Friday, 1 March 2019

Harold Macmillan Said that Governments were Brought Down by “Events, dear boy, events”. Racing has had Two Big Events in February – Fast and Furious Response to Equine Flu and Now The Beckett Boycott Against ARC. Are They Appropriate Responses or Over-Reactions?

If I ever take part in a pub quiz on racing (which is extremely unlikely), at least I’d be able to ask the question which was “Which National Hunt horse won the first race back after the great equine flu epidemic – which didn’t happen – of February 2019?” Easy, really – it was our horse Acey Milan, who won over an inadequate trip at Plumpton on 13th February. Well done, Ace!

Either side of the weekend of 9th and 10th February, British racing had introduced a six-day lockdown of 174 yards following the discovery of a US strain of equine flu at the yard of Donald McCain in Cheshire. A fast and furious wave of biosecurity activity took place as thousands of horses were tested for this highly contagious virus. No racing took place in the UK; yards were disinfected, either through low-tech spraying or high-tech fogging machines; horse movements were curtailed; and an enormous range of views expressed. A number of trainers, such as Charlie Mann, Nigel Twiston-Davies and Nick Williams, became very hot under the collar, saying that it was a “massive over-reaction” by the BHA and not even the vets seemed able to agree on the appropriateness of the lockdown and various measures. The Veterinary Committee of the BHA played a straight bat and were highly supportive, whereas some of the grass-roots practitioners such as Peter Ramzan of Rossdales in Newmarket and Ben Brain, the UK’s foremost wind surgeon, were very sceptical. After six days and a huge amount of coverage in the media, racing resumed and fortunately only a total of ten racehorses tested positive. Normal service was resumed – other than for the trainers who had not had their animals vaccinated in the past six months. This caused some resentment, as it meant that some top-class horses missed their Cheltenham preparatory races, and because there was no grace period, the BHA had in effect changed the vaccination rule overnight. In their defence, they had issued an “advisory” notice about vaccination earlier.

My personal view is that one of the BHA’s primary objectives is properly to protect racing’s future, and one key element of that has to be equine welfare. The horse must genuinely come first. Without the extensive testing of horses in the lockdown period, it would have been impossible to gauge whether the UK was on the verge of an epidemic; fortunately that was not the case, but imagine the public outcry if we had been. It may well be that a very small number of horses always get equine flu, but it goes undetected or unreported. The whole episode certainly demonstrated that “racing matters” in the eyes of the public, and not just for racegoers and punters. A lot of column inches were dedicated to the equine flu cases in all the newspapers, as well as extensive reporting on TV. The general consensus seemed to be that temporary inconvenience through the lockdown was far better than having an epidemic on your hands. The BHA took the right steps to contain it even if, with hindsight, it might have contained itself.

And then at the end of February another “event” broke out, this time a major row over prize-money as a result of ARC’s precipitate decision to cut its prize-money allocation by £2.7m while, through its actions, excluding itself from accessing a further £4.5m from the Levy Board through the Appearance Money Scheme. The last time there had been a boycott of racing was at Worcester a few years ago, when trainers withdrew all their horses with the exception of one, who had a walk-over for Nigel Twiston-Davies who then allocated the prize-money between all other trainers in the “race”. This time the President-Elect of the National Trainers’ Federation, Ralph Beckett, orchestrated an aggressive response to ARC with the withdrawal of horses in a couple of novice races at Lingfield before proposing a second wave attack with trainers being persuaded not to make entries at Fontwell, Lingfield, Newcastle and Southwell next week. Anyone who saw Ralph being interviewed by Nick Luck last Sunday could not have failed to be impressed by his cogent attack on ARC and his barely concealed anger. It was definitely a case of Bombardier Beckett in the trenches with the pins out of the grenades, ready, willing and able to go over the top on behalf of racing, and particularly the grass-roots owner.

I have every sympathy with the stance being taken by the NTF and indeed had instructed all the Owners for Owners trainers not to enter our horses in any races where the total prize-money is less than £4,000, unless there is a compelling reason to do so. I’ve just ensured that our horse Sojourn is withdrawn from Fontwell next week and will race at Wincanton instead, while Melekhov also won’t go to Fontwell but be switched to Taunton. When these decisions were made, the prize-money was over 50% higher at the non-ARC tracks. Since then, ARC has made what appears to be a “concession” by temporarily reassigning prize-money from more valuable races to those of lower grade, thereby unlocking levy funding. This doesn’t strike me as much of a concession, as no new money is being found; it’s just a different way of slicing the prize-money cake.

Direct action, boycotts, aggressive attacks on fellow stakeholders isn’t really the way to manage British Racing, and it’s really necessary for the current tripartite structure to contain the aggression and re-channel it on to problem-solving and solutions. The macro-economic reality is that while no-one knows the precise figures, the government’s decision to reduce the stakes on fixed-odds betting terminals to £2 is guaranteed to lead to the closure of a substantial number of betting shops thereby significantly reducing levy yields and media rights payments. Some commentators believe that £40-60m of annual income could be lost, which puts the ARC reductions into perspective. Racing, as a matter of urgency, needs to create a strategic plan of how it is going to boost income from the middle of this year onwards, or a lot more grenades are going to be thrown around.

