Tuesday 1 December 2020

All Change with the Final Owners’ Opinion Blog – But don’t worry, we’ll be continuing the campaigns under the Keep Owners in Racing banner from 1st January

When we set up Owners for Owners back in 2012 as a not-for-profit organisation, our goal was to encourage owners to get together to share the costs, risks and pleasures of owning racehorses. We’ve had a lot of success, not just with the racehorses on the track but also with the super friendships across the network of owners we have built up. Long may that continue! We’re currently working on a complete rebuilding of the web site, www.ownersforowners.co.uk, which we hope will be live by 1st January. The current web site will then be archived, so if you would like to download any materials from the site, please do so during December.

However, our campaigns to secure a better deal for owners will most definitely continue. We’ll be using the www.keepownersinracing.com web site for this, and as you may already have seen, we’ve been creating lots of reports, blogs and films to promote the cause. Here are two of the latest KOIR blogs.

Get Counting – Time to Register Every Owner and Properly Understand the Ownership Base

An entertaining article by Peter Scargill from the virtual Racing Post Arms suggested a tiered system of ownership for segmenting sole owners from syndicate members on the racecourse. This is a sensible suggestion but it needs to be underpinned by data otherwise it could have a negative impact on the overall level of ownership.

Surely nobody would argue that a syndicate member with 5% of one horse should enjoy the same on course privileges as a sole owner. But what about the syndicate member who owns 10% of ten horses or an individual who owns a leg in four horses?

The sensible way forward is for all the % shares of each owner to be aggregated and for the resultant data to drive a multi-tiered/ segmented ownership hierarchy. For example , Platinum for those owners with the % equivalent of five horses or more, Gold for those with 100% or more, Silver for those with 50% or more and Bronze for the rest. Racecourses could determine which level of ownership status would gain access to Owners & Trainers facilities on certain days. For instance, with an ordinary midweek meeting the racecourse might grant access to all ownership levels but a big Saturday meeting might allow just Platinum and Gold. Indeed, such status levels could increase ownership by encouraging owners to buy extra shares so they could get to the next level.

But there is a huge problem.

Racing cannot set sensible thresholds for ownership status because it doesn’t currently know what thousands of its owners actually own. There are around 35,000 owners in the UK but only 14,000 are registered and even being registered only provides a partial picture of what an owner actually contributes to the sport. I’m involved in 19 horses but am the registered owner of just one of them. The sport doesn’t know what I own in total. I’ve been a member of the ROA for five years but they haven’t a clue either. I know scores of other owners who are investing £50k+ a year in the sport yet don’t appear on it’s radar. So taking the simplistic but ultimately flawed option of tiering ownership on a sole owners v the rest approach could cause British Racing to lose large numbers of owners who invest substantially in the sport.

The answer is simple. Every owner and every share they own, no matter how small, MUST be registered. This would reassure owners that they actually own what they think they own and would enable the sport to finally understand its ownership base. Then, and only then, could it introduce a tiered ownership approach safe in the knowledge that it understands the value of every individual owner. The inevitable complaints about extra bureaucracy and administration should be ignored because the prize for the sport is so much greater.

Ownership Strategy: What Do You Think Of It So Far? – Rubbish

In the last couple of weeks I’ve spoken to almost as many journalists as I’ve had bottles of champagne to celebrate winners – and I’ve had a few! A number of articles have come out already, in the Daily Telegraph, The Guardian, and the Racing Post. The theme is the Ownership Strategy, or rather, its absence, despite the sudden release of almost 200 pages by the ROA on 3rd November – not a bad day to bury voluminous information, as it was the US Presidential election and two days before lockdown.

Incredibly, the biggest document, an 166-page slide pack, was produced in 2017, so why on earth it has not been publicly released before is beyond me. The Horsemen’s Group are passionate about transparency but not, apparently, when it comes to their own discussions and decision-making. This document passes the first part of my “half-life test” for British Racing decision-making, i.e. three years to produce a report, followed by three years to bury it. I could not help but quote Eric Morecambe! They are beautiful documents from a design standpoint but “rubbish” from a strategic perspective. Here’s why:

