Sunday 1 December 2019

Corruption and / or Contempt for Owners and / or Incompetence? The Worrying Stories of Phoenix Thoroughbreds and the Supreme Racing Club, and What Changes will the BHA Have to Make?

Two years ago, in Autumn 2017, I wrote a lengthy, four-part blog series on Trust, Transparency and Integrity in Racing. My concerns for some time had centred around unacknowledged risk and vulnerability in racing, particularly to do with the bloodstock industry and sales house practices; welfare of racehorses post-retirement; and the relatively unregulated syndication and racing clubs sector. Two years on and, perhaps not unsurprisingly in the glacial world of racing decision-making, not a lot has happened; although, to be fair, at least there has been a report into the bloodstock industry, and equine welfare is currently under greater scrutiny. To the cynical observer, however, it does seem as though racing only really responds to crises, incidents and the proverbial hitting the fan. It has been well and truly splattered this Autumn!

Some of the journalists at the Racing Post, particularly Peter Scargill, Scott Burton, David Jennings and Tom Peacock, have been digging into the Phoenix Thoroughbreds accusations, and it really does look a sorry mess. The 56-year-old founder, Amer Abdulaziz Salman, hit the global racing industry like a tidal wave with apparently limitless funds to invest in the best bloodstock on the planet. He made great play that Dubai-based Phoenix Fund Investments Limited and Phoenix Thoroughbreds 2017 were being launched as “the world’s first regulated thoroughbred fund”. Excellent, you might conclude, until discovering that the funds were never regulated and are now in liquidation. In the meantime, Phoenix acquired 300 horses and 27 trainers, as well as bagging Gr.1s with horses such as Dream Tree, Loving Gaby, Advertise, Signora Cabello and Gronkowski, who I believe was being aimed at the inaugural $20m Saudi Cup in February. Undoubtedly, elite racing has some big pots …. but also some big crooks. There are accusations that Abdulaziz was a money-launderer and had stolen €100m from the now collapsed Ponzi scheme, One Coin, which was a scam in fake online crypto-currency. A thief from a thief! It also seems he had form in this area, having defaulted on payments for horses in the US in 2010 via bogus investment companies.

This sounds like an airport thriller, doesn’t it? Don’t you find it incredible that Abdulaziz’s previous history had not followed him, and that the regulators around the world hadn’t picked up on it? Or is the racing world so gullible, and so ready to accept anyone’s cash, that they choose not to raise any of the key questions? Phoenix Thoroughbreds are / were active in the UK and doubtless their demise will have a significantly detrimental impact on trainers and the sport. It’s hard not to conclude that all of this is a combination of contempt and corruption.

Now on to the Supreme Racing Club. A friend and fellow owner is involved in Kemboy and SRC, and I felt sorry for him as the sorry shambles unfolded. I’ve even had jokey emails along the lines of “everyone has a friend in Kemboy”, because at the heart of the matter is the accusation that SRC over-sold shares in their 29 horses and that they had no proper record of who owned what. It was founded in 2011 by Steve Massey and Jim Balfrey, and quickly became one of Ireland’s largest National Hunt syndicators, with over 500 members. Horse Racing Ireland began an investigation, but SRC refused (or was unable to) to provide them with the necessary information on ownership details and shareholding allocations, so after a period of time, HRI had no choice but to void the registration of horse ownership and freeze their accounts. The upshot of course was that the horses could no longer race, in Ireland or elsewhere, and unfortunately that owners couldn’t receive prize-money payments that they were due, not least because no-one appears to know who has the full right of title to the various shares in the 29 horses, or the cash balances. On this one, I don’t know whether it is primarily a question of incompetence or whether there is an element of dishonesty as well. Encouragingly, it now appears to be sorting itself out, and there will be a special cheer from me if Kemboy runs at the Leopardstown Winter Festival en route to winning the Cheltenham Gold Cup.

What a mess, and what damage to racing’s image! There will be many in the outside world, as well as within the sport, who will see this as just confirming their worst fears that there are too many scams and rip-offs, with rogues and vagabond masquerading as “managers” of other people’s money, only to steal it. The BHA has announced that, as a matter of urgency, it is examining the Phoenix Thoroughbreds situation, but it is hard not to draw the conclusion that they have been asleep on the job. What is the point of having a regulator which doesn’t regulate?

When my wife and I set up Owners for Owners, we made a huge point about being fully transparent and running OfO as a “not for profit” operation. Nothing has changed in our model, but as I now know a lot more about syndication, I can line up the industry like skittles from highly ethical at one end of the scale to unethical and unlawful at the other end. On regular occasions in this blog I’ve argued for substantial tightening of regulation of the syndicate industry, and for there to be a much stronger code of conduct with far more explicit indications of good / acceptable practice vs. the bad / unacceptable. Since 2018, I have also argued that shared ownership should be covered in detail within the Industry Ownership Strategy that is being developed by the Racehorse Owners Association. However, despite having received £1.65m to develop this, no such strategy has yet seen the light of day, even though they have been working on it for two years.

Anyone involved in buying, training and racing horses knows that there is a substantial cost involved. Even with a moderate animal kept for 3-4 years, the owners will quickly find that the outlay is not far short of £100,000. In the financial services industry, no-one would be allowed to offer “investments” of this magnitude without there being proper regulation. Surely the time has come for the BHA to review radically the current arrangements and put in place much stricter frameworks designed to secure the necessary trust and integrity. Without that, the industry is going to find it increasingly difficult to attract and retain owners, who are the life-blood of the sport.

