Saturday, 15 September 2018

Economic Sustainability of Trainers, Part 2: How Shaky are the Foundations?

As an avid reader of the Racing Post (the online version only, as I have zero interest in football, greyhounds and fourth-rate Irish racecourses and I hate throwing away 90% of newspapers as being irrelevant), my eye was caught by two features during the week which I thought I would use as a lead into this second blog on the economic sustainability of the training profession in the UK (although it equally applies to Ireland).

The first concerns Nick Rust and the latest strategic aims for the sport. The content of the piece covered how racing should be looking to promote betting, as the sport aims to work with the betting industry. It actually wasn’t the content, though, that interested me, but learning more about what the top five strategic aims for our industry now actually are. Long ago in my consultancy career, I learnt a lot from a chief executive of a big American company who mastered the art of holding his hand up in the air and going through his five digits outlining a key strategic aim. He said, very simply, that if you have to use your other hand you have lost sight of the key goals and deliverables for your business. Very good advice, I thought, and ever since, whenever I’ve been involved with influential stakeholders, I’m always keen to see whether they can articulate those five aims. I suspect that if you asked the top hundred people in British racing what those five were, you’d come up with 100 different aims – or at least the balance and emphasis between them would vary enormously.

The second piece was a very interesting article from Richard Hughes advocating that we should be following the French model and limiting handicap rating rises to winners only. He feels that the handicapping system would be improved by radical change, which is something I’ve advocated in this blog on a number of occasions. I’ll come back to Richard’s recommendations very soon, because racing needs to acknowledge that the handicapper isn’t just there to rate horses and protect the betting public. He (or she) should also be working to retain owners in the sport and therefore strengthen the economic viability of racing. Richard’s recommendation that beaten horses shouldn’t be re-rated until they’ve won is something I completely agree with, and there’s nothing more frustrating than having your horse narrowly beaten and then re-rated so that it can’t win. It is that sort of thing that can drive owners out of the game through pure frustration.

So what is the link between these two articles? Racing needs very clear strategic goals and plans, which must genuinely impact the various tiers of racing in a way that attracts and retains owners, without whom the sport is not economically viable. As you’ll see in the diagram, I argue that the foundations of British racing are incredibly weak, from a structural and financial perspective. 80% of horses fail to cover their costs, by a huge margin; 80% of trainers are making so little money out of the sport that they are technically insolvent; and 80% of owners are surviving and sustaining themselves more with hope than any real confidence in covering their costs or even winning nice races. Having said that, I am the embodiment of the supreme optimist when it comes to racing and none of this reduces my ongoing enthusiasm and commitment for our great sport.

You may wonder why the only figure in that diagram is “100”. In the last blog I was looking at the amount of winnings of the top 100 trainers, and comparing that with the minimal returns for the other 450 or so trainers who have had runners on the Flat this year. In many ways the whole of our industry focuses on Tier 1 because that is the exciting, glamorous end of the sport frequented by top owners, top trainers and top horses. Let’s say that there are 100 of these in each category, and without any doubt they spend their time at the best tracks, in the best races, with the big wins and big money. Alastair Down came out with an amusing phrase that I mentioned in the last blog, that they “live like maharajas”.

The major worry is what happens when you come out of that top 100 and drop down into tier two, which I’ve called “The Grassroots”, or even worse tier three, “The Graveyard”. I haven’t made any attempt to put numbers in these two tiers, but will do so if I can obtain the information. The point I’m trying to get across is that as you drop down those three triangles, the economics of the sport become increasingly precarious, until we arrive at the bottom where there are “few wins” and “no hope”. Some would argue that none of this matters and the competitive reality of sport and business is such that the “winners will win and the losers will lose”. Personally I don’t believe that, and neither do most governments, which is why there is a concerted drive to support the SMEs (small and medium enterprises) in the economy.

My challenge to the key stakeholders of our sport and their five digits is: where would the economic viability of the training profession sit within the strategic aims of British Racing, and what strategies would they deploy to strengthen the profession? My serious concern is that I don’t believe that is even on the radar screen on the sport in any meaningful fashion. I’ll develop that further in the next blog.

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.

Saturday, 1 September 2018

Prize-Money in Abundance at York and Goodwood, but Is Everything Sustainable in the Training Ranks?

