Thursday, 15 November 2018

Around the World with Three Horses – From the Sublime to the Ridiculous. Melbourne, Kentucky and Market Rasen.


I’m sure many readers of the blog were absorbed in watching the tremendous global racing at Flemington, Australia, and Churchill Downs in Kentucky. However I suspect not many of you were watching closely an amusing result at Market Rasen recently. More on that to follow.

First a personal recollection. Back in my consulting days I worked for one of the big global pharmaceutical companies and went out to Australia as part of a merger integration exercise. That had me visiting a manufacturing facility just outside Melbourne when the iconic Cup was on. Although it’s a public holiday in Australia, and much as I pleaded to be given time off to go to the race, the client insisted that I took part in a riveting workshop on procurement, the supply chain and the interfaces with MRP systems. I never forgave them! One of the most amusing features though was that the hotel where we were staying was “party central”. I’ve never seen so many people dressed to the nines, taking part in lunchtime revelries. None had any intention of actually going to watch the race, which was just an excuse for a big party. I was even warned to take care walking around the hotel corridors, as a Melbourne Cup tradition is for riotous Australian lovelies to be on the prowl and if they find a man they fancy, who is wearing a tie, they cut it in half. All other details will remain confidential; what happens on consulting assignments, stays on consulting assignments!

Anyway, this year’s win by Cross Counter was, I thought, an absolute belter with the European raiders dominating. It always surprises me that so many horses are taken over, as apparently it costs £70k and our record has been pretty mixed since Vintage Crop won it 25 years ago for Dermot Weld. I’m not quite sure how many of us in Owners for Owners would be persuaded to go, although I suppose that if we had a magnificent horse capable of racing in the Cup, we’d give it a go. Charlie Appleby and Sheikh Mohamed must have been thrilled with the result, and it capped a magnificent season with Godolphin globally winning 30 Gr.1s. Ian Williams was certainly enormously impressed by the whole experience (with or without his tie?), and commented about the event that: “It is huge. You don’t feel it until you get here and feel the enthusiasm, not only from the people of Melbourne but of Australia. It’s a bigger event than you can ever imagine. They keep raising the bar. It is a wonderful experience.” And as for the prize-money - £2,456,647 to the winner, £578,034 to the 2nd, £173,410 to the 3rd, and even the 12th placed horse picked up £86,785. Rapid re-think: OfO would definitely send a horse there!

On the other side of the world, Enable duly showed her typical brilliance and determination to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs as she made history by becoming the first Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner to win the Breeders’ Cup in the same season. Frankie Dettori’s ride was right from the top drawer, being prepared to bring her wide on the home turn in search of the quicker fresh ground. What a top-class filly Enable has become.

As ever there were a few controversies. In both Melbourne and Churchill Downs there were whip issues: Christophe Soumillon made outrageous use of it in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Hugh Bowman was no better in Australia. This was shocking for racing, and unfortunately very topical, as South Africa are currently experimenting with a race ban on jockeys whipping their mounts as part of the growing concern of animal rights activists and younger race spectators. On the welfare front there was also a disaster in Melbourne when The Cliffsofmoher suffered a fatal injury. Alas, Flemington has a bad record and they clearly need to address this as a priority in the same way that Aintree did for the Grand National.

So what happened at Market Rasen? Without making light of the seriousness of the whip issue, a horse called L’es Fremantle probably needed a bomb under him to win. As a 7yo with 55 defeats and not a win to his name, he appeared to have no chance whatsoever in a handicap chase on 8th November. In 41 of his previous races he had been 100/1+ and once started at the ludicrous odds of 300/1. He was bought for £600 at the Ascot sales in October 2012, so had enjoyed six years of luxurious living at Michael Chapman’s yard at the course, without feeling any need to repay their generosity. Michael wryly commented after the race that: “He is not very good-looking, he’s a bit of an ugly duckling, though everybody loves him. He likes to bite people, but he’s not vicious.” He was initially named by his owners (surprise, surprise) after their friend, Les, who lived in Fremantle, Australia. But on that marvellous day of 8th November he stayed on strongly to win his race, after one of the longest losing runs ever in UK racing history. I love results like this, and I suspect connections weren’t particularly bothered that the miserly prize was £3,898. I doubt they will be booking his flight to Melbourne. Racing Post signed off their report by saying: “History suggests he’s unlikely to follow up.” Bless him!




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Thursday, 1 November 2018

Tiresome Touts Thwacked by the Courts …. But the Beastly Badge Bureaucracy Remains Too Complex


I had a marvellous time at the first Cheltenham meeting of the season, as I’ve always seen it as the start of “proper” racing. It was great to see so many friends and owners there, with everyone dreaming of future successes and races to be won. Here’s hoping the dreams stay alive for as long as they possibly can.