I hope I’m not writing this again in two years’ time – but I fear I will be.

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.

Friday 1 November 2019

The Owners for Owners Vision of an Ownership Strategy – Without a £1.65m Tab!

In the spring and summer of 2018 I read about the Racehorse Owners’ Association’s leadership role in the creation of a “new ownership strategy for British racing”. Excellent, I thought – just what the industry needs, and I was keen to have a look at it. I sent emails off to the ROA requesting a copy, but received nothing in return. Eventually I decided to up the ante and write to all the top leaders in racing – BHA, GBR, RCA, NTF, Horsemen’s Group and, of course, the ROA. Doubtless I ruffled a few feathers and I received a very emollient note back from Nick Rust, the CEO of the BHA. Collaboration and communication were duly emphasised, and not surprisingly I was placated and waited to see the strategy. I have continued to wait for the last 15 months, but so far nothing formal has appeared, despite the ROA receiving £1.65m from the Racing Foundation to produce their magnum opus. Finally, in frustration, I decided to launch my own twitter campaign, with one tweet a day throughout October outlining my own thoughts on a suitable blueprint for ownership. Indeed, if you really wanted to see these tweets you could just scroll down the twitter box on the home page on my web site, I suspect you’ll have better things to do! The twitter exercise and all the various comments associated with it led me to produce the diagram below.

Apparently there is going to be a round of communication about the ownership strategy throughout the autumn. If so, I’m going to be very interested to see whether the ROA’s blueprint is as comprehensive as mine. At the moment they appear to be playing around at the edges of ownership with lots of “mini-initiatives”. I learnt a long time ago that you can have strategies with a small s and Strategy with a big S. My approach is to go for a big, bold vision, whereas it looks as though the ROA – despite the expensive involvement of the Portas consultancy – are lost in the minutiae of the strategic margins. Surely it is time to put a big strategy centre stage, and actually do something significant. Anyway, I’ve made my contribution and it certainly doesn’t come with a £1.65m price tag. Even if you don’t agree with what I’ve outlined, the input can hardly be better value for money as I’m not charging anyone anything. I do hope that the ROA strategy eventually surfaces - “hope springs eternal”!

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.

Tuesday 1 October 2019

“Icebergs Ahoy!”, but are the Officers on the Bridge of the Titanic Looking Through the Wrong End of the Telescope? More Views on the Ownership Strategy.

Just back from a super, relaxing holiday in the relatively isolated north-west of Tenerife. If you like golf, do go and stay at the Hacienda del Conde and play golf at the Seve Ballesteros course at Buenavista. While there, I read a bit about the island and I certainly wasn’t aware that Horatio Nelson didn’t just lose a sea battle off Santa Cruz, but it is also where he lost his arm. Apparently it was a battle he should never have lost – it was all down to complacency, not marshalling his resources properly, incomplete information and the wrong analysis of the situation. A bit like British racing, as you’ll see in this blog.

I kept my eye on a number of racing topics (I know, I should get out on the golf course more), and once again the strategic snail of the ownership strategy caught my attention, largely through an article in the Racing Post written by Jonathan Harding. For over a year I’ve been frustrated about the lack of clarity and progress on this strategy even though, apparently, the budget for it is now £1.66m, with the Levy Board alone contributing £790,000. The only way to gauge whether we’re getting value for money from this substantial investment will be the outputs from the study, and its impact on the attraction of new owners into the sport while retaining current ones. A coherent strategic plan still hasn’t been issued, and it does look as though the ROA is just tinkering around with the Titanic’s deckchairs. Where is the over-arching strategic vision? What are the major strategic priorities being addressed? What are the strategic goals and specific objectives that can be measured over a 1 / 3 / 5 / 10-year time horizon? What are the detailed and targeted initiatives to be deployed, and what are the resource implications for the industry? None of these questions have been properly addressed. Apparently there will be a communication exercise in the autumn and nothing would give me greater pleasure than putting ticks in all the boxes, and seeing the Titanic steer away from the icebergs unscathed.

Most worryingly, the Racing Post article stated that the strategy is all about “evolution not revolution”. The ROA has prioritised retaining owners over actively recruiting them, and that sort of one-eyed strategy appears to be gross neglect. Also, they have chosen to treat prize-money as a separate issue, and again that is flabbergasting. Just keep moving those deckchairs around …..

It’s not as though the icebergs aren’t big, prominent, ugly and frightening:
  • Sole owners are in significant decline, down from around 7,000 to 5,000 in the last ten years.
  • There are now more owners aged over 80 than under 40.
  • The returns to owners are dreadful, with 73% of those owners receiving less than £2,500 per year, due to both the quantum of prize-money and its allocation. It is far too concentrated at the top tier of the sport, which benefits hugely anyway from ongoing stud value.
  • The betting industry is hurting. For example, William Hill’s profits are down 33% with 700 betting shops likely to close by the end of the year.
  • Racecourses are increasingly forecasting “significant risk of falling income” and almost inevitably reduced prize-money as a result. Newbury, which already has woeful prize-money for the quality of its racing, issued a note to that effect.
  • While Logician put in a superb performance in the St Leger (for a £700,000 pot, the second-most valuable British Classic after the Derby), throughout the festival there were many under-subscribed races, which wasn’t surprising in view of the poor prize-money. Day 1 had a meagre £149k and the last two races on Leger day were 0-110 handicaps with prize-money between £12,450 and £15,562, whereas similar races at the York Ebor festival were worth £70k. Owners and trainers are voting with their feet / hooves. Those two races at Doncaster had three and two runners respectively.
And yet the ownership strategy isn’t examining initiatives to bring new owners into the game, nor to boost the prize-money to sustain it. This beggars belief.

