval art of firing?

  2. Customer orientation. Basically vets regard the trainer as their customer, not the owner. Trainers invariably haven’t a clue about the total annual spend of their owners with their vets, and it is just regarded as a pass-through cost. The owner just pays the bills, and they are considerable. If the average annual vetting cost per horse is £1,500, then for a 50-horse yard that is a total of £75,000. Most vets would cover that with one day’s work per week. A 150-horse yard is £225k, and with 20,000 horses in the UK it is a £30m spend per year.

  3. Pricing for services. There are lots of different ways a supplier can charge a customer: greed (charge as much as you can get away with), time and materials (and many vets just double the price of drugs and consumables), performance (to reflect results), fixed cost and a margin (what are the margins of vets?) or by procedure (see the next heading). Unfortunately there’s often little transparency as to how vets do charge. With many of them it is what I call “pizza pricing” – the base isn’t too bad but there are so many add-ons for all the bits and pieces.

  4. Pricing by procedure. I keep a cost tracker on every single horse and it is absolutely amazing how the charges for the complete range of veterinary services vary between vets and across the country. If you look at the automotive industry, they adopted total quality management and six sigma approaches decades ago, i.e. top quality x standardisation. Now any vet will tell you that you can’t do that with horses because every situation varies. Of course it does, but it’s on a normal distribution. Some are straightforward and you save, some are complex and you lose. If you look at the commissioning model in the NHS, hospitals have to quote commissioning doctors fixed prices for operations. I would love to see a fixed price schedule for veterinary work so that you could compare value for money.

  5. Communication. Invariably the only communication you get from a vet is through an opaque invoice, or a line on the trainer’s bill. There is rarely any contact, and vets just don’t seem to feel that there is a need to keep the owner properly in the loop. I’ve always argued that the worst type of communication between a customer and a supplier is when it is only done by cheque.

  6. Administration and invoicing. Usually it is a constant bombardment with some vets billing fortnightly. Careful checking of invoices pays dividends because there are often mistakes, and lots of over-charging. I’ve even had bills coming in three months after treatment when the horse has since died and the partnership accounts closed down.

  7. No improvement plan. The relationship between many trainers and vets is inertial, with relationships going back decades. The trainer makes no attempt to obtain value for money, nor to press the vet to be owner / customer orientated. At the level of British racing – despite the £30m spend per year – there is absolutely no strategy whatsoever. I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything come out of the BHA or the ROA pressing for a better, fair deal for owners.

So as you can see, quite a high level of dissatisfaction. The ideal is probably to be a sufficiently large owner or trainer to have your own vet to address the seven factors properly. Occasionally I wonder whether it would be worthwhile concentrating all the Owners for Owners horses, as well as my own, to one trainer so that we arrive at a preferential position. That would rattle a few cages!

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Sunday, 1 April 2018

Two Magnificent Cheltenham Experiences in March – Hopefully Many More To Come

I’ve lost track over the years of how many times in my head I’ve been commentating on one of our horses as it puts in a heroic performance at Prestbury Park. It tends to be something along the lines of: “… and as the field surges down the hill on the final circuit, there’s one horse travelling notably well, hard-held by his rider. Now they’re swinging round the final bend and the horse is still on the bridle. His rider’s aiming straight for the running rail on the stands side, absolutely cruising. Now he’s hit the bottom of the hill …. but has just hit a flat spot and is being challenged on the outside. The rider’s throwing everything at him now and he’s staying on again, almost at the line …..”

Well, finally, in March 2018, I got to experience this sensation, not just once but twice, and although the commentators weren’t quite so positive, coming down the hill on both occasions I thought we had a cracking chance of a winner.

The first horse is Acey Milan, running for Owners for Owners and trained by Anthony Honeyball. He’d put in three excellent winning performances going into the Festival, including two Listed bumpers. Although 4yos don’t have the best of records in the Champion Bumper, he was all the rage on the day and was backed in to favourite, up against Ireland’s best from Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott. There was a bit of an alarum when the horse jinxed going down to the start, giving Aidan Coleman a (thankfully) soft fall, but he managed to hold on to Acey Milan; there were no further mishaps. In the race itself one of the Mullins horses stole five lengths at the start and our horse cruised along behind him in 2nd or 3rd place. He tanked along coming down the hill and looked the winner swinging into the straight, but then lost his action a bit on the desperate ground and for a while looked as though he might fade out of contention, before putting his head down and battling himself into 4th place, with three Mullins horses ahead of us and one Elliott behind. There weren’t many British horses over the week capable of doing that, and indeed Acey Milan is probably the best bumper horse in this country by half a stone. He’s given all the owners a huge amount of fun this season and we’ve lots to look forward to next year, when he could easily shape up into a decent 2½ mile hurdler.