One feature that was an enhancement to the owner / racegoer experience was the absence of the wretched touts who have tended to badger people from the minute they turn into Cheltenham racecourse. Jockey Club Racecourses elected to go to the High Court to apply for an injunction, which was successful, in what Ian Renton has termed a “landmark decision”. Basically it prohibits the selling and buying of tickets by touts on the racecourse property, and it is the first time ever that an injunction has been granted to stop this. If touts persist, then it becomes a criminal offence and they can be prosecuted for contempt of court, which carries a custodial sentence. This is far more effective than the tactic deployed at last year’s Festival where Cheltenham council issued Public Space Protection Orders, but with the maximum fine of £80 it was no surprise that this was no real deterrent.

So, well done Cheltenham on this ground-breaking initiative which is very likely now to be copied by other racecourses and sports venues, particularly rugby, tennis and football. Apparently the number of fake badges sold at last year’s Festival was over 1,000, with many racegoers then denied entry, having been fleeced by the touts. JCR believe that the touts were costing them an estimated £1m a year across their 15 racecourses, and the total cost to British Racing has been estimated at between £10m and £15m a year. From the racegoers’ perspective, it has finally removed the intimidatory presence of touts and their often aggressive behaviour. It will be interesting to see what happens now over the next 12 months because the injunction has only been granted until July 2019.

However, from an owner’s perspective, the subject of badges always raises the problems that still exist in both obtaining and allocating them. It is not really a problem for a sole owner. However for those who are actively involved in shared ownership, particularly partnerships and syndicates, it remains as I said in the header to this blog, a “beastly badge bureaucracy” which still causes anxiety and embarrassment when owners struggle to convince staff at Owners & Trainers desks that they are entitled to them.

The pass card system is OK as far as it goes, but clearly the quality of the owner experience is then determined by the people encountered behind the O&T desks. That remains very variable. In fact I don’t necessarily blame them, even though their social skills are sometimes lacking, because there are lots of opportunities for mistakes to be made and for badges, records, emails, requests etc. to be mislaid. To illustrate the problem using Cheltenham as an example, the course has two entrances and there is quite a steep slope separating them, so elderly owners can easily go to the wrong entrance and then struggle to get to the other one; the number of badges for shared ownership is different to the number of complimentary lunches, which leads to irritating negotiations within the ownership group; they require owners’ badges, arm bands and also tokens for lunch, and not every owner welcomes this festooning with accreditation; they post four badges and two car park labels to the syndicator and / or first-named owner, who then may find it difficult to forward the badges to co-owners in the time available. And then unfortunately, looking across UK racing the arrangements and bureaucracies vary from course to course.

It often feels that the owner is at the bottom of the pyramid, from an owner badge perspective. There are plenty of people who have automatic entitlement, not least the huge network of individuals under the Racecourse Association (RCA) auspices who are deemed to be eligible for access; the press; trainers, jockeys and also conditional and apprentice riders. As a result, many in racing, particularly from the training ranks who are immediately recognised by the O&T staff, fail to appreciate the embarrassment that occurs for “ordinary” owners. I’ve deliberately put this in inverted commas because the pass card system, when it was introduced, completely ignored best practice in customer relationship management (CRM) so it is impossible for courses to assess whether the individual proffering the card is a small shareholder in one horse or someone investing huge amounts of money in the sport every year. I always compare this to the CRM systems deployed by airlines, which have huge amounts of data on the value of their customers from a profitability perspective. Whenever they can, they upgrade the customers of greater value to better quality facilities. At the moment this is totally impossible in British racing – partly because there is no tiering of facilities so the 40th syndicate shareholder can be treated in the same way as someone who owns 20 horses outright, and also the pass card doesn’t retain any data that can be accessed on the owner’s individual profile and importance to racing.

Basically the pass card system, although an improvement, is not fit for purpose when evaluated from three perspectives: properly controlling abuse and the illicit market in owner’s badges (obtained by and for people not entitled to them); maximising the overall owner experience through the tiering of benefits; and incentivising owners to invest more in ownership in order to obtain those greater benefits. A big opportunity was missed, but then it was motivated primarily by the RCA trying to address the first of my three perspectives rather than, just as importantly, the other two.

Finally, and perhaps the subject of another blog, not many successful consumer-orientated companies would survive on a totally fragmented basis with every part of their business doing their own thing, in their own way. Ideally the whole of British racing would participate in a Shared Service Racing Transaction Centre where all the administration to do with racing and ownership would be done using state of the art systems, software and communications processes from one site. We are light years away from that, and I’d be pretty certain that there has been no discussion of an initiative which would lead to a huge improvement in efficiency, a much better customer experience and considerable cost savings. Such a pity!