Meanwhile, of course, it is very different elsewhere in the world. The new Saudi Cup, to be staged on 29th February 2020 at the King Abdulaziz Racetrack in Riyadh will be the richest ever race, at US$20m. Even the undercard has US$7m of prize-money. The Times has a view that we are now going to see a “high-rollers’ triple crown”, with trainers targeting this race along with the Pegasus in the US, worth £7.4m, and the Dubai World Cup at £9.9m.

Oh, to be a high-roller operating at the platinum end of racing, whether globally or in the UK. For them, life is rich and rosy, and indeed the ROA’s magazine, Thoroughbred Owner & Breeder, reinforces that view with all the top trainers, horses breeders and owners being feted and now has pages of over-priced “fashion” drivel as well. It would be a nice magazine to read in the lounges of the Titanic, maybe alongside a copy of the ROA’s ownership strategy, when it finally makes its appearance.

Icebergs ahoy! Do we have any lifeboats?

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.

Sunday 1 September 2019

How Many “Bad Apples” Are There in the Bloodstock Orchard, and Will They Now be Eradicated?

Back in the autumn of 2017, I wrote several blogs about integrity and corruption in racing, which included the bloodstock supply chain and sales houses. As a result of this I was invited to take part in the investigation instigated by the BHA and led by former senior policeman Justin Felice. I met up with him and colleagues on a couple of occasions and shared with them my own experiences encountered in buying racehorses over a 15-year period. Early in August, key stakeholders in racing met for a first review of his report, which was subsequently leaked by the Racing Post. Encouragingly, many of the recommendations I made to the study have been incorporated in the report, though I must emphasise that I haven’t yet read it myself, so this blog is based on the leaks. Further stakeholder discussions are taking place through September, and as soon as I’m able to obtain a copy of the full report I’ll do another blog on the subject.

Full credit should be given to the BHA for being prepared to launch this study. They came in for a fair bit of criticism and it is true to say that there are a few vested interests who were reluctant to acknowledge that major changes are needed. Some agents, trainers, managers of studs, bloodstock vendors and syndicators are guilty of “improper practices” which, if you are generous, you would say are unscrupulous and dishonest but if not you would say are criminal breaches of their fiduciary duties towards the purchasers of bloodstock, namely owners.

Felice is damning in his analysis of the industry and, quite rightly, calls for “transformational changes”. Although there is a code of practice dating back to 2004, subsequently amended in 2009, there hasn’t been a single recorded complaint in 15 years, which only encourages a number of resisters of change to remain in a state of denial over the corruption that occurs on a significant scale. Felice acknowledges this and believes that there is omerta – a culture of silence and of impunity. Bad, and even illegal, behaviour has long been tolerated by the industry. This isn’t some sort of minor, grubby, “Del Boy”-type misdemeanour; it is endemic behaviour up to and including the elite of breeders and agents who have shamelessly ramped prices and ripped off na├»ve and gullible owners. Addressing this behaviour is long overdue, and the real test of successful implementation of the Felice report will be the sharpness of the teeth of enforcement practices, the number of complaints that now surface and, in time, the banning and / or criminal prosecution of some of the culprits.

Many of the “improper practices” are widely known, and include:
  • Agents demanding a percentage of the sale price as totally unwarranted “luck money” from vendors. They pocket this for themselves and / or share it with the trainer. The owner knows nothing about it.
  • Dual representation, where the agent is acting for both purchaser and vendor, and charges a commission to both parties. Although representing both sides of the same transaction, at least one of the parties is unaware of the fact.
  • Secret profiteering, which is when the sales process is rigged through conspiratorial pre-agreed bidding up of a horse’s price. Vendors and agents conspire to inflate the price artificially above a pre-agreed amount and then split the difference between themselves.
  • Running up a price where the vendor bids against a buyer, without their knowledge, to obtain a higher value for their horse.
Anyone who is acting as an “agent” for a principal, e.g. an owner, must act in the principal’s best interests, otherwise they will be in breach of agency law and legislation such as the Criminal Law Act 1977, Fraud Act 2006 and Bribery Act 2010. In the light of the extensive use of the four “improper practices” described above, it is staggering that there haven’t been any prosecutions, but Felice is well aware that collusion and coercion in the bloodstock supply chain means that there is a huge reluctance to act and, indeed, a fear that by coming forward, individuals will be victimised by the powerful players who dominate at the sales. It is encouraging, therefore, that “transformational and once in a generation” changes are being proposed, inter alia:
  1. The BHA to be given jurisdiction over the currently unregulated bloodstock sector.
  2. The industry to operate under a proper, tougher Code of Conduct.
  3. Agents to be licensed. Those operating under such a licence will have to accept regulatory access to bank accounts if an investigation is taking place.
  4. Breach of the licence will lead to an agent losing it, together with bans and removal of access to the sales.
  5. Furthermore, breaches of the Rules of Racing – conduct prejudicial to horseracing – to be enforced on similar lines to the Financial Conduct Authority.
  6. Payment of luck money over, say, £250 to be deemed to be an inducement, and therefore criminal.
  7. Stop vendors bidding on their own horses beyond the reserves that they themselves have set. When a vendor bids beyond that reserve, the auctioneer to be required to announce it as a vendor bid.
  8. Binding agreements introduced between the BHA and sales houses to enable information sharing.
  9. Make it clear who is selling the horse. Sales houses to log and make public the full beneficial ownership of every horse due to be sold.
  10. Harmonisation of these changes to occur in Ireland and, in time, other jurisdictions such as France.
It will be interesting to see the progress made once consultation with stakeholders has been completed, and whether the industry is prepared to put its bloodstock sales houses properly in order. Zero tolerance of corrupt practices is required. Without it, the already fragile ownership base is likely to contract further and profound damage be done to racing’s integrity and reputation. At least it is encouraging that the study was completed and that there is a readiness on the part of the BHA to publish it and act on it.