Harold Macmillan would surely have identified with the way that “events” can blow up in your face, just like grenades.

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Friday, 1 February 2019

Worrying Trends in Racecourse Attendance in the UK. Time for Soul Searching, Re-think and Renewal?

Off to Dublin at the weekend for the sensational Festival at Leopardstown. This was a highlight of the racing year for me in 2018 and I enjoyed it even more than Cheltenham, Aintree and the York Ebor meeting. Every race was exciting, field sizes huge, prize-money massive, but what really made the difference was the animated, knowledgeable and passionate crowd, which was a joy to behold. There seemed to be a huge buzz in Ireland, probably helped by the sensational victory against France in the rugby. This year it’s England’s turn to raise the excitement levels. I’ll be watching the end of the game in a super wine bar, The Grange in Foxrock, and the atmosphere is bound to be electric. Bring it on, and may my liver survive! It could be detox next week.

There have been other passionate racing moments over the last month. The story of Andrew Gemmell, owner of the new Stayers’ Hurdle favourite Paisley Park, and his love of racing despite being blind from birth, was uplifting. Emma Lavelle is a popular mid-tier trainer and everyone I know would be delighted to see her win at the Festival. My pleasure was heightened by the fact that the horse was bought by our good friend and agent, Gerry Hogan, who has been involved in many of our NH purchases. It’s a tough life for the majority of trainers, and it’s lovely to see the lesser lights win big races. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons why a lot of people will be rooting for Presenting Percy in the Gold Cup, and for Phi Kirby’s stable, star Lady Buttons, when she takes on Altior in the Champion Chase. I’ll also be cheering on the trio of Dunvegan, Articulum and Derrinross at Leopardstown as they all come from small yards.

Racing without passion, emotion, rousing stories, cherished horses and animated crowds is a soulless experience. Unfortunately there are far too many racecourses and racedays which only provide joyless fare. Over the winter I’ve been to all the all-weather tracks to watch moderate horses fight it out in the cold and dark. Truly dismal. Indeed I had an unwelcome “first” at Southwell a week ago when I stood in the paddock as the only owner present for my race. Clearly all the other owners had given up hope. The horse disappointed and I left almost immediately, having been on the track for less than 20 minutes. Driving home, I reflected that I would be embarrassed to take a new owner there, as I can’t believe they would stay in the game for very long. Southwell have actually improved the facilities for owners recently, and their O&T bar is a most pleasant and cosy room, but surely what really matters is the total raceday experience that lifts the spirits rather than depressing them. I’m afraid winter all-weather racing, and for that matter many other turf days, completely fails to do that.

So when the raceday attendance figures for 2018 were published recently, they weren’t a total surprise. Back in 2015 the BHA published growth targets for racing against a 2014 baseline, one of which was for racecourse attendances to reach seven million by 2020. They have however declined for each of the last three years, with the most recent total 5.77m, the lowest this century. Average crowds fell to 3,924, with the median figure a mere 1,567. Racing may still be the #2 sport behind football in spectator terms, but there is no escaping the reality that it looks as though racecourses are going to undershoot on their 2020 attendance goal by 1.25m.

After these figures were published, social media was full of negative reactions and prescriptions: far too much dull and dreary racing; uncompetitive, small fields; weak product on too many racedays; high cost and over-charging; declining loyalty of local customers; expensive food; failure to provide modern facilities and easy access to the internet, etc. As an aside, I didn’t see any references to horse welfare and the use of the whip, a subject to which I will return and which has been blown completely out of proportion. At the moment racing is concentrating too much on too many of the wrong issues.

There is one major encouraging trend which is that the big festivals and “marquee days” appear to be doing very well, and sometimes it’s easy to think everything in racing is rosy when you attend a big day at Cheltenham or Leopardstown. One obvious route for racecourses is to identify the fixtures that they can develop into mini-festivals. I’d even propose that the Racecourse Association develop that strategically and identify festival fixtures across the country for every week of the year.

It’s not as though there hasn’t been a strategic approach to improving attendance. Back in 2015, “customer growth objectives” were developed, with racecourses committing to develop a stronger partnership with the then new broadcaster, ITV; the creation of a digital-led “Come Racing” campaign promoting a “kids go free” message; best practice guides for racecourses; RCA’s leadership of an “Insight = Growth” project with data warehousing and bespoke planning to attract new customers, secure earlier ticket sales and increase customer retention. To be fair, several aspects of this strategy have been quite successful, particularly improvement in advance ticket sales to over two million.

However, there’s no escaping the conclusion that the overall strategic plan has failed to meet its objectives. There is now a new Chief Executive at the RCA and it’s time, again, to revive and renew the strategies and plans to boost attendance. My own plea is that strategy is not just a technocratic activity. It must contain initiatives that bring passion back into the sport, rather than just running it as a money-making, levy-generating, gambling-enhancing activity. We need strategy with soul.