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Monday, 15 October 2018

Economic Sustainability of Trainers, Part 4: Time to Diagnose the Illness and Prescribe the Medicine


Over the last three blogs I’ve been arguing that there is a major problem with the economic viability of the training profession in this country, and it should be a strategic aim of British Racing to acknowledge and address it. Indeed the problem isn’t just in the UK, and I read an article last week about the position in Ireland which was described as “perilous”, with the author advocating considerable changes to the internal economy of the sport. It argued that the problem at the grassroots trainer level is the equivalent of the “squeezed middle” in the wider economy, and I wouldn’t disagree with that. Finally, to illustrate this, I noted that Martin Hill had his last runner recently, Scorpion Star, at Newton Abbot before announcing that he was throwing in the towel.

In my first blog on this subject I put trainers into one of three tiers, and without any doubt it is the small and medium-sized who are really struggling to survive. Without being melodramatic, it could be that a contraction in the training ranks might soon be staring the BHA in the face, particularly if there are any wider economic crises, Brexit negotiations collapse or a Labour government of Corbynistas comes into power. Imagine the economic shock if the VAT concession to owners were scrapped. However, rather than just concentrating on the potential crisis it is more helpful to brainstorm potential solutions, while recognising that there are many interdependencies between them and there is no magic wand or miraculous medicine. I’ve grouped the ideas around three broad themes.



1. Strengthen Trainer Competence and Capability
  • Identify the extent of the problem. The BHA and the National Trainers’ Federation should organise an assessment of the trainer ranks. Identify the problems, their impact and the inadequacies.
  • Change trainer attitudes and mind-sets. As a group they are very hard to help, and extremely conservative by nature. Competition rather than collaboration rules the day. That needs to change.
  • Focus on business models and business skills. Most trainers score highly on training skills and abysmally on business skills. Explicit business plans for success are noticeable by their absence.
  • Revamp the training of trainers. The training curriculum is old-fashioned and overly focused on knowledge and regulatory requirements. It needs to become much more experiential.
  • Design an improvement programme. Despite the inevitable apathy and cynicism there is a major need for across-the-range improvement in trainer skills and behaviour. That requires coaching.
  • Produce toolkits and apps. Rather than expect trainers to go to classrooms, the teachers need to go to the trainers. The NTF should put together a series of user-friendly apps and toolkits.
2. Innovate in Business and Operating Models
  • Challenge the closed system. There are 500-700 trainers in the UK, with the vast majority of them having been in the industry since teenage days. They have had little exposure to anything else.
  • Illustrate benchmarks and best practice. Every trainer seems to have a na├»ve belief that they are doing everything right. Arrogance and stupidity is a pretty deadly combination. Challenge it.
  • Attract more owners. Trainers are the gate-keepers to the industry, from an ownership perspective. They need a lot more help to adopt modern marketing, promotional and communication techniques.
  • Tune in to owner expertise. Many trainers wouldn’t have a clue about the business skills of their owners. Major owners are potential benefactors to trainers, who need to tune in to that network.
  • Define the business plan. Doing well, winning more races and surviving financially is not a plan. Trainers need to understand the different elements of successful operating models, and adopt them.
  • Grow the revenue. Often easier said than done, particularly with insultingly low levels of prize-money. Having said that, how many trainers have an explicit plan to improve financial return on assets?
  • Reduce the cost base. As an example, the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association has a collective purchasing scheme. How many trainers participate in it? Less than 10%? Says everything.
3. Improve the Economics of British Racing for Grassroots Trainers
  • Address over-concentration at the top. The elite tier of owners, trainers and breeders are taking a disproportionate amount out of the sport. In effect they are being supported by the lower tiers.
  • Spread the wealth. The owners, trainers and breeders of top horses already benefit hugely from downstream breeding. They are appropriating far too much money from the sport. Cap the prize-money for Group and Graded races. Redirect it into lesser racing.
  • Redistribute prize-money and reduce certain types of race. Again, there are far too many races at Listed level on the Flat, or beginners’ / novice chases, that have small fields and are milked by Tier 1 trainers. Reduce them and have a substantial increase in claiming type races, rather than handicaps.
  • Restrict the number of runners in the same ownership. No trainer or owner should be allowed to have more than two horses in any race. The top tier are manipulating races through their competitive and numerical strength.
  • Develop a race series for the middle market. Help the smaller trainers by introducing a series of races confined to trainers with, say, fewer than 50 horses.
  • Copy the French model on handicaps. The vast majority of grassroots trainers are winning primarily at handicap level. Richard Hughes has argued wisely that increases in handicap ratings should only apply to the winner. Adopt the French system. Put the winner up in the weights and reduce all the other horses.
  • Copy the French model on placed prize-money. Again in France, the second-place money is half that of the winner. In England it is usually far less than that. The trickle down of total prize-money percentages to trainers is a lifeline, and this would be a big financial contribution.