My wife and I had a terrific week’s holiday up in the Dales that included a visit to our trainer, Karl Burke, and a couple of fantastic days’ racing on the Knavesmire at the York Ebor Festival. Attending this meeting has become a tradition in our household and for my money it is the best Flat racecourse in the country. It is an independent course, with inspired management and a determination to improve continually on all fronts. When you go there as an owner it is a wonderful experience and the range of bars and restaurants for racegoers at all levels can hardly be surpassed in the country. And that’s before you even consider the superb quality and variety of racing across the four days of the Festival.

For someone who has vigorously campaigned for increases in prize-money, Saturday 25th August at both York and Goodwood was an extraordinary success, at least in terms of quantum. The Ebor was worth £500k, the Gr.2 City of York Stakes £180k, the Melrose Handicap £125k, the Strensall Stakes £100k, a 1m 2f handicap £70k and even the closing apprentice handicap £70k. £1,045,000 in total. Down in Sussex, the first four races on the card were worth £375k as well: the Celebration Mile £150k, a 7f handicap £100k, the March Stakes £75k and the Prestige Stakes £50k. Congratulations to every trainer and owner who netted the benefits of this bonanza.

The Skybet Ebor is going to rise to £1m next year, as is the Cesarewich at Newmarket by 2020. This is all part of stimulating the production of stayers and encouraging them to remain in the UK. This is clearly an initiative that you can only applaud. On the other hand, when I first came into racing you would have enormous weight ranges in the big handicaps which meant that lesser owners and trainers had a better chance of winning a race such as the Ebor. This year there were amazingly four Group and five Listed winners in the field of 20, with the first and second in the race both trained by John Gosden. It is almost invevitable that with the prize-money available, the Ebor is going to become an even classier race and we’ll doubtless be seeing Pattern race winners not even able to compete in it. I wonder if we’re entering an era where the small number of what I term “Platinum” trainers and owners are not just going to be winning the Group races and harvesting the enormous stud value associated with them, but also doing the same with the big handicaps. Indeed maybe we’re already in that era.

Unfortunately the question to raise is whether the top tracks and top racedays (and not surprisingly, top trainers and owners) are receiving an overly generous percentage of the total prize-money. Obviously if I was lucky enough to win one of these prizes as an owner, I would be not only delighted, but also massively aware of the overall economic benefit and its impact on my total cost of ownership compared to winning less money at lesser tracks. As we all know, for the vast majority of owners the TCO is high, and getting higher, while the return through prize-money, although thankfully improving, is far below that in other countries. It is still a minority of owners who are lucky enough to cover at least 25% of their costs.

It was during the Ebor week that I came upon a rather sad article written by Alastair Down in the run into his retirement from the Racing Post. He was examining the Bastiman cobalt case and adopted a more humane and tolerant view of the Bastimans’ predicament, particularly that of Robin Bastiman’s hard-working and somewhat downtrodden daughter Rebecca. Alastair made the point that “at the top end there are trainers who live like maharajas and charge fees on a scale that beggars belief”. He didn’t mention any names but you’ve only to look through the top 20 and dig into their fee structures to find out what he means. However at the other end of the scale (the Bastimans), he commented that: “evidence to the disciplinary panel revealed that (Rebecca) has liquid assets of £7,000 and takes £80 per week out of the business ….. Rather more staggering was the revelation that she falls below the threshold for paying income tax. It may be naivety on my part, but it never struck me that a trainer with 30 horses could be so low on the financial ladder.”

That comment and line of thinking stopped me in my tracks, and I’m proposing to explore the issue of the financial sustainability of trainers in more detail over the next few blogs. Without mentioning the senior official in British racing who gave me the quotation – “80% of British trainers are technically insolvent” – in other words, the amount of income they obtain from their training efforts and their 10% share of prize-money is below the level of their cost base. The challenging question is how they manage to survive.

Alastair Down is almost certainly right. As a broad principle, the break-even point for training yards is unlikely to be below 30 full-fee horses in training. If a trainer is investing in gallops maintenance and improvements in the overall facilities, it can be appreciably higher than that. I’m going to try to obtain more data on the size and structure of the training ranks.

But just one data snippet to finish with. The Racing Post database shows that 533 trainers in the UK have had a Flat runner this season. Of these, 14 have won over £1m and a total of 121 over £100,000. 77% have won less than £100k and therefore their trainer percentage is less than £10,000. Agonisingly, so far this season, 162 trainers, or 31%, have won less than £5,000, so their trainer percentage is no more than £500. Not much contribution to overheads there.