I don’t think that I expected to have a similar excitement, albeit in a very different type of race. Martin and Belinda Keighley’s elder son Freddie, having turned 10, was eligible for his first Pony Club race, which duly happened at Cheltenham last Friday. Freddie and his 16yo pony, Boston Bell Boy (aka “Bubbles”), had been in serious training all year and the whole yard was looking forward to this debut with as much enthusiasm as for a horse running at the Festival. The Keighleys had their own support team at Cheltenham together with a number of key owners, and I have to say that the whole event was incredibly well organised. The young riders had to turn up at 10:00 am for a briefing and a walk of the course; they changed in the normal jockeys’ room, with Freddie hanging his clothes on the peg with Any Currency’s plaque on it; they weighed out on the same machine as the jockeys; were attired in racing silks (in Freddie’s case those of the Martin Keighley Racing Partnerships and Club); paraded before going down the walkway to the start, and then raced down the hill over seven furlongs on a well marked-out section of the course. The commentator picked up quickly that Freddie intended to race handily and within 100 yards he was already in the lead, with only two ponies in behind able to go with him. You probably know what’s coming …. He swung into the straight on the bridle, aimed straight for the stands-side running rail with Bubbles tanking along before hitting a flat spot, losing the lead but then staying on again under a great ride from Freddie to be beaten only half a length into second. A magnificent debut, and Freddie’s smile when he came in said absolutely everything. Once prizes had been received, the whole group repaired to The Hollow Bottom in Guiting Power for a lunch that carried through almost to dinner-time. A magnificent way to start Easter, and the Pony Club is a terrific way of training young jockeys of the future. Well done to all the organisers, and especially to Cheltenham for making it such a special day.

Just one comment on the Festival, as we’re now a few weeks on from it. My biggest disappointment, as in the previous year, was the flagrant breaches of the whip rule. Either the rule has to be tightened up so that the jockeys are penalised far more severely, or the prescription of the number of times you are allowed to hit a horse has to be scrapped. Two of our trainers have seen their horses beaten by other riders, in effect, cheating. Last year Pendra in the 3m 2f Kim Muir for amateur riders was given an excellent ride by Derek O’Connor before Gina Andrews threw everything at her mount Doomsday Book, ignored the whip rule completely and got up to beat Pendra by ¾ l. If O’Connor had done the same, Pendra would have won. This year Ms Parfois, in the 4m National Hunt Challenge Cup for amateur riders, was only beaten ½ l by Rathvinden under an incredibly strong ride from Patrick Mullins. Again, Mullins ignored the whip rule whereas Ms Parfois’ rider Will Biddick stayed within the rules. While Ms Parfois didn’t help her chance with a mistake at the 2nd last, she might also have won.

And then of course the Champion Jockey Richard Johnson did the same, winning the Gold Cup on Native River. A £6,000 fine is neither here nor there for Richard. In fact I felt that this was one of the rides of the decade and it really just flags up how poor the current whip rule is. It would be far better to allow local stewards complete discretion.

Aidan Coleman, on Acey Milan, gave our horse a typically fine and strong ride while staying within the rules. Young Freddie Keighley wasn’t even allowed to have a whip, but again gave his pony a fine ride.

Surely the whip rule needs to change? Personally I hope this happens by the time of next year’s Festival. Here’s hoping that we have more runners at the Olympics of our sport. What an excitement March was. I hope I live long enough to see young Freddie come over the last and storm to success up the famous hill.

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Thursday, 15 March 2018

The Cheltenham Festival – The Ace in the Pack. It’s Certainly Bigger, But Is It Better?

My wife and I went along to The Centaur at Prestbury Park on Sunday to listen to an excellent OLBG-sponsored preview evening chaired by Jeremy Kyle, with the panel consisting of Ruby Walsh, A.P. McCoy, John Francome and Fergal O’Brien. John was definitely the star of the evening – informative and witty in equal measure. I believe, probably like many people, that he’s the finest NH jockey I’ve seen and certainly the one with the best sense of humour. Throughout the evening he was the butt of lots of Kyle comments, but he wafted them away with wit and aplomb, even at the interval when Kyle kept emphasising that the show had to stop to enable John to go to the toilet. Rather grossly, when he came back, he enquired whether he’d had time to “empty his bag”. We all know that Mr. Kyle spends lots of time with losers, so he’s probably not used to dealing with one of the all-time stars of the game. At one point during the evening John was reflecting on how, in the early days, he had to fill in a form stating who he wanted contacting in the event of a serious accident on the course. He just wrote on the form, “a doctor”. Oh, for the days when racing was more light-hearted, and real characters dominated the stage.

