Friday 1 March 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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