Saturday 15 September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am always interested to hear your views so please do leave a comment. If you can't see the comment box at the bottom of this post then navigate to the post using the right hand navigation or click here > and scroll to the bottom of the page. Look forward to hearing your views. Thanks very much for sharing them.

Saturday 1 September 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am always interested to hear your views so please do leave a comment. If you can't see the comment box at the bottom of this post then navigate to the post using the right hand navigation or click here > and scroll to the bottom of the page. Look forward to hearing your views. Thanks very much for sharing them.