  1. Is there a strategy? The greatest academic in strategy in the world is Professor Richard Rummelt of the University of Southern California. He describes most strategies as “garbage”, long “laundry lists”, “statements of desire” that avoid dealing with the small number of difficult, complex, critical issues; peppered with a huge number of “f” words – “fluff” and “flannel”. All the ROA documentation confirms is that they have not produced a strategy, despite being paid £1.2m to do so.
  2. Is it an Industry-wide Ownership Strategy? No. Somewhere along the line from 2017 it has morphed into what, in effect, is an ROA membership drive. I have no problems with the ROA trying to attract more members, but they were given the task of finding out ways of retaining and attracting owners to the sport, which is not the same thing.
  3. Is it capable of being implemented? As there is absolutely no plan of campaign, no road map, no targets or deliverables, no resource plan or funding model, you quickly conclude that the answer is “no”.
  4. Has the so-called “strategy” been scrutinised? There’s no evidence to say that it has. While doubtless a number of individuals are aware of these documents, there has been no challenge process and therefore the ROA has not been held to account. Indeed, and going somewhat further, if you asked the board members of the ROA under oath about their sight and scrutiny of these documents, I believe that some would confirm that they weren’t aware of them until 3rd November. A board is there to hold the chairman and chief executive officer to account, and there seems to have been a serious breach of governance here.
  5. Is the industry engaged? No. Indeed, if you ask anyone, in any position (outside the ROA, of course) in British Racing whether they understand or are committed to the ROA’s ownership strategy, they will come out with an identical response: “What is it? I haven’t seen it.” In a sport as territorial as racing, it takes some doing to produce such unity.
  6. Has racing and the Levy Board received good value for money? It most definitely hasn’t. This is one of the most worrying features of the investment made, and one that the Keep Owners in Racing team intend to raise with the chair of the BHA, Annamarie Phelps, later in the week. If it’s not a scandal, it’s certainly a fiasco. We will also be pressing for a change of leadership of the ROA.

Back to Eric Morecambe. Did you know that his real name was Eric Bartholomew? Although he was born in Morecambe. That’s you now primed for quiz night for whenever we’re allowed back into pubs again. Do stay safe and well throughout the next lockdown period.

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 November 2020

Sole Leadership of an Industry-Wide Ownership Strategy Needs to be Taken Away from the Racehorse Owners Association

Regular readers of this blog and also the one on www.keepownersinracing.com will know that there has been a critical need for an industry-wide ownership strategy, structured in a way that incentivises and motivates owners to remain in the sport, while attracting new ones. Back in 2017, it was agreed by racing’s leadership that this strategy would be developed by the Racehorse Owners Association, but with collaborative work groups linking together all the important players so that there would be a coherent approach to ownership, and one that would be able to launch major initiatives impacting racecourses, trainers, owner-breeders, syndicators and the whole ownership population. The process that the ROA has pursued, under the leadership of their chief executive Charlie Liverton, has unfortunately been an heroic failure, despite its being funded to the tune of £1.2m by the Horserace Betting Levy Board. Almost no-one in the industry can tell you what the Ownership Strategy actually means, there is no commitment to it (not least because no-one knows what it is) and the strategy process would fail any test of good design. Indeed, the leading academic in this area, Richard Rummelt, of the University of Southern California, describes many strategies as “garbage”, full of “fluff and flannel” and laundry-lists of “statements of desire” with no chance whatsoever of being implemented. He could have been reading the bumf put out by the ROA.

In the most recent blogs on KOIR, we have come to the conclusion that the Ownership Strategy needs to be taken away from Charlie Liverton and handed back to a cross-industry working group of the committed and the competent. We would go even further than that, calling for his replacement. Here are two blogs that convey the argument and the flavour of what we are advocating.

Ownership Strategy, Part 2 – Testing and Tracing the ROA’s Six-Point Covid Plan

What has your reaction been to the last eight months? Frustration on seemingly incoherent and inconsistent policy; irritation at the endless procrastinations and prevarications; anger at constant ineptitude in implementation of initiatives, “too little and too late”; amazement at the fortunes being paid out to armies of management consultants; incredulity at the disarray of high-ranking leaders and their inability to lead; wonderment at the endless TLAs (three-letter acronyms) of bureaucracies and working groups producing ever more confusing and contradictory reports? All compounded by a lack of scrutiny of actions, results and accountabilities. And that’s just the Racehorse Owners Association and their non-existent / inept leadership of an Industry Ownership Strategy that was promised back in 2017 (we’ll pass over your views about Dido Harding and Test and Trace).

