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.

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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!

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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.

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