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.

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.