Listening to John also had me thinking back to the first time I went to the Festival in 1981. What was the big talking point on Day One that year? Anyone who was there will immediately say it was the famous Francome pull on Sea Pigeon going into the last hurdle. The horse was travelling so well, he didn’t want to hit the front too early, so the brakes were put on before he scampered away from the magnificent Monksfield to win by seven lengths at the top of the hill – the most breathtaking piece of riding I’ve seen in National Hunt.

Nothing like nostalgia in our sport, is there, and all the debates on who the greatest horses of all time would be, and the best trainers, jockeys and dare I say it, even owners. Mentioning Monksfield is what the marketing and media types call a “segue” – a link to another subject. He wasn’t a big horse at all, but an incredibly game battler who had a huge, raking stride on him. In Owners for Owners, we’re in the really fortunate position to have a horse with a similar and almost freakish action in Acey Milan, who at the time of writing this blog is 3rd favourite for the Champion Bumper and on form, having won two Listed bumpers at Cheltenham and Newbury, is the second top rated horse in the race and the highest rated bumper in Great Britain. He’s had quite a long season now, with four races – three wins and one second – so how well he does depends on whether he has held his form going into the Festival. As he can only have a fifth bumper run in a Listed race, we didn’t really have any choice but to head into the Champion, and once he’d won the top-quality Newbury bumper by 11 lengths we all decided that he had to take his chance. No matter what happens this week, he looks a lovely prospect for the future.

The only similarity I have with John Francome is age, and the four days of the current Festival certainly take their toll – on the liver and the aching knees as I rack up miles of walking around the course and mountainous climbs up the various stands. It sometimes feels like a test of endurance, with similarities to the 4m National Hunt Chase on Day One, which hopefully Anthony Honeyball (trainer of Acey Milan) will win with Ms Parfois.

One of the recurring themes throughout the week is bound to be whether the predominance of Cheltenham is sometimes to the detriment of National Hunt racing. Superficially it seems obvious that the whole Festival frenzy is a most wonderful promotion of racing as well as a huge revenue-generator. When I saw Sea Pigeon the attendance was a quarter of what it is now, and the facilities were dreadful in comparison. This week, over a quarter of a million people are likely to attend. If they all spend, say, £100 minimum getting in and having a few drinks on the course, then as the Americans would say, “do the math”. Indeed with Guinness at a fiver and a glass of wine at a tenner, it doesn’t take long to get past that minimum figure.

It’s probably inevitable that the four-day Festival will soon span five days, with the Gold Cup on Saturday. For the large numbers of people for whom the Festival is all about being at a big occasion and drinking yourself horizontal, it doesn’t really matter. If you’re an afficionado who wants to see the most competitive, highest quality racing, then the risk is dilution of that through a wider range of additional races that trainers can pick and mix from. As we’re now in an era where four trainers in Messrs. Elliott, Henderson, Mullins and Nicholls, and prime owners such as Gigginstown, J.P. McManus, Simon Munir / Isaac Suede and Rich Ricci, there is an increasing risk that trainers and owners with their top horses can avoid the competition that genuinely produces champions. However, I’m sure that economics will prevail and that the mighty, heroic clashes of yesteryear become less frequent, which is a real pity.

In the last blog I mentioned how much I’d enjoyed going over to Leopardstown for the two-day Dublin Festival. Even in my dotage I think that I could survive a two-day Cheltenham Festival, which of course is never going to happen, but that would be my absolute ideal. Three days I thought was excellent; I’m dubious about four; and I definitely wouldn’t attend five. Of course, if Acey Milan has ended up by winning the Champion Bumper, then I can probably invest in a top-of-the-range zimmer frame.

Enjoy the week, everyone.