If I start from the conclusion and work back into the data, I’m sure that I’ll find the whole racing edifice is based on economic unsustainability on the part of the trainer ranks and painfully low returns for the majority of owners. It probably won’t take much of a downturn in the economy for that lack of sustainability to become a major cause of concern, as it is bound to result in trainers going out of business and owners reducing or terminating their involvement. Sombre stuff ….. even if the Ebor meeting was absolutely superb.

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.

Wednesday, 15 August 2018

A Major Milestone for The Owner’s Opinion – This is Our 150th Edition

Doesn’t time fly! We set up Owners for Owners in the summer of 2012 with the intention of helping owners come together to share the costs, risks and pleasures of racehorse ownership. As well as setting up the web site, we also launched our fortnightly blog, The Owner’s Opinion. With dedication, fortitude and on occasions liberal supply of strong red wine, we’ve managed not to miss an issue and built up a worldwide readership. On occasions the blog hits have been over 30,000, so hopefully those of you who read it find that we are both topical and sufficiently interesting to secure your continued readership.

It’s also incredible to reflect that since 2012 we have personally been involved in buying well over 50 horses and indeed at the moment are managing ownership of 23 horses at all ages from foals to 7-year-olds, in sole ownership, joint ownerships, partnerships, syndicates and a racing club and there aren’t many weeks when we’re not racing. With the exception of trainers we probably have as good an insight into racecourses and the owner experience as anyone, which is why we have participated in a number of working parties over the years, not least the BHA’s Strategy for Growth Pillar on Ownership and Bloodstock.

It is also no surprise that we’ve enjoyed both the highs and the inevitable lows of ownership. I’ll never forget the thrill of watching Lord Ben Stack lead the field of the Dante into the home straight, before sadly succumbing to colic a couple of years later – a gorgeous horse and much missed. On New Year’s Day this year, it was a similar thrill to see Acey Milan galloping the field into submission in the Listed 4yo Bumper at Cheltenham, and the dream is very much alive with this youngster. And also I’ll never forget the day at York Races when Buckle Street, ridden by the irrepressible Belinda Keighley, won the Macmillan Charity Race – absolutely no prize-money was gained by this win but it was a magnificent achievement, with Belinda raising an enormous amount of money for charity. The champagne celebrations in the paddock straight afterwards and throughout the evening were heroic. Brilliant days like these are what sustain us.

While trying to convey in the blog the mix of pleasures and frustrations that come from ownership, we’ve also had a campaigning edge throughout the 150 issues. The executive teams of a number of racecourses, particularly Newbury, Cheltenham before its improvements and some of the Arc tracks, became well aware of our lobbying for dramatic improvements in the owner experience. At heart, Owners for Owners is a very democratic, grass-roots body and we’ve long felt that the privileged top end of racing receives far too much money and attention, so we’ve lobbied hard for more prize-money and better facilities on the lesser days of racing. Some of our fellow syndicate organisers have also received a number of blasts as we’ve pushed hard for proper transparency and standards in syndication, which have now been adopted. Most of our campaigning has been well received, although we’ve doubtless made an enemy or two along the way – so be it. As a great friend of mine always says, “smooth diamonds don’t cut glass”.

And I’m sure the campaigning will continue. Indeed in the last blog I started to describe the new ownership strategy for British Racing and indicated that I was going to apply pressure for far more publicity about the strategy, while ensuring that the grass-roots owners had the right level of involvement in framing it particularly through the Racehorse Syndicates Association. I duly took this up with all the top executives in the industry and have received reassurances from them that this will now happen. Rest assured that The Owner’s Opinion will be holding their feet to the fire through late Summer and Autumn as this strategy is duly developed and published ….. Something tells me however that this won’t necessarily be a smooth journey. Don’t worry, I promise to keep you all posted.

On to the next 150!

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.

