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!

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.