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Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Congratulations to Richard Johnson OBE, Some Terrific 6yos and Our Own Winners from 2018. Here’s To Many More in 2019

The whole of racing must have been delighted on the announcement that Richard Johnson is to receive an OBE in the New Year’s Honours List. He is a terrific ambassador for our sport, a role model for all aspiring jockeys and one of the most genuine and nicest people you’ll ever meet. We have had more winners ridden by him than by any other jockey and it never ceases to amaze me how he can be unceasingly polite, friendly and positive to every owner, no matter how minor. He has ridden a couple of winners for our Racing Club at Martin Keighley’s and each time he has been kissed senseless while enduring endless selfies being taken with him. Top rider : top bloke.

One of the real pleasures of being an owner is the way in which you get to know so many friends, their families and their wider racing network. I always try to follow the horses that our owners have with other trainers and it gave me real pleasure over Christmas to see the successes of John Finch with Doitforthevillage at Paul Henderson’s, Jamie Wadge and Shaun Beach with Suggestion at Phil Kirby’s and then Ged Shields with Kemboy and Willie Mullins. As always in racing, so many stories around these various horses: Paul Henderson is a maestro at sourcing reasonably-priced horses in Ireland, getting them on to the right mark and then reaping the rewards; Phil and Pippa Kirby, from their base near Bedale, are steadily climbing through the ranks and it was wonderful to watch their star mare, Lady Buttons, win for the 11th time at Doncaster last Saturday. All grass-roots yards need a stable star, and they have got one with her.

And then of course, Kemboy – only a 6yo but he romped home in the Savills Chase with his emphatic victory shortening his odds for the Cheltenham Gold Cup from 40/1 to 6/1. Ged and Brenda Shields had arranged a super weekend for themselves at Newbury when Kemboy was due to run in the Ladbrokes Trophy, and were devastated when the stormy weather and rough crossing for the ferry forced the horse to miss the race. I phoned Ged just after the race at Leopardstown and he was absolutely thrilled, and kept saying a single word: “Wow!” Delighted for all the connections in the syndicate, organised by Supreme Racing. If Kemboy makes it to the Cheltenham Festival in either the Gold Cup or the Ryanair, it would be the highlight of the week for me – unless one of our own horses manages to get there.

Two other 6yos made a big impact as well over Christmas: Clan Des Obeaux, under a magnificent ride from young Harry Cobden, duly won the King George VI Chase at Kempton and looks a real star; and then when my wife and I were at Chepstow we enjoyed watching Elegant Escape win the Welsh Grand National, having come 2nd in the Ladbrokes Trophy (the race Kemboy should have won) at Newbury. We had a chat with Tom O’Brien just before the race, then another one when he came back. He was ecstatic and it’s a real pleasure to watch Tom winning races such as this, particularly as he’s having his best-ever season. He has also ridden many winners for us and is one of the most sympathetic riders around – a real horseman.

A year ago today, Acey Milan won the 4yo Listed Bumper at Cheltenham for us, and that kicked off the year in the best possible way. Six other horses won through the year: Dr Dunraven and Lord Condi (Martin Keighley), Melekhov (Philip Hobbs), Scented Lily (Charlie Longsdon), Sojourn (Anthony Honeyball) and Sunday Prospect (Karl Burke). Another horse in which I have an involvement, Nobby (Alan King) also won twice, including my first-ever win at a Point-to-Point, namely the Barbary Castle International. We were lucky enough to visit his breeder, Ray Bailey, fairly soon after Nobby was born, and fell in love with him straight away. Before you ask, he’s named after Nobby Styles, the footballer.

Winners Galore in 2018 …. Hoping for More in 2019

The New Foals – Stars for 2021+
There is something adorable about foals. Not only are they such beautiful creatures, but it is the sense of renewal as young horses enter your life to replace those who have retired and moved on. We managed to buy three this year, and they are loving their life in the Condicote paddocks at Martin’s yard. Most of the shares in these foals are now taken, but there are still a few left so if you would like to be involved in “future stars”, please let me know. For many grass-roots National Hunt owners this is one of the few ways of getting involved at a reasonable price, with the enormous hikes in sales prices of the established stallions. Indeed, just before Christmas I noticed that Envoy Allen had won for his unusual NH owners, Cheveley Park Stud, for Gordon Elliott (cost a cool £400,000 at Cheltenham’s February sale) and while at Chepstow I watched Ask For Glory winning his bumper on debut (a mere £280,000). The startling sums being paid never cease to amaze me.

From today I am switching to only one blog a month, but will continue to lobby for improvements in the total owner experience, not least because I’m going to promote the Racehorse Syndicates Association and help them with their press releases. Lots of improvements are still required if owners are going to be brought into the sport and retained.

Finally, very best wishes for 2019: may it be happy, healthy and successful, with lots of winners if you’re an owner.

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.