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Thursday, 1 March 2018

Book the 2019 Dublin Racing Festival into your Diary – An Antidote to Dreary Winter Racing

At the beginning of February, my wife and I and a few owners went over to Ireland. Some went direct to Dublin while others went via County Tipperary, where we called in to see a couple of our youngsters who are being brought along superbly by P.J. Colville and his wife Grainne. It was probably a foretaste of what was to come when we were sitting in Mikey Ryan’s Bar and Restaurant (interestingly, owned and renovated by John Magnier, who apparently fancied a nice place in Cashel to have his supper), savouring a pint of Guinness at 7pm, watching the Ireland vs. France rugby game on TV. When Johnny Sexton slotted in his wonderful dropped goal to grab the game back from the French, the place absolutely erupted. Never have I been kissed by so many people in such a short period of time. The dinner wasn’t bad, either.

From then on, the weekend only got better. We went up to Leopardstown for Day 2 of the superb inaugural Dublin Racing Festival. Racing is always bandying around such phrases as “Sensational Saturday”, but this time the whole meeting lived up to it in spades. I don’t know about you, but I have felt that the 2017 / 18 NH season has been something of an anti-climax, with very few stand-out performances and lots of small field races being mopped up by Messrs. Henderson and Nicholls. An indication of that is the number of horses that Buveur D’Air has actually beaten, and his average starting price of about 1/5. There used to be a time when the Saturday NH meetings really did seem to be something to savour, with heroic performances from horses and riders. Somehow we seem to have lost that sparkle, with the whole of the season having shifted to an undue focus on the Cheltenham Festival. Horses aren’t racing against each other with the frequency that they used to, and it increasingly feels as though we’re just waiting for the denouement without really having enjoyed the lead up to it.

The Irish racing authorities seem to have felt the same, with a number of their better races spread over a period of weeks. They decided to consolidate the best races into the two-day Dublin Festival, and the competition and the craic were magnificent, with so many sparkling performances: Faugheen vs. Defi Du Seuil, Min vs. Yorkhill, Samcro vs. Sharjah, Footpad vs. Petit Mouchoir and then a fairytale outcome to the Irish Gold Cup with the “horse who came back from the dead” Edwulf putting in a gallant performance, although admittedly helped by the last fence fall by Killultagh Vic, who seemed to be travelling best of all. The Leopardstown stand erupted and it must have been 50 deep around the winner’s enclosure. It’s a long time since I’ve seen so many hats being thrown up into the air. It almost felt like going back in time to the great win of Dawn Run, which still stands in my memory as the most emotional and heart-felt reception for any NH horse. The whole atmosphere at Leopardstown was captivating – real enthusiasts, there to savour the racing rather than just the alcohol …. although there was a fair bit of that consumed as well.

Lots of English fans travelled over for the meeting. It was surprising though how few English trainers and horses made the journey, which is pretty unenterprising. Indeed the British trainer who gave the meeting the greatest support was Phil Kirby, and he doesn’t have many horses. Even stranger when you consider how many horses Nicholls and Henderson took up to Musselburgh on the same day, and stranger again when you consider the prize-money. Cheltenham Festival Trials Day only managed £204,688 of prize-money whereas Day 2 at Leopardstown was a whopping great €825,000, at an average of €103,000 per race and with prize-money often down to 8th. I’ve already said to all our trainers that if we have any horses suitable for this meeting next year, we’ll definitely make it the season’s target.

One of the themes discussed by the Brits in Ireland was whether we need to strengthen the British season with a similar high-profile mid-season festival. For some time there has been a debate about whether the Kempton King George meeting could be significantly upgraded, although the refrain seems to be that “logistical challenges” (whatever they may be) preclude it. That seems a real pity.

Anyway, a couple of weeks on from Ireland we were lucky enough to have a runner – and emphatic winner – at Newbury during Betfair Super-Saturday with Acey Milan (who may now go for the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham). The sponsorship of Betfair has brought in significant money, which we were lucky enough to participate in; the total on the day was £303,102. This triggered the thought that maybe Newbury and Betfair could work together to stage a Wonderful Weekend as a stepping-stone to Cheltenham. Indeed, as we were supping celebratory Champagne in the Royal Box after Acey’s victory, I floated this to a couple of the directors of Newbury and it definitely seemed to strike a chord.

As a postscript, I can only congratulate Newbury for the huge improvements that have been made at their course. Their spanking-new Owners’ Club is one of the best facilities on any British track and the investment all round the course from car parking to pre-parade has transformed the track. They have just started the second phase of their developments and Newbury must now be the course with the greatest improvement trajectory in our sport. A huge change is taking place, not just in investment and infrastructure, but just as importantly in mind-set. For those with a long memory I wrote a couple of scathing blogs about the course following a PR disaster in December 2013 (the link is to “Nonsense at Newbury”). The Chief Executive was fired shortly afterwards, to be replaced by Julian Thick, who can be commended for all the changes that have been made. Here’s hoping that they can put on a Wonderful Weekend – or maybe even two of them – so that they replicate Leopardstown’s Champions Weekend on the Flat as well as the Dublin Festival.