You’ll know from the Keep Owners in Racing blogs that we campaigned hard for the release of a meaningful Ownership Strategy. We understand that over £1.2m was invested in it through funds from the Horserace Betting Levy Board. Portas Consultants supported it, and even at bargain basement rates (for consultants) of £1,000 per day, that represents at least five years of effort. It seems reasonable to expect strategic outputs of the highest quality for that investment. Indeed, my co-author Ged Shields has been expecting a “Sistine Chapel of an ownership strategy”, bearing in mind how long it has taken and the cost involved. We’ve been requesting sight of the Ownership Strategy for a long time, and Ged and I joke that its publication has been delayed more times than the latest James Bond movie.

Back on 25th August, when Nick Rust announced the nine goals of his Recovery Plan, it was promised “within weeks”. The lockdown was ordered by the Prime Minister on 23rd March and we’re now 220 days on from that momentous announcement. Finally, on 28th October the ROA released a six-point action plan aimed at retaining owner investment during the ongoing Covid-19 crisis. Dear oh dear! Such a long wait for so little substance. Few meaningful initiatives; a complete absence of reference to the £1m+ funding exercise with Portas; no project management structure to design and implement actions; just lots more words and waffle, rather than solutions.

Reluctantly, we’ve come to the conclusion that it’s time to take the sole leadership of this strategy away from the chronically under-achieving ROA. For the good of the sport, it is absolutely vital that a task force of the committed and capable take charge immediately of the number one priority of retaining owners. As far as the CEO, Charlie Liverton, is concerned – sink him, park him, move him or sack him. Just move this prime blocker away from the strategy and stop the ongoing damage. Put him out of his misery.

We said in Blog 24 that “We’ll be Back”. I don’t think we expected to return quite so quickly. We’re determined to do everything possible to drive significant change in the leadership and governance of the Ownership Strategy. Stay tuned!

What Did the Romans Ever Do For Britain – or the ROA, For That Matter?

One of my favourite sketches from Life of Brian is the one where a bunch of conspirators is being challenged by John Cleese to denounce the Romans. The repeated refrain of “What have the Romans done for us?” is interspersed with a long list including the aqueduct, sanitation, roads, irrigation, medicine, education, health, wine, baths, public order and peace. Not a bad portfolio of benefits; “But apart from that, what have they done for us?”

Being a rather irreverent fellow, I was wondering what conclusions I would come to if I raised the same question about the Racehorse Owners Association. At one level you can regard them almost as a hospitality organisation or members’ club setting up social events, visits and marquees on big racedays where aged members can escape the elements and at least sit down in a little more comfort than is often provided by the racecourses. “But apart from that ….?” They produce the Owner Breeder magazine, offer third party liability insurance cover, discounts on BHA fees, free priority parking at the races, the racecourse admission scheme, owner sponsorship, occasional ROA owners’ jackpots and similar types of benefit.

Quite a good set of offerings, and by focusing on them they have attracted 8,000+ members at an annual sub of a couple of hundred pounds. Their annual turnover in 2019/20 was £2.6m, although they had a deficit of £222k.

“But apart from that ….?” What else do they do? They have certainly been in existence a long time, with three themes over the decades consistently receiving some focus: pressure for better minimum prize-money (hardly a success), trying to establish a credible long-term financial plan for racing (now in tatters), and working for the common good and leaving the factionalism of the past behind it (not sure that has been the case over the last few years, judging by ROA outbursts in the Racing Post).

A central question is whether they are genuinely representative of owners, and whether they have sufficient legitimacy to have taken charge of an Ownership Strategy which has not yet made its appearance despite being funded by £1.5m from the Horserace Betting Levy Board and the Racing Foundation. As we worked through the 100-day Keep Owners in Racing campaign, many of the individuals we’ve interviewed expressed strongly critical views about the endless delays and inadequate involvement in the framing of what should have been a genuinely cross-industry strategy. This has certainly damaged the credibility of the ROA and its leadership.

When Life of Brian was released in late 1979, its satire was deemed to be very controversial – so much so that it was prohibited in countries such as Ireland and Norway. This notoriety was a godsend for marketing, with posters apparently appearing in Sweden that read: “So funny it was banned in Norway”! While the ROA wouldn’t have gone that far, I’m sure they would have preferred it if Keep Owners in Racing had not banged the drum for owners with such tenacity. Never mind, while we’re waiting for the promised land of the Ownership Strategy we can at least whistle along to Look on the Bright Side of Life as ownership numbers and investment start to plummet.