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.

Thursday 1 August 2019

New Brooms in the Leadership Cupboard, but Will We See Any Sweeping Changes?

When you look at the quality of racing at Ascot on King George day and now Glorious Goodwood, it’s very easy to feel that all is just fine and dandy in the racing stable. It isn’t, of course, and this blog flags up a few priorities for the new leaders who have recently stepped into various roles in racing and at Westminster.

But first, the racing. I was lucky enough to see Grundy beat Bustino in the King George V1 and Queen Elizabeth Stakes in the 1970s, and for my money Enable’s win, beating Crystal Ocean, is one of the best performances I’ve ever seen. She has now won her last 11 races, £708,875 last Saturday and a total of £9,141,226 during her career so far. Last Sunday Karl Burke’s super filly Laurens got back on the Gr.1 trail again, winning the Prix Rothschild in Deauville. That was her sixth Gr.1 and she has now bagged £1,704,500. Then on the first day of Glorious Goodwood, my favourite horse in training, Stradivarius, added another £283,000 on to his winning tally which is now well over £2m, and of course there is probably going to be another million to come from the Weatherbys Hamilton £1m Bonus.

Wouldn’t you like to be a trainer?? The answer to that question is “absolutely not”, as it is such a tough, stressful and economically precarious way to earn a living, as the current Flat trainer statistics show. So far, 521 trainers have had runners on the Flat this season in the UK; 11 have won £1m+, 22 £½m+, and 109 in total £100k+. Now for the killer stats though – 412 (79%) have won less than £100k in total prize-money earnings; 227 (44%) less than £10k; 170 (33%) less than £5k; and 87 (17%) less than £1,000. The trainer winning percentage is 10%, so 79% of all the trainers in the country who have raced on the Flat so far have earned less than £10k. At the same time, when you consider the small amount that goes into pool money for stable staff, the returns to the vast majority of the training ranks and their staff is derisory. I genuinely believe that the greatest strategic risk to British racing is that the base of the racing pyramid crumbles.

Weatherbys Hamilton, if only you’d spent your £1m on a “Proud to Support Grass Roots Trainers and Stable Staff Stakes” series, I’d willingly switch my insurance to you. Imagine the impact of 100 races at £10k each, going into the grass roots. The impact of that would have been immeasurable compared to handing over all the money to an elite owner who doesn’t need it and wasn’t seeking it.

Who are the new broom leaders, then, and what should their priorities be? In the blog on 1st June I mentioned Annamarie Phelps, the new chair of the BHA. We also have a new CEO of the Racecourse Association, David Armstrong; Delia Bushell is taking over from Simon Bazalgette at the Jockey Club; and Rebecca Pow MP will be supervising horse racing and gambling as the new parliamentary undersecretary of state for arts, heritage and tourism at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport. There are some big questions and challenging dilemmas that these individuals will need to address.

Some of the top priorities (not comprehensive and not in order of importance necessarily) should be:

#1: Funding and finances. The 1st June blog summarised the £115m of extra funding for racing that could easily be secured. Steve Harman, Annamarie Phelps’ predecessor, discussed with the government the £50m a year that could come from self-help opportunities and £65m from levy development work. I still believe that Steve’s “call to arms” for the BHA to address this as an urgent priority is right. Getting close to government is obviously a prime enabler and I hope that the right relationship is established with Ms. Pow.

#2: Media rights income. It looks as though racing is going to lose £40-60m in media rights income and, apparently, each betting shop that closes results in the sport losing £30,000. Unfortunately there is woefully inadequate transparency on this income, which has been an ongoing source of tension with the Horsemen’s Group. I can’t vouch for the figures, but it is believed that £940 of income is generated per runner, per race, with the racecourses taking most of the media rights and only a third going into prize-money. That has incensed the NTF president-designate, Ralph Beckett, who has been nothing if not vociferous with phrases such as “owners and trainers provide the show; tracks just put it on” and “racecourses and the bookies will drive the grass roots out of business”.