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Thursday, 15 February 2018

“The Ace in the Pack” …. But with More to Come, Hopefully. The Change of Plan Pays Off with Acey Milan

As anyone who reads this blog regularly will know, I’ve been astounded by the huge increases in bloodstock prices for National Hunt horses in recent years. Horses that used to be selling for £30-40k are now going for £60-100k, and there is no shortage of very rich owners who are prepared to pay considerable multiples on top of that. The average hammer price now for a three-year-old store horse at the top sales in Ireland is €50k, so with sales commissions on top, and then maybe a year’s training before you get the horse to the track, you’re knocking on the door of £70k or more on average and, unfortunately, paying that amount of money most definitely doesn’t guarantee you a nice horse. In fact increasingly it looks as though the good horses are being taken out of the equine supply chain very early in their life, and there is no shortage of trainers and agents scouring England, Ireland, France and Germany looking for them.

So, back at the end of 2014, in Owners for Owners we decided to change tack and adopt the policy of “if you can’t beat them, join them”. Rather than buying the majority of our horses as ready-to-go point-to-pointers with some form on the page, we created a new buying plan in conjunction with trainers and agents. The focus shifted to foals, yearlings and the occasional unraced 3yo store so that we had more confidence that we were dealing with a “blank canvas” and not buying into someone else’s problem. Fortunately we found quite a few owners who shared a very similar philosophy and had come to the same conclusions. They all wanted to enjoy the development journey of watching a youngster grow up into a racehorse, and were prepared to fund that for three years or more. Patience became the key virtue, with absolutely no pressure whatsoever to kick on with the youngsters too soon.

In 2014 / 15, we bought the first three foals, all by proven or up-and-coming sires: Milan, Sholokhov and Oscar. We also bought a beautiful year-older Getaway at the same time, and since then two more foals, one by Beat Hollow and one by Mahler, as well as a 3yo by Presenting. Quite an investment in seven youngsters, and inevitably with horses there will be one or two disappointments. However we felt that if we managed to achieve better results than we had been doing with the ready-to-go horses, it would be a vindication of the policy.

I’m not in any way crowing about this because, alas, we did have a tragedy with one of them, which hit all his owners extremely hard. But with one of them, Acey Milan with Anthony Honeyball, we appear to have a seriously smart animal on our hands who won the Listed bumper at Cheltenham and then, last Saturday, following up in the top bumper of the season so far, at Newbury. He annihilated the field, going away to win by 11 lengths, in the process probably establishing himself as the best bumper horse in England and entering the betting as 4th favourite for the Champion Bumper at the Festival. He’s the only four-year-old of the first 20 horses. The last 4yo to win this bumper was Cue Card!! Whether or not we go there will very much depend on whether the horse is in the same form by mid-March, and if he starts to train off in any way after four bumper runs, we’ll put him away and look forward to staying novice hurdles in the autumn. He is running over two miles on heavy ground at the moment but there is a view that he might be better over 2½ miles plus on better ground.

It was obviously amazingly exciting to win the two Listed bumpers as well as one at Wincanton in November, but the real source of pleasure has come from watching Acey Milan develop. When we bought him from Bryan Murphy’s stud near the Dunraven Arms in Co. Limerick, he was pretty small and quite sickly. Anthony and Rachael Honeyball came over to Ireland with us, and when we were shown him we were all very impressed by his beautiful long stride. The deal was done on the basis of that. Nothing in the meantime has changed our view of his conformation and action, and it is a noticeable feature when he’s racing. As you can see in the three photos below, he has developed considerably since, although he is still not a big horse – just a very fluent athlete. We used to joke when he was still a little tiddler that he was saying to us, “Don’t worry – when I grow up I’m going to be a racehorse”. None of us lost the faith, and it is tremendously satisfying to be where we now are. Special mention has to go to his groom all the way through, Chloe Emsley, who as you can see on one of the pictures to the right absolutely adores him. There was a day up on the gallops with Anthony back in the early autumn when Acey Milan was doing a breeze with Regal Encore. Chloe gave him a bit of rein and he shot past his older companion. Anthony just looked at me and said, “Hello …..” We haven’t really looked back since.