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 October 2020

The Keep Owners in Racing Campaign Enters the Home Straight – No Sign Yet of a Proper Recovery Plan

Since 12th July, when friend and co-owner Ged Shields and I launched our Blueprint, we’ve been working very hard to apply pressure on all the various leadership groups of British racing to come up with a meaningful Racing Recovery Plan that has the right mix of radical initiatives, short-term survival strategies and urgency of action. Unfortunately, over the last month, the crisis in the sport appears to be increasingly heading towards potential catastrophe, not least because of the government’s decision only to allow racing behind closed doors, possibly for the next six months.

We’ve produced lots of blogs (four of the latest are shown below) and films, and had numerous Zoom conference calls. There is still a considerable amount of work to be done as we head into the end of our campaign on Monday 19th October. We’re no longer convinced that the BHA has the authority or credibility to drive this Recovery Plan, and you’ll see that our major recommendation is for a cross-industry task force to be established and take charge. It really is a most worrying time for the sport, and everyone whose livelihood depends on it. At least Ged and I didn’t stand on the sidelines, and we’ve “done our bit” over the last three months.

Have you heard the bells of Peover? All will be revealed.

When Ged Shields and I launched our campaign on 12th July to make the retention and acquisition of owners the number 1 goal of a racing recovery plan, we challenged the industry to produce and implement that plan within 100 days. Fifty days out Nick Rust, CEO of the BHA, announced such a plan but unfortunately the reaction to it has been decidedly muted. While it is encouraging that at least the stakeholders have focused on a number of goals and duly published them, they don’t meet my criteria, as a former management consultant, of an effective and motivating plan of campaign to help the racing industry get back on its feet, bring in significant additional revenue, boost prize-money and do everything possible to keep owners involved in the sport. A plan needs very clear goals and objectives, well-structured and sequenced activities, specific timelines and deliverables, explicit roles, responsibilities and accountabilities and, most importantly, be designed to enthuse everyone connected to the plan so that they are highly motivated to implement it. It should galvanise proactivity with a strong sense of urgency. Anyone in a key position, when asked about a recovery plan, should be able to summarise it clearly and know their own role within it. Sadly this plan doesn’t achieve this (or at least, not yet).

General George S. Patton famously stated that: “A good plan, violently executed now, is better than a perfect plan next week”, or, if applied to racing, next month / quarter / year. There was no misunderstanding Patton’s colourful, and often profane, speeches. The one he made to the Third Army the day before the D-Day landings was immortalised in the film, Patton, starring George C. Scott, which won seven Oscars. Patton favoured strong, decisive action and commanding from the front. He wouldn’t have had much time for the wishy-washy, weasel words of racing’s leadership. Mind you, I don’t know if we need quite the level of exhortation that Patton is most famous for in his comment that: “No bastard ever won a war by dying for his country. He won it by making the other poor, dumb bastard die for his country.” Powerful stuff!

Long before my career led into consultancy, I lived up in Cheshire, not too far from Knutsford and Alderley Edge. One of my favourite pubs was The Bells of Peover, next door to a church. Many years before that, Dwight D. Eisenhower and Patton used to relax there in the evenings while masterminding the Normandy invasion. Maybe I should invite the top brass of the BHA to a planning meeting in this historic setting?

Owners – Our Sport Needs You! But Where Are the Incentives?
In the most recent Perspectives in Racing film, I became a bit carried away towards the end with the military theme that I had woven into Blog 11. This time it was to do with Lord Kitchener and the iconic and most enduring poster and finger-pointing of World War I. This hugely influential image – “Lord Kitchener Needs You” – depicted him as the Secretary of State for War, wearing the cap of a British Field Marshal. Over the decades since, it has inspired numerous imitations (and more than a few parodies).

When we published the Blueprint on 12th July, we emphasised to racing’s leadership that it was vital to do everything possible throughout Q3 / Q4 2020 to encourage owners to remain in the sport. In particular we felt that, as the main sales season progressed through to its culmination in the Tattersalls Yearling Sales at Newmarket, there would be a clear indication of the readiness of owners to reinvest, and so far they appear to be cutting back by 25%+ apart from at the very top. This is exceptionally worrying and we fear that it will deteriorate further.