#3: Fixtures and racegoers. The key dilemma, at a time of declining racecourse attendance, owners and horses, is whether fixtures and the race programme should contract or expand. There has been a token reduction from 1,511 meetings in 2019 to 1,491 for 2020. David Armstrong is leading an “economic modelling project” to assess ways of squaring this particular circle. We wish him well on that one. The other big challenge is clearly with attendances, which have now fallen for three years running. The Strategy for Growth goal set three years ago was to have attendances at seven million by 2020. It was 5.77m in 2018, the average crowd per fixture is 4,000 but the median is only 1,567 and a paltry 806 on the all-weather. Thinking caps on, with this one.

#4: Welfare and integrity. Racing can hold its head high on most of the welfare front, and with the right positioning and presentation to government the level of risk (with one notable exception) is quite low. Our sport has a strong and steady licence to operate from the population at large. Integrity though is much more of an issue. I’ve often said that an investigative journalist with a hidden camera could trigger a catastrophe in our sport if three areas were closely examined: the corruption at bloodstock sales; the fate of many racehorses when they retire; and the lack of regulation of syndicates and racing clubs. A report will appear in September examining the first of these. Some potatoes are getting hotter!

I wish all the individuals mentioned the very best of success. While their in-trays are full to overflowing, positive progress on a small number of key priorities could have a huge impact on the sport. Be lucky.

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.

Monday 1 July 2019

Why it’s Time for British Racing to Develop a UK-Wide Syndicate Strategy to Grow and Retain Owners for the Sport

In the last blog, a number of priorities were flagged up for the new Chair of the BHA, Annamarie Phelps, who took up the leadership position on 1st June. I’m sure by now she’s only too aware of the big challenges facing racing and the key questions that need to be raised, and then answered. So for example, what are the major sources of funds that will guarantee the viability of the sport (the last blog echoed Steve Harman’s call for action with regard to the next stage of Levy development); does the expansion of the race programme continue (as the new CEO of the Racecourse Association advocates), or is it reduced (as the Horsemen’s Group would probably prefer); what are the priorities and funding implications of the new ownership strategy being developed by the Racehorse Owners Association; what are the ethical and integrity issues that need to be addressed as part of risk mitigation for the sport; and how are the problems of recruitment, retention and welfare of racing staff to be resolved? Doubtless there are also many other pressing concerns for Annamarie’s first 100 days.

All those questions are relevant for someone taking a top-down perspective on racing. Obviously in Owners for Owners we’re immersed in the day-to-day of grass-roots owning and syndication. However, in this blog we’re trying to make the link between the top-down and bottom-up perspectives in the context of syndication.

We’re members of the Racehorse Syndicates Association, which is actively promoting ongoing improvements in the ownership experience so that syndicate members are attracted into the game and retained within it. As part of that promotion, several important and little-appreciated facts are being publicised. It should be said that the numbers are only estimates, as absolutely no-one anywhere in racing has accurate facts and data on the importance and contribution of syndication to British Racing …. and that says everything, doesn’t it!

  • Insight 1: there are 2,500 syndicate organisers in the UK. Assuming ten owners on average per syndicate, that is 25,000 owners. They are the unknown stakeholders of British Racing.
  • Insight 2: the total number of horses owned by syndicate organisers in the UK is estimated to be 5,000. Assume that the expenditure with trainers, vets, jockeys etc. is £20,000 per year, that is £100m contribution to the racehorse training industry.
  • Insight 3: if we assume that the syndicate organisers replace these horses every other year, and the average bloodstock price is £30,000, then the income for the bloodstock industry is £75m.
  • Insight 4: the running of syndicate horses clearly makes an important contribution to competitive racing, betting turnover, levy and media rights. We have no knowledge of the quantum of this, but let’s estimate that it is £25m.
  • Insight 5: if 2,500 syndicate organisers and the 25,000 owners is correct, and these owners visit racecourses once a month, spending £50 on each visit, then that is a £30m income for racecourses across the country from syndicates.
  • Total annual contribution to British Racing from syndication is £230m.

At the moment, British Racing has no strategy focused on this important sector. As already mentioned, it has no meaningful data. It has little knowledge of the syndicate members, nor their needs and requirements. Faced with what is in effect a “black hole”, there must be a considerable opportunity to grow significantly the syndication of racehorses in the sport. In the past there have been one or two rather trivial attempts to promote syndication, of which a good example is the flawed “In the Paddock” web site that doesn’t even work properly. It all looks very amateurish and half-hearted.

Everyone in racing surely buys into the expansion of syndication. However, to do that there are a few much wider issues that need to be addressed, as highlighted in the diagram below. The left pyramid shows that there is an over-concentration of money at the top, while the grass-roots foundation, which is where the vast majority of syndicates are operating, is crumbling, with many trainers and owners struggling financially. One solution would be to change the ratio of prize-money between the top and the bottom of the pyramid. As a timely example, although we adore Royal Ascot as an event with all its pomp and circumstance, it embodies the elitist nature of the sport. That is not an argument to change Royal Ascot, but we believe that far too much money is concentrated into the top races, and therefore goes to the top owners, trainers and breeders. We need more money for the grass roots. In the right hand diagram, the point is also emphasised that any realignment of prize-money should flow to the races that are the most competitive and generate the greatest betting levy. I wonder whether that data is readily available ….. or is it another black hole?