We’re just about to start partnering out a couple of new babies and store horses, and if you’d like to get involved in a similar journey, please don’t hesitate to contact me. Here’s hoping we have lots more Aces in the pack.

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Thursday, 1 February 2018

“Money, Money, Money, it’s a Rich Man’s World” (And, Alas, a Poor Man’s): Moral Dilemmas of FOBTs and Bloodstock Sales

In last month’s blog I had a look at the prices vs. returns of NH horses at the Tattersalls’ Cheltenham Sale in May 2016. The total spend including purchasing the horses and then training them came out at £1,922,300. Yet they only went on to win five races in total, and the measly prize-money of £63,169, at an average per horse of £6,317. That gave a total return on investment (or as I like to refer to it, Return on Ownership) of a staggeringly dismal 3.2%.

This struck a chord with a number of blog readers who sent me similar examples, including Tattersalls’ Book 1, October 2015. I’m sure you can guess the record of the top 10 there as well. Many of you, I know, will shrug your shoulders and say that if rich people want to waste such prodigious amounts of money, that’s up to them. But before I list out those lots, why not just reflect on the moral dilemma that is now facing politicians and in turn British Racing over Fixed Odds Betting Terminals (FOBTs).

The Department for Culture, Media & Sport launched a review 15 months ago in response to widespread concerns about the addictive nature of FOBTs. This culminated in a decision in October 2017 to cut the maximum stake from £100 to somewhere between £2 and £50. The Department then launched a 12-week consultation period which came to an end last month. The review also encompassed wider socially responsible measures to protect the vulnerable. This is definitely a case of a poor person’s world.

The Sunday Times led a scoop front page announcing that the Government was going to cut the FOBT stakes to a maximum of £2. Many of you, I know, will strongly agree with this. However it didn’t take long for the bookmaking industry and British Racing to examine the impact of a £2 maximum stake. Whether the figures are accurate or not I don’t know, but Martin Cruddace, boss of Arena Racing Company, caught the headlines when he forecast that an FOBT limit reduction would lead to 4,000 to 5,000 betting shop closures. Some took a more cautious view that maybe only 3,000 shops would close, but apparently the average shop pays £30,000 for media rights so the loss of income could easily be in excess of £90 million per annum with a view that, in turn, at least £55 million could be axed from prize-money.

Clearly, this is a very sobering story and it cannot be easy to deal with. Racing needs every pound that it can get its hands on, but surely not through the “crack cocaine” of FOBTs. A moral dilemma indeed.

In this context, the lunacy of bloodstock prices at sales such as Tattersalls almost appear like comic relief. Here are the top 10 from October 2015.

Lot 304, Dubawi – Loveisallyouneed. £2,205,000. Hasn’t raced, prize-money zero.

Lot 30, Galileo – A Z Warrior. £1,365,000. Named Key To My Heart. Won twice, prize-money £47,652.

Lot 43, Galileo – Alluring Park. £1,312,500. Named Douglas Macarthur. Won twice, prize-money £122,189.

Lot 255, Galileo – Jacqueline Quest. £1,260,000. Named World War. Won once, prize-money £26,068.

Lot 254, Oasis Dream – Izzy Top. £1,155,000. Named Dreamfield. Won twice, prize-money £12,291.

Lot 293, Galileo – Like A Dame. £1,050,000. Named Longing. Won once, prize-money £9,285.

Lot 71, Dubawi – Badee’a. £945,000. Hasn’t raced, prize-money zero.

Lot 204, Dark Angel – Folga. £866,250. Named Dirayah. Hasn’t won, prize-money £385.

Lot 439, Street Cry – Shastye. £840,000. Named Secret Soul. Hasn’t won, prize-money £,684.

Lot 107, Oasis Dream – Caphene. £787,500. Named Watchman. Hasn’t raced, prize-money zero.

Dear, oh dear. If we add a million or so for training fees and commissions, then the ROI / Return on Ownership is 1.72% on a total prize-money of £219,554. Indeed it must be even worse than the return on FOBTs, which says something.

Just to finish on a sobering note though the gross gambling yield, i.e. the amount kept by the betting shop operators after winnings are paid out, in the year to March 2017 was £1.39 billion from traditional betting ….. and a staggering £1.86 billion from FOBTs. It will be very surprising indeed if the Government doesn’t crack down hard on these machines and in turn, bookmakers ….. and I’m afraid, on racing’s income.

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.