In any other industry, serious attempts would be made to retain customers through various types of incentive. Any chief executive knows that it is far easier to retain customers than to acquire new ones. With owners we are talking about customers that spend £527m annually, and with the contraction that has already started, we forecast an immediate financial loss to racing of £124m but with the multiplier effect of 1:7 that means, in turn, a significantly more damaging £868m.

So where are the incentives? Has any owner received any communication from any racing body to encourage them to remain in the sport? Are you aware of reductions on any fees or charges? Does racing have a plan to reduce costs and reinvest the savings with owners? Are stallion masters going to reduce significantly the stallion fees? Are sales houses going to slash their charges? Are trainers and racecourses trying to provide any additional benefits to compensate for a sub-par raceday experience? If you are aware of any initiatives such as these, do please let me know. Unfortunately I’m not expecting too many emails.

So who will be the modern Kitchener to recruit and retain the next generation of owners? Somehow I’m not convinced on the evidence of the announcement of the Recovery Plan that Nick Rust, in his natty blue suit, is going to put fire in the belly of the ownership army. Bring on the new generals!

The Three Pillars – Not the EU or Zen Buddhism, but Our Critical Priorities for British Racing
Sean Boyce kindly invited me to take part in The Racing Debate on Sky Sports Racing last Sunday, and I concentrated on the need for an urgent focus by British Racing on three critical priorities, together with a task force based change model comprising industry leaders and influencers rather than bureaucrats. The KOIR campaign is designed to keep pressure on racing’s leadership to adopt a series of radical initiatives capable of transforming the sport’s funding in a way that makes it sustainable. Increasingly we believe a stretch goal of £250m+ p.a. of incremental revenue through a five-stream funding model should be driving the recovery plan. It also has to secure short-term financial support for the industry together with meaningful incentives for owners to stay in the sport. Finally, it is vital to persuade government and local public health officials of the need for owners and racegoers to be brought back on to the racecourse as quickly as possible through pragmatic solutions balancing economic need with public safety.

The £250m+ can be delivered through five initiatives: Levy development, phase 2 (£70m); betting innovation and international pool gambling (£100m); expansion of shared ownership (£50m); leveraging racing’s assets more effectively (£20m); and media rights pooling (TBD). In addition racing should set a £50m cost reduction target. Metrics such as these are vital to drive action, prioritisation of resources and ultimately accountability. Precisely who is responsible for the success of these initiatives?

Interestingly, when I came off the TV programme I saw in the Racing Post that both John Gosden and Mark Johnston had been similarly forceful. On Levy development, John commented: “We cannot let this drift. We don’t have six months to start floating about and having committee meetings and chitting and chatting, we need to get our heads together.” Mark, as he did in our Perspectives film, emphasised: “At the end of the day, owners accept that they are racing for poor returns in Britain, but when it gets so low and they are not getting pleasure going racing, the concern is it will focus their minds on what it is costing them.”

We’ve started to refer to the framework as “the three pillars”. You may know that the phrase has been much used, not least by the EU as it was their guiding legal framework adopted after the Treaty of Maastricht. Three columns also underpin Zen Buddhism and its view of the Tree of Life. That is not a bad metaphor to guide racing’s future.

Oliver Twist Asked for More – The Begging Bowl Comes Out Again for Sport and British Racing
There have been a number of metaphors recently about British Racing, the Recovery Plan and the funding crisis, and doubtless there will be many more over subsequent weeks. Take your pick from rudderless ships, the Titanic heading towards icebergs, baking larger pies, splitting bigger cakes and now it’s time for the magic money tree and the begging bowl. With the Prime Minister’s announcement this week of more pandemic restrictions and the disappointing news that there is a distinct possibility of no racegoers returning to British racecourses for six months, it really feels as though we’re sinking deeper into crisis. Indeed, increasingly, our view is that the Recovery Plan now has three elements within it: survival, rebuilding and then growth.

Only last weekend, during a discussion on Sky Sports Racing’s Debate, I argued that one of the three critical priorities for British racing was to bring racegoers and owners back on to the racecourses in significant numbers as soon as possible in order to stem the huge losses of income for the tracks, estimated at £300m. It is said that a week is a long time in politics, but my exhortation barely survived four days. Clearly it is a major blow, not least because such a considerable percentage of racecourse income derives from spectators and non-racing social gatherings. It is certainly at least 50% and, for some of the larger tracks, as high as 70%, which is four times greater than for a stadium sport such as football. This loss unfortunately will have a considerable knock-on effect on prize-money.