On a personal note, we’re involved with the RSA in the launch of the first-ever Syndicate Sunday at Stratford-on-Avon Racecourse on Sunday 21st July, and hoping it will be really well supported by trainers and syndicators across the country. We’re determined to celebrate the success of syndication ….. and raise a glass to its expansion.
Fundamentally Changing the Ownership & Prize-Money Pyramid

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 June 2019

Welcome to Annamarie Phelps, New Chair of the BHA. Top of the In-Tray – Finances, Funding and the Levy. Oh Yes, and Racing’s Leadership Behaviour and the Need to Curtail the In-Fighting.

Annamarie Phelps commences her new role today as Chair of the BHA. I’m sure everyone in British Racing wishes her well and is hoping for a really successful new phase for British Racing under her stewardship. She is a former Olympic rower, current Vice-Chair of the British Olympic Association, and replaces the temporary incumbent, Athol Duncan. She is a recognised UK sports figurehead and, when she was appointed, the BHA underlined her main expertise “in dealing with complex political, regulatory and multi-stakeholder projects and initiatives” through her “impressive leadership skills and astute grasp of the issues facing major sports, including their engagement with government”.

I’m sure she doesn’t need me to teach her anything about leadership, but I’ve never forgotten the chairman of a major pharmaceutical company who raised his left hand in front of me one day in my consulting career and explained that you never need more than five fingers to prioritise the key strategies for any business. His view was that the challenge in a new chair’s first 100 days was to identify the three critical strategies that would really make a difference to the organisation, and then to drive them forward through the two main enablers of leadership and any necessary changes to the operating model. Rather menacingly, he then raised his right hand and said that over the 100 days you always discover the five leaders who are the blockers, robber barons and doom merchants. Indeed, I can still remember one hapless individual at this chairman’s leadership conference who, during a plenary discussion, announced that there was no way he was going to support a particular initiative: “over my dead body”. The chairman gave him a withering look and proclaimed, “It can be arranged!”

So I’ll be very interested indeed to follow the impact of the new chair during this initial 100-day period. I’ll be even more interested to find out whether any changes occur in the leadership of our sport. Unfortunately over the last 12 months there has been a shocking outbreak of in-fighting and negative behaviour within the top echelons. Although the chair of the BHA has limited authority over most of the stakeholder groups, there is certainly a need to knock a number of heads together and focus on the key priorities and opportunities.

Two very interesting articles appeared recently in the Racing Post, one by the former chairman of the BHA, Steve Harman, entitled Time to talk up racing’s future and kick on with levy development, and the second from trainer Jamie Osborne, Funding farce underlines urgent need for racing to conduct a radical re-think. Steve’s article was both optimistic and a notable call for action with regard to the next stage of levy development, while Jamie advocated the need to “stop the blame game and start thinking radically”. I’m sure both were designed to coincide with the arrival of the new BHA chair.

Steve’s article was persuasive and compelling. While some pundits in racing have dwelt on the “black hole” of the cut in FOBT stakes and its impact on media rights, his focus was on the need for racing to concentrate on £115m of funding that can readily be secured through self-help opportunities exceeding £50m per year and levy development worth a further £65m+. It certainly convinced me, and is definitely one of the fingers on the strategy hand. It is worth examining in more detail.

Without doubt, one of Steve’s most important contributions as BHA chair was the development of excellent relationships with the many politicians who are now key advocates of racing, both inside and close to Westminster. These include prime ministerial candidate Matt Hancock; Jeremy Wright, his successor as culture secretary; Mims Davies, Sports Minister; former Sports Minister Tracy Crouch; Helen Grant, Vice-Chair of the Conservative Party; and George Freeman, ex-Head of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit. In particular, Matt Hancock had assured Steve that racing would not suffer as a result of FOBT changes, and gave a strong commitment to examine further levy development once the FOBT changes had bedded in. However, and crucially, to trigger the next stage of that development there were conditions that had to be met. In particular racing had to show self-help in a number of designated areas: building a strong global Tote, making further progress in industry recruitment and retention, further developing the equine welfare and staff welfare agenda, improving the balance of British-bred horses, pooling media rights, growing participation in the sport and meeting good governance standards.

Throughout Steve’s piece there was frustration that racing isn’t delivering on what is required to trigger further developments to the levy. It is almost as if racing doesn’t believe that Westminster will keep its word and ensure that racing doesn’t suffer financially from the changes made to FOBT stakes. The need for speed and leadership came through strongly if racing is not to stumble into a crisis of its own creation: “ …. we should be talking opportunities and growth. This industry has proved what it can do regarding levy reform. Racing needs to articulate a compelling message about growth and jobs, with great campaigning supported by quiet lobbying with our influencers.” Furthermore, “The clock has been ticking. Jobs in this industry depend on this. Anyone doubting the promises, prospects or scale of levy development needs to be corrected.”

Jamie Osborne’s concern was the lack of transparency and finger-pointing between racecourses, bookmakers, owners, horsemen and regulators. Without any doubt the financials of racing are far too opaque, and opening them up to scrutiny in a more coherent manner would be one heading in the operating model of a new racing strategy. Jamie also argued for “a radical re-think on the balance of commercial power”, which is code, I’m assuming, for scrutiny of the amount of money taken out of the sport by bookmakers and racecourses, leaving so many at the grass roots of the industry impoverished. The key message was that our funding model isn’t working well and there is a tremendous need to make the “revenue pie” bigger - another initiative for the strategy hand.