Wednesday, 1 August 2018

Have You Heard About the New Ownership Strategy for British Racing? I Bet You Haven’t

Towards the end of July full details of the 2019 Fixture List were published with all the powers that be in British Racing claiming it as a great example of the tripartite structure working together well to balance the different requirements of the sport and the betting industry. A quick summary is that there will be a record 1,511 meetings next year, three more than in 2018: 951 Flat fixtures, 596 Jumps; 23% of the total will be all-weather meetings with floodlit fixtures January to April starting at 4pm (including 20 at Southwell); there will be a three-week gap between the Cheltenham and Aintree Festivals. It was very easy to access and while not everyone agrees with the precedence of quantity over quality, at least it was an announcement with transparency and lots of detail. Well done to all concerned.

Unfortunately the so-called Ownership Strategy for British Racing appears to be at the other end of the scale for transparency, detail and ease of access. Indeed, has anyone actually heard of it? If you are an assiduous reader of the Racehorse Owners’ Association Annual Report 2017/18 you will have found a couple of pages on it, but it is devilish tricky to find out any more. Your diligent Owners for Owners blog writer has been sleuthing the case for almost a year now, with repeated email requests to the chief executive of the ROA, Charlie Liverton, but alas, to no avail. There is a total refusal to provide any meaningful insights or detail about the strategy, which is pretty scandalous because significant industry funds (almost £1m) have been committed to the strategy, its promotion and marketing, with the ROA as the lead body on behalf of the whole industry.

Owners for Owners has a particular interest in ownership strategy, not least because I was one of the unpaid volunteers who sat on the original strategy pillar team launched by the BHA, and spent a considerable amount of time examining ownership issues and requirements with substantial input going into the business case that proposed 1,000 extra horses in British Racing by 2020. That clearly counts for nothing with the ROA. You would have thought that my involvement in the pillar team would have guaranteed access to the latest strategy, and that is before you consider the large investment that OfO has made in bloodstock in recent years – indeed under various banners we are managing almost 30 horses in training and a substantial network of owners. Ironic that this doesn’t seem to count for anything with the ROA either. And then finally I’m on the committee of the Racehorse Syndicates Association which wants to work on an “inclusive” and “collaborative” basis with other stakeholders in British Racing to ensure that ownership strategies properly reflect the needs and demands of the ever-increasing numbers involved in syndicates. I put “inclusive” and “collaborative” in inverted commas because these are words much used across the tripartite structure of the BHA, Horsemen’s Group and Racecourse Association. With the ROA being central to the Horsemen’s Group, it is again somewhat surprising that they are not prepared to apply the same principles and values in their everyday dealings with owners whom they purport to represent.

Here is a summary of what the ROA terms their “development of a collaborative and inclusive ownership strategy for British Racing”. The ROA project highlights “the continued importance of the role of owners within racing. The strategy will give owners an enhanced brand and identity, emphasising their role as supporters of the sport in so many different ways.”

Apparently four work streams have been developed within the framework of the Ownership Strategy for British Racing:
  • Retention: “the project focuses on the key elements of retention of existing owners.”
  • Ownership Promotion: “investment in the development of a united identity for ownership will open the door to further simplification and streamlining of the ownership journey.”
  • Trainers: “a key element of the project relating to trainers is about enhancement of the service and the improvement of information provided by trainers for owners.”
  • Racecourses: “this work stream addresses owners’ racecourse experience on a number of levels. There will be a focus on creating minimum racecourse standards and assisting courses to deliver these”.
Nothing at all wrong with those four work streams. Bearing in mind that they have been described in a report dated 2017/18, then presumably all the different facets of the strategy have now been developed. What I am trying to find out are the specifics, i.e. exactly what initiatives are going to be launched, by whom, at what cost and by when, to achieve what specific goals? It is true that the ROA does flag up a number of goals, but they are far too woolly.

When I was a management consultant I was working with major companies where the problem wasn’t a lack of strategies, but too many. You would often find hundreds of strategies but scant evidence of their successful implementation. Indeed while I was working with one international bank they even had a strategy to reduce the number of strategies!! Seeing the rather comic side of this, I used to refer to “Yeti strategies” – much talked about, never seen. I do hope that isn’t the case with the one that Charlie Liverton is leading.

The intention after this blog is to approach all the leading executives across the tripartite structure, namely Steve Harman, Nick Rust, Richard Wayman, Charlie Liverton, Philip Freedman, Stephen Atkin and Rupert Arnold and see if they can help me obtain more details of the practical implications of this strategy for owners.

I’ll keep you posted through this blog!

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 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 …

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, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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, 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.