When Ged Shields and I ran a Zoom forum with MPs, we encouraged them to examine racing through the prism of a business sector making a £4bn contribution to the British economy, direct / indirect employment in excess of 80,000 jobs and a considerable ecosystem of small and medium-sized enterprises dependent on it. They responded positively and were sympathetic to supporting our sport. Following Rishi Sunak’s announcements yesterday of a new job support scheme, and the ongoing discussions that have been taking place between various sports bodies, including racing, and DCMS, it is most important that the case for additional funding for racing is positioned as part of a broader initiative led by the £250m+ of self-help projects that we have been advocating for the past month. Furthermore, rather than racing doing an Oliver Twist and asking for more on its own, it would be more effective to link closely with these bodies and to lobby government for emergency support over the next six months on a united basis.

I had to study a number of texts of Charles Dickens at school. I disliked his maudlin sentimentality and found it heavy going. Maybe I should go back and re-read Oliver Twist ….. and definitely another volume more relevant for racing, Hard Times.

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 September 2020

Half Way in the 100-Day Campaign and we Already have a Result – BHA Announces a Recovery of Racing Plan …. But There is Still a Chasm to Cross

On 12th July, Ged Shields and I launched our Blueprint for Racehorse Ownership in the UK: Making retention and acquisition of owners the number 1 goal of a racing recovery plan, and since then we’ve been lobbying all the key stakeholders across the sport to design, launch and implement one. An enormous amount of time has been spent on Zoom conference calls as well as successfully launching a micro web site, www.keepownersinracing.com, where we’re building up a bank of Zoom videos and blogs in pursuit of our cause. The whole motivation is to encourage the top table of racing to work collaboratively and kick on with urgency to launch major initiatives designed to retain owners in the sport. At the heart of that is a requirement for substantially improved funding of the sport, not least to boost prize-money and radical reform to capitalise on the opportunity presented by the pandemic. A major milestone was reached on 25th August when Nick Rust, the outgoing CEO of the BHA, announced the launch of a Recovery Plan. While this was an encouraging step forward, there is still a huge amount of work to be done and, indeed, many owners and pundits, such as the Racing Post, were less than complimentary because it seemed to be more a “plan for a plan” rather than a robust set of initiatives and actions. We’ll doubtless see the evolution of the plan through the autumn.

If you haven’t already done so, please sign up on www.keepownersinracing.com and you’ll receive all the blogs before they are publicly released. Here are four from the collection that clearly show where Ged and I are coming from.


At the heart of our Campaign to Keep Owners in Racing we have advocated a strongly collaborative approach to be adopted by all the leaders of British racing. Maintaining unity and common purpose is vital, but poses a considerable challenge. Racing has never been more fractured; vested interests and protectionism prevail; trust and transparency are noticeable by their absence; frustrations are building rapidly and threaten to blow strained relationships apart. The very last thing that racing needs after the damage already done by the pandemic is a self-inflicted wound of its own creation.

You only have to consider TLAs – the curse of three-letter acronyms – to understand the cat’s cradle complexity of our sport: BHA, RCA, THG, ROA, (HR)BLB, NTF, GBR, JCR, ARC, TBA, ABB, TRF, RSA, PJA. Corralling this lot is a complete nightmare and raises the question of whether it is even achievable, and whether racing needs fundamental restructuring of its governance: which we will revisit in the blog soon.

In the immediate future, Q3 / Q4 2020, our recommendation is for top leaders in the sport to produce a one-page Pledge summarising the way forward for British Racing, a statement on required collaboration and ten key actions, which all stakeholders must sign up to. Such a pledge provides much-needed vision and focus, and will be a real spur to leadership endeavour. The actions must be bold enough to enable our sport to recover from the crisis. We fear that many owners are already leaving the sport, or planning to do so, and this will cause real damage. Our call to arms is for a Racing Recovery Plan – RRP. Let’s get on with it – PDQ.


Our 100-day campaign to apply pressure on British Racing to develop a highly practical Recovery of Racing Plan broadly coincides with the first 100 days in office of the new Chairman of the Horsemen’s Group and President of the Racehorse Owners Association, Charlie Parker. Without any doubt he has the hottest seat in the sport, and we wish him well. What he achieves (or doesn’t) during Q3 / Q4, particularly on media rights transparency and apportionment, will have a huge impact on racing and ownership.

