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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