In the next blog I’ll examine a number of other priorities for British Racing, as well as the constraints that may severely limit the new chair’s freedom to act. This will also examine how the commercial value of racing is created, and the tensions that now exist in the way in which it is apportioned – definitely subjects for the left hand of strategy.

So as one former rower (indeed, having won the Mays bumping races at Cambridge and rowed for the Varsity) to another, I wish Annamarie well.

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.

Wednesday 1 May 2019

A Few Thoughts on the National Hunt Season and also the Need to Change the Novice Chase Programme

Owners for Owners will have its first ever runner in Acey Milan at the Punchestown Festival on either Thursday or Saturday, provided that we aren’t balloted out. Bearing in mind that in one of the races Willie Mullins has 17 entries, I’m hoping there will be mass defections and we can kick off a new season and / or end the old one with a cracking performance. After a stellar bumper year, our horse unfortunately like a few others had a very bad chest infection this season and we haven’t really been able to build momentum and get back on track. No matter what happens in Ireland, he still looks a lovely prospect for staying races, particularly on soft / heavy ground, from October onwards.

While we weren’t able to scale the heights of the previous year, we still had more than 10 wins with horses including Acey Milan, Dr Dunraven, Lord Condi, Melekhov, Scented Lily and Sojourn. Another horse I’m associated with, Nobby, put in a couple of excellent runs including almost winning the Listed bumper at Newbury for us for the second year in a row. On the Flat, Sunday Prospect won as well, and has now been sold to race in France.

Looking to the future, we’ve increased our involvement in NH foals and yearlings, as it is proving increasingly difficult to buy ex-point-to-pointers with form for anything other than prodigious prices. We’ll be continuing with this policy, as we have had more success, at a higher level, with youngsters that we’ve brought through and developed from foal days rather than buying the finished article. It has also provided great pleasure for us, our co-owners and their families. We’ve decided to go one step further on the Flat, having set up the first ever Owners for Owners breeding partnership with Mayfair Rock, who we are hoping is now in foal to the former Karl Burke trained super sprinter, Havana Grey. We saw her at Whitsbury Manor Stud recently and couldn’t be more pleased with the way she has let herself down and relaxed into her new role.

As for the season that has just finished, all credit has to go to Altior for his record-breaking 19th consecutive win. Richard Johnson had 200+ winners up for the season and was duly crowned Champion Jockey again. As I always say about Richard, he’s a champion person as well as champion jockey, and a tremendous ambassador for the jumps game. Bryony Frost, who rode one of the horses we were associated with during the season, became Champion Conditional Jockey and her lyrical way of speaking has engaged everyone. She really is another great asset for our sport. The hour at the Cheltenham Festival when Paisley Park won the Stayers’ Hurdle, immediately following Frodon in the Ryanair, was one of the best moments I’ve experienced on the racecourse. The atmosphere was electric and for everyone connected with the horses it was a joy to behold. Our friend and agent Gerry Hogan had purchased Paisley Park as a youngster, and it was excellent to see him have a winner at the highest level. He’s one of the most honest and genuine agents you’ll ever come across – thoroughly recommended to anyone wanting to buy an NH prospect. He is also a grand fella.

The jumps season, however, certainly didn’t lack for controversy, what with the equine flu disruption, trainer boycotts of ARC racecourses, not to mention the frustration of unseasonably fast ground for most of the winter, which made it very hard to plan a race programme for the horses. There were also a few silly and embarrassing incidents, not least caused by BHA interference in activities that should be left to the grass-roots trainers and stewards to sort out. It is definitely time for the BHA to rise above that, and bring all the key parties in racing together for another round of strategy creation so that the sport can deal with the potential £60 million black hole emerging from the loss of media rights payments due to the likely closure of betting shops as FOBT stakes are compulsorily reduced to £2. Hopefully the strategy will be developed with purposeful, collaborative intent by all the key stakeholders – BHA, RCA, Horsemen’s Group etc. – as the last thing we want to see in racing is public falling-out and parties resorting to direct action such as the Ralph Beckett-led boycott of races. While it may have achieved its short-term purpose, it was terrible PR for the sport, particularly in the eyes of government.

It won’t surprise the reader of this blog that I’ve got my own ideas about the required strategy for British Racing and the priorities within that. I’ll leave the content, though, till another day. One element of that is the way the race programme is formulated. As this blog has primarily been about National Hunt, one major change that I’d like to see is a complete rationalisation of novices’ and beginners’ chases, with a dramatic reduction in number and frequency, and with them organised into a series rather than single, stand-alone events. At the moment far too many of them are unexciting races between a couple of horses from a couple of top yards, and absorb far too much prize-money.

That’s it for this month. Bag packed and off to Punchestown!

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.

Monday 1 April 2019

Cheltenham Festival, Welfare Issues and the BHA – Time for Peace to Break Out in Our Sport

Oh dear, the mayhem of May-hem. What a period we’re going through. There’s been a calamitous loss of authority and leadership; no shortage of anger and alienation; a nationwide sense of disillusionment, with partisan groups feeling abandoned or betrayed; a permanent stand-off between experts, technocrats and bureaucrats vs. the populus and the professionals. And that’s just British Racing, never mind parliament.

