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.

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