Monday, 15 January 2018

Beware Expensive NH Horses at Sales – Even If You Want to “Dine at the Top Table

I know, I know …. I must put into practice the New Year’s resolution and get out more; stop being Mr. Grumpy and doing an impersonation of The Curmudgeon; forget the stats and put away my anorak …. But yesterday, when I was watching racing from Warwick, the names of two owners triggered a memory of one of the sales. The horse was Mr. Whipped, who won the Gr.2 Ballymore Leamington Novices’ Hurdle over 2m 5f. The owners were Grech and Parkin. After the race, when interviewed, one of them said, “If you want to dine at the top table, you’ve got to be prepared to spend the money”, which they certainly had done on this fine son of Beneficial, having paid £160,000 for him.

I remember going to the Tattersalls’ Cheltenham Sale on 26th May 2016, where one of the top ten horses from that sale is also now owned by Messrs. Grech and Parkin, so in an idle moment between the end of ITV Racing and supping the first glass of claret, beyond the witching hour of 6pm, I went to check my records.

If you’ve been following the blog over the last few months you’ll already know my views that the Irish point-to-point scene, and the way in which winning horses appear in the top boutique sales, is questionable to say the least. Before m’learned friends sue me for libel, here is the performance of the top ten lots from that sale.

Lot 17, Redhotfillypeppers. Sale price £200k. By Robin Des Champs and trained by Willie Mullins. Had won a 4yo mares’ maiden P2P at Necarne thirteen days prior to the sale. Has won once since and total prize-money is £9,440.

Lot 37, Lough Derg Spirit. Sale price £190k. By Westerner and trained by Nicky Henderson. Owned by Grech and Parkin. Had won a 4yo geldings’ maiden P2P at Athlacca nineteen days prior to the sale. Has won twice since, and total prize-money £33,372.

Lot 28, Secret Investor. Sale price £175k. By Kayf Tara and trained by Paul Nicholls. Had won a 4yo geldings’ maiden P2P at the same meeting as Lough Derg Spirit. Has not won a race since, and total prize-money of £4,694.

Lot 64, Super Follo. Sale price £150k. By Enrique and trained by Noel Meade. Had won a 4yo maiden P2P at Barlemy ten days prior to the sale. Hasn’t raced since.

Lot 47, Drovers Lane. Sale price £135k. By Oscar and trained by Rebecca Curtis. Had won a 4yo geldings’ maiden at Necarne twelve days prior to the sale. Hasn’t raced since.

Lot 52, One More Hero. Sale price £100k. By Milan and trained by Paul Nicholls. Had won a maiden P2P at Dromahane 32 days prior to the sale. Has raced once since, winning £286.

Lot 34, Minella Rebellion. Sale price £90k. By King’s Theatre and trained by Nicky Henderson. Had come 2nd in a 4yo maiden P2P at Dawstown 24 days prior to the sale. Has not won a race since and total prize-money £1,145.

Lot 32, Searching For Gold. Sale price £88k. By Gold Well and trained by Charlie Longsdon. Had won a 4yo maiden P2P at Ballindenisk eighteen days prior to the sale. Has won once since and total prize-money of £2,093.

Lot 45, Westendorf. Sale price £85k. By Coroner and trained by Jonjo O’Neill. Had won a P2P Flat race at Tipperary fourteen days prior to the sale. Has won once since and prize-money £12,139.

Lot 26, Glen Rocco. Sale price £80k. By Shirocco and trained by Nick Gifford. Had won a 5 & 6yo geldings’ maiden P2P at Ballindenisk eighteen days prior to the sale. Hasn’t won a race since and prize money of £954.

Dear oh dear. Apparently great P2P form going into the sales, but equally apparently pretty lamentable performances subsequently. Total hammer spend of £1,293,000 and a cool 10% commission to sales house and agents of £129,300, let’s say £50k each on training fees and associated costs as most of the trainers are not exactly the cheapest is another £500,000, giving total spend of £1,922,300. Between the lot of them, they’ve only won five races since the sale, with total prize-money a measly £63,169 at an average per horse of £6,317. If you then do the maths and work out the return on total investment, it is a staggeringly dismal 3.2%.

Methinks there’s not too much fine dining at the top table for anyone involved with these horses. Without doing a massively time-consuming exercise looking at all the other sales, I think I’ll stand by the assertion that turning up at top sales and spending money like water is the way to the poor-house. Anorak now taken off again. Time for another glass of fine claret. Cheers!

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.