Hard on the heels of Bombardier Beckett hurling the grenades out of the trainer trenches over prize-money, the Cheltenham Festival, and particularly the National Hunt Challenge Cup Amateur Riders’ Novices’ Chase over 3m 7½f, triggered an explosion of incendiary comments, letters and articles revolving around the need for “trainers to take back control” over welfare issues. Before dealing with that though, let’s at least celebrate the joy of this year’s Festival, and particularly one of the most emotional and uplifting hours that I’ve ever experienced in jumps racing when Bryony Frost won the Ryanair on Frodon and then the wonderful Andrew Gemmell’s horse Paisley Park won the Stayers’ Championship under a jockey who we regularly use, Aidan Coleman, for Emma Lavelle. The Thursday of the Festival is normally a quieter day sandwiched between the Champion Chase and Gold Cup, but this year was quite extraordinary. Racing could do far worse than create a whole series of videos around these two races and all the personalities involved, because they demonstrate how uplifting and joyous National Hunt racing can be. The “antis” of our sport, particularly Animal Aid, managed to raise 105,000 signatures in their petition to government, and that scared the living daylights out of the BHA. Just imagine how many supporters of NH racing would sign up to a campaign #IloveJumpsRacing, if such a mechanism existed, with links to the happy scenes from the Festival. Indeed, a key message is the need for racing to stand proud and promote itself to the British public. We have nothing to hide and are making a huge contribution to the happiness of the nation and its economy. On that note, I saw an interesting piece that the Festival contributes at least £100m to the local region, in which I live. Bravo!

I watched the National Hunt Chase with a group of friends, and we were all uncomfortable with what we witnessed this year. Eighteen horses took part: one unseated rider, five were pulled up, eight fell, there were four finishers and one of the fallers, the favourite Ballyward, died. In four of the last five runnings there have been fatalities. This race was one of carnage, and with far too much whip-flailing. Immediately after the race, three jockeys – Rob James, Noel McParlan and Declan Lavery – picked up a total of 37 days’ suspension. No horseman could or should have tolerated what happened in this race, and it was right to ban these riders. However the stewards made a fundamental mistake by concentrating on Declan Lavery, finishing third on Jerrysback and “continuing to ride when it appeared to be contrary to the horse’s welfare”. This opened the contentious debate about jockeys trying to achieve the best possible placing for their horses vs. the welfare issues associated with the race itself.

A torrent of invective then followed, which I actually found more unpleasant than the incident. Henry Daly ranted away about the BHA being “sorely misguided and misrepresentative of our great sport”, and that trainers should “take our lives and profession into our own hands rather than being led like lambs to the slaughter”. Tony McCoy accused the BHA of “bringing racing into disrepute”, and a wide-ranging, highly critical letter from Mick Channon, Henrietta Knight and Charles Egerton also argued for the need for professionals to “take back control” and consider a vote of no confidence in the BHA. The Irish trainer and commentator Ted Walsh hardly helped the situation by saying that if you didn’t like the reality of jumps racing, then you should “go and watch Peppa Pig”.

It didn’t take long for Lavery to appeal against his suspension, and a Disciplinary Panel soon quashed the sentence, making clear that “ …. the requirement of the rules to pull up tired horses has primacy over the requirement to achieve the best possible placing, and that it is no justification to continue on a horse to finish placed in a race if doing so would be contrary to the horse’s welfare.” While I’m sure we all agree with that decision, unfortunately it is of course a potential cheat’s charter, as it gives licence to a rider to stop a horse and then claim that it was on welfare grounds. Only a matter of time before that happens.

Two issues have surfaced from this whole disagreement. The first is about the role of amateurs at the Festival. Personally I agree with one of our trainers, Anthony Honeyball, that no-one would frame a race such as the National Hunt Challenge Cup. It feels as though it’s time to change the nature of that race, and either restrict it to professionals or at least put in place stricter eligibility criteria for both riders and horses. It no longer feels like a race worthy of the Festival. On a much broader note, is it also time to disallow the use of the whip by conditionals and amateurs for the vast majority, if not all, their races? This feels like an own goal for racing at a time when the whipping of horses has never been more contentious, particularly with Members of Parliament. I’ve resisted the temptation to draw a parallel with the use of Whips at Westminster.

The second issue is clearly to do with the breakdown in relationships between the BHA, trainers and grassroots racing. John Gosden and Philip Freedman have called for common sense and unity to prevail, and for bridges to be built as quickly as possible between the stakeholders of British racing. They are absolutely right to argue for warring factions to come together behind closed doors and resolve their differences. Public ranting and raving does terrible damage to the sport, and is hardly a persuasive lever with government. It may not be popular but we have to acknowledge that the All-Party Racing Group at Westminster is focused almost entirely on equine welfare and no matter what backwoods trainers may think, we cannot turn back the clock on this. The real danger is that the BHA loses the stewardship of welfare and for it to be handed to another, independent group. Doubtless in an attempt to head this off, the BHA has just announced that a new Horse Welfare Board is coming into operation, chaired by Barry Johnson, former President of the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons. A key remit of this Board is to create a new welfare strategy covering the whole industry. Much needed!

Two blogs on the trot have had to deal with trainer rants. I hope there won’t be a third one. Racing must rediscover the core competence of coalition-building …. even if parliament fails completely in its attempts to do so over Brexit. Peace needs to break out in racing, or we’ll have our own Brexit on our hands.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.