That’s as far as I need to go, I think! I’ve brainstormed twenty ideas. Doubtless some of them will be seen as totally impractical and / or will disturb the cosy cronyism at the top of the sport. A working party of trainers, I’m sure, would come up with far more. Hopefully this series of blogs has hit home and it would be marvellous if there could be a positive response through the design of a change programme that would really help the majority of British trainers.



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Monday, 1 October 2018

Economic Sustainability of Trainers, Part 3: Does It Matter, and Should Anything Be Done About It?


In the last blog I developed a three-tier model based around trainers, owners and horses, and suggested that there was a Glamour Tier at the very top; then a Grassroots Tier, with the majority of trainers struggling to keep their heads above water; then a Graveyard Tier of trainers who are in effect dying on their feet through lack of horses, resources and finances. The key question is what percentage of the total UK trainer ranks (which I believe is somewhere between 600 and 800) are in effect technically insolvent, with income behind costs. Obviously there are quite a few trainers for whom their involvement is, in effect, a hobby interest rather than a business occupation, but it would still be very interesting to know the figure. Indeed I am pursuing that with the BHA, ROA and NTF to see if anyone has any meaningful insight into the extent and severity of the problem …. assuming that there is one, which I believe is the case.

Two races in September illustrated for me the differences that exist between the various tiers. At the St. Leger on 15th September, Kew Gardens won the race from Lah Ti Dar. No surprises who the trainers were – Aiden O’Brien (with five runners in the race), from John Gosden. Such is the glamour / platinum tier of racing with the increasing concentration of wealth, power and prestige at the very top of the sport. Hardly surprisingly, this is where the media focus the majority of their attention. I’ve always been a huge fan of the St. Leger, and it was the very first Classic that I saw when the wonderful Shergar was beaten, and then a similar defeat for Alleged. I’m not arguing against the glamorous tier, but am really trying to explore the economic reality lower down the ranks.

Another meeting that I really like is the Ayr Western Meeting which produced its first-ever Ayr Gold Cup dead heat on 22nd September between Son Of Rest from Fozzy Stack’s yard (and therefore the first winner for Ireland in this race) and Baron Bolt from Paul Cole’s. For quite a number of years I lived at the 3 furlong marker on his Woolly Down Gallops, so not surprisingly have always noted his runners. He came out with a lovely quote after the race: “How could you be more happy than to be involved in racing? There are fantastic people, it’s a great lifestyle and it has been all my life. To still be involved is fantastic.” This struck a chord with me, because I’m sure it is a sentiment expressed by every trainer in the land, even though for some of them their future involvement is almost certainly very fragile.

Although it is a subject for a future blog, it would be interesting to know whether the BHA has stress-tested racing and through that, the training profession in the event of any major financial shocks. Without being too gloomy, there are probably a number of these on the horizon, e.g. the effects of Brexit, the election of a Labour government that might take away the VAT concession for owners, an economic jolt with asset prices being corrected or natural blights such as atrocious weather or infections. I wonder how many trainers could survive such scenarios?

Some would argue that none of this matters and that some sort of trainer “Darwinism” should apply. The argument is that it is all about the economic survival of the fittest. If trainers can’t compete successfully or if they struggle to find owners and horses, then so be it. Just let them go to the wall so that other, more able and successful trainers can pick up the pieces and expand their own yards. Doubtless there are a number of trainers who probably should go under, but I don’t believe that sentiment applies to the vast majority who are incredibly hard-working, totally committed to British racing and provide much-needed rural employment at a time of major challenges in recruiting and retaining staff. Furthermore there is a local ecosystem of very close relationships between trainers, their families and the network of owners and their friends and families with whom they interact. There is often an intense loyalty and friendship in this network that binds the whole system together. If you take the focal point trainer away, then you may well find you lose the owner network, or at least reduce it.

So basically I believe that British Racing should have a focus on the economic sustainability of trainers, and that “something should be done about it”. I’ll return to potential recommendations in the fourth and final blog of this series.



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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.



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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.




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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!



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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!



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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.



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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

Flat
Flat
Jumps
Jumps
Non-Pattern
Pattern
Non-Pattern
Pattern
%
%
%
%
Owner of Winner
50.64
46.64
49.53
45.62
Owner of 2nd
16.78
19.06
16.41
18.65
Owner of 3rd
8.39
9.53
8.21
9.32
Owner of 4th
4.19
4.77
4.10
4.66

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.


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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!





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