Monday, 1 January 2018

A Turning of the Tide on Prize-Money in 2018 – New Year’s Resolutions Being Put Into Practice

Firstly, Happy New Year, and may it be a truly successful one with lots of winners for all our owners. May the horses all be happy, healthy and improvers. One of the horses we are closely involved in running – Buckle Street, with Martin Keighley and the Condicote Clan – definitely fits into that category, putting in a really game performance to win at Catterick over 3m 2f. That was a super Christmas present for all. While up there, a number of us had an excellent discussion over a beer with the BHA’s Chief Executive, Nick Rust, whose horse Paddling was also running. This horse won at Catterick the following week, so well done to Nick and his co-owners. Indeed, he was the first person to come up to me in the winner’s enclosure to congratulate the Clan.

During the discussion with him, he flagged up the imminent announcement that prize-money in Britain is likely to reach a record £160 million in 2018, an increase of £17 million from 2017. This is a really welcome development, particularly as it follows on from an autumn announcement that £8 million of central levy funding is being channelled into grass-roots racing. Readers of the blog will know that I believe raising prize-money is the number one issue in British racing, because without it the risk is that the sport is in a downward spiral, with owners not being attracted or retained, the number of horses in training declining, and through that a lack of competitiveness in the sport that is the lifeblood of gambling.

Although the discussion with Nick over a pint and a very unusual-coloured and flavoured Catterick lamb curry was anything but formal, his statement to the press on this announcement was rather more measured. He said: “It is very important for all those involved in our sport that we are due to see such significant prize-money increases in 2018. Although there has been a gradual recovery in total prize-money in recent years, driven by increased investment from racecourses, the returns to our sport’s owners and participants have not been sufficient, in particular to those who are not competing at the top echelons. The support we received from the government and, indeed, all political parties in establishing the new levy has been crucial and means that we can target support towards those operating at the racing’s grass roots. The increased prize-money on offer in 2018 does not resolve the sport’s prize-money situation outright, but it is a step in the right direction. We hope that this good news will serve as an incentive to racehorse owners who are thinking of putting horses in training, and provide a timely boost to jockeys, trainers and stable staff, who rely in part on prize-money for their livelihoods.”

I can only raise a glass to Nick and the BHA for both the extra money and the sentiments expressed. Having said that, there will probably be a wry smile on his face when he sees the prize-money summary after deductions on the next BHA or Weatherbys statement relating to Paddling’s win at Catterick, which as an independent is definitely not the most generous of courses with its prize-money.

At the same time as this announcement, a couple of racecourses also confirmed the way the tide is now flowing. A few years ago I took issue with Newbury on a number of fronts, and like to think that I was one of the pressure points for change that led to the previous CEO being dismissed. I have a lot more time for the latest CEO, Julian Thick, so was pleased to read that prize-money is set to exceed £5 million in 2018 following an injection of £250,000 by the racecourse. As a result, total prize-money at all the track’s 29 fixtures will amount to at least £50,000, with the feature race at three-quarters of all meetings offering £20,000. Thick commented to the press that: “As an independent racecourse, Newbury is committed to ensuring prize-money levels increase as and when we can afford to make additional investment, and 2018 will see a continuation of that policy with our own direct prize-money spend increasing …. Since 2013 we have increased our executive contribution by over £1 million and 2018 will see us break the £5 million mark for the first time …. This is a reminder of our commitment to reinvest in the sport, and complements well the substantial capital investment we’ve made on fabulous new facilities for horsemen in the past three years.”

Time therefore to raise the glass again to Julian and his team at Newbury. A couple of years ago we ran our horse Shantou Magic in the Challow Hurdle, and I complained strongly to Newbury that the prize-money was less than it had been ten years previously, so it is great to see a reversal in that trend. Also for those who haven’t been there recently, the new Owners’ Club is superb. Great to see this track being improved so radically, and it is now a course that owners really like to go to, even if the preponderance of “luxury executive apartments” is not to everyone’s taste.

Finally another glass to be raised to the very progressive Chief Executive of Perth, Hazel Peplinski, who is increasing their prize-money by 35% this year to nearly £1.25 million. That also includes a new appearance money scheme across their 15 fixtures with average prize-money per race increasing to £11,500 from £8,500, with the hope that it will stimulate a rise in field sizes. Personally I am going to do everything I can to support Perth this year and will be suggesting to our trainers that if we have suitable horses, we take them there.

I’m definitely a believer in credit where credit’s due, so it’s most encouraging to be able to start the year on a positive note on the prize-money front. Don’t worry, I’ll still be applying pressure on those tracks that don’t yet seem to have picked up the message that prize-money really matters.

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.