All roads, inevitably, lead back to the dire, unsustainable state of racing’s finances and the urgent need for cross-industry agreement on the most effective ways of harnessing new income streams. Without that, we all flounder. Mark Johnston, in our Perspectives in Racing film, argues that applying sticking-plaster to the problem has minimal impact and that we now need to be coming up with financial initiatives that “cross the gaping chasm”.

We believe that there is a need to generate £200m+ of annual income and that there are three principal ways of achieving that goal. Firstly, work with government at ministerial level on a second round of Levy development and reform. That was on the table in 2018 and some of racing’s leadership, for whatever reason, made a disastrous decision not to pursue it. Secondly, devise a much fairer revenue-sharing deal with the racecourses on media rights by the end of this year and then extend it into a much stronger media pooling operation. Thirdly, develop a betting strategy that targets the global gambling market through betting innovation and Tote co-mingling with other countries. And, of course, do everything possible to retain owners with the promise of more prize-money.

There is no shortage of income to be picked up – as we say, “Money, money, money”. Racing’s leadership needs to stop falling out over dividing cakes and get on with producing a radical new funding plan that bakes an altogether bigger and different one.


British racing is a big industry, and at the top tier of the sport a considerable amount of money can be made. In the Blueprint we examined the profitability of all the stakeholders. In 2019, the aggregate of the top five yearling sales in England, France and Ireland made £250m for their consignors. The annual income earned from the top stallions at Coolmore, Godolphin and Juddmonte exceeded £200m. Despite all the aggressive noises being made by certain Flat trainers, the top 20 trainers in the UK make significantly more profit than the bottom 20 racecourses. It would be easy to conclude, perhaps unfairly, that the most vociferous members of the training community wish to maximise their returns even further. The platinum layer of the sport is being run by the few, for the few, with an over-concentration of income in the hands of those who don’t just make significant money every week of the year but also sit astride the downstream value chain that accrues from breeding rights.

How different it is at the bottom of the pyramid. The grass roots of our sport cover the vast majority of trainers, breeders, owners and horses. If the financial returns were terrible pre-pandemic, then they are nothing short of catastrophic now and the situation is only going to get worse. The majority of trainers and breeders are either technically insolvent or teetering on the edge of it unless they have other sources of income, and of course the vast majority of owners whose horses are running primarily at classes 4, 5 or 6 are losing on average 93p in the £ every year, with the returns not even covering the raceday costs of getting horses to the track.

These owners are spending £527m a year, to lose a collective £428m. If our forecast is correct, there will be a 20% contraction in the owner base over the next five years, which will lead to an immediate loss of £124m. But the far bigger damage is the 1:7 multiplier that leads to a much greater financial hit of £868m as the ownership contraction ripples through bloodstock, levy yield, media rights, racecourse attendance and the whole ecosystem of suppliers connected to training and racing.

Racing ignores the grass roots at its peril. This is where the contraction will be most felt, and hit hardest. We implore the leadership of the sport to produce, with urgency, a Racing Recovery Plan. Without that, the pyramid crumbles.


In the 1890s, Punch magazine ran a series of cartoons about a timid curate eating breakfast with his bishop. On being told by the bishop that he seemed to have a bad egg, the curate piped up: “Oh no, my lord, I assure you! Parts of it are excellent!” Seems an appropriate comment for British racing’s recovery plan, which made its appearance on Tuesday 25th August.

When we launched the blueprint in mid-July we challenged the top table of racing to produce a post-pandemic recovery plan, with retention and acquisition of owners as its #1 goal. Behaviourally we wanted the stakeholders to work collaboratively, proactively and urgently on it; analytically they needed to create a comprehensive, wide-ranging, multi-faceted plan of action with two clear phases of immediate initiatives in Q3-Q4 2020, and then longer-term, more transformational change in 2021-2025; and most importantly, it had to be operationally deliverable through practical, robust, well-defined projects. It couldn’t just be about papering over the cracks – there is a chasm to cross, because the only way in which British racing can be properly sustainable is through securing at least £250m of additional income while fundamentally reforming the sport. The pandemic presents a one-off opportunity to reimagine the future and embrace the “next normal”.

That the key stakeholders, within 50 days of our challenge, have produced a recovery plan is commendable and we applaud their efforts. However, rather than a set of very practical actions, Nick Rust, outgoing CEO of the BHA, launched nine broad goals, which unfortunately disappointed a lot of owners and certainly the pundits of the Racing Post, the editor Tom Kerr being quite caustic in his comment that: “as with Coronavirus itself it is not the diagnosis but the cure that is of utmost significance. For that, the wait continues.” To be fair to the stakeholders, while the nine goals seem to be “a plan for a plan”, there will doubtless be more specific recommendations for action soon – not least the publication of the long-awaited Ownership Strategy, under development since 2017. It had better be good!

We will scrutinise these ongoing developments and fervently hope that we don’t have to echo Punch, in the final issue in 1992 before it went under, when the cartoon was updated with a considerably more emboldened curate, who replied to the bishop: “This f***ing egg’s bad!” For racing’s sake, it can’t 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.

Saturday 1 August 2020

Join the Hundred-Day Campaign and Make the Racing Industry Produce, Publish and Implement a Racing Recovery Plan to Retain Owners in the Sport

Please download the Blueprint
for a Racing Recovery Plan
One of the few plus-points of lockdown was that it gave a friend and owner, Ged Shields, and me time to research and write A Blueprint for Racehorse Ownership in the UK: Making retention and acquisition of owners the number 1 goal of a Racing Recovery Plan. It was launched in the Racing Post on 12th July and is now being driven forward by a campaign with a web site, video interviews, blogs and social media. Full details are on www.keepownersinracing.com and @keepownersinra1. This was our launch press release:

Please join the campaign and encourage
friends to do so as well
A hard rain is about to fall on our sport from the economic storm, triggered by the pandemic, and will continue for several years. It will rip through the weakest parts of the racing pyramid and sink without trace many trainers, breeders, owners, syndicators, betting shops and some racecourses. The pandemic is acting as a kind of “time machine” rushing racing’s outmoded business models to the end phase of a process that was always likely to happen.

Many staff will lose their jobs and equine welfare challenges increase as racehorses are retired, sold or “moved on”. No part of the industry will go untouched and the only question to be answered, in time, is the scale of contraction.

Why are we so depressingly confident in this assertion? Since the Resumption of Racing on 1st June we have spent five weeks researching the sport’s economic map and the financial interconnections of the supply chain from breeders to bookmakers. We’ve reflected on our own investment in the sport and the way we are currently being treated. We have been committed owners since 2004 with 132 winners so far and a current involvement in 39 horses covering everything from Flat to jumps, sole ownership to syndicates and foals to veterans. We use ten trainers across the country and ownership is by far the major drain on our discretionary expenditure. We will inevitably be part of the contraction that is coming but will do everything possible to mitigate its impact.

How far we personally retrench will be determined by how well racing’s leadership handles the next phase of the crisis and whether they are prepared to drive through a number of long overdue changes to the sport. We’ve highlighted our own Agenda for Action, as a blueprint for racing recovery, containing five strategies and twenty specific recommendations reflecting our data-driven analysis of the sport. It can be downloaded from the www.keepownersinracing.com home page.

Why did we produce it? Because of our deepening concern that the post-pandemic economic impact, racing’s tendency for stakeholders to fall out and fight each other rather than focus on the task ahead and the frustration of owners at how they are treated will lead to a significant contraction in ownership with a hugely damaging impact on the industry.

Encouragingly, we were impressed by the 100-day stakeholder truce and the collaborative approach adopted by the Resumption of Racing Work Group before normal hostilities returned. Huge changes to the pattern, fixture list, prize-money allocation and safety procedures were adopted. We applaud their efforts and feel it is vital that racing extends this endeavour to a new Recovery of Racing Group focused on the retention and acquisition of owners as the top priority. They should consider carefully our Blueprint’s headline messages:
  1. Learn from the last financial crisis: without a Recovery of Racing Plan, contraction in ownership and horses in training will be far worse than after 2008 / 09 when there was a straight decline in numbers for seven years. We predict a loss of 20% of owners (2,244) and 15% of horses (3,531): an immediate financial impact of £124m.
  2. The damage is done by the multiplier: for every £1 spent by owners, £7 is generated across the industry for bookmakers, breeders, sales houses, trainers and racecourses. This multiplier amplifies the £124m loss to racing to a significantly more damaging £868m.
  3. Owners bankroll the sport: in 2019 / 20 they spent £527m on training fees and lost a collective £428m. This excludes the £145m spent (and mostly lost) on bloodstock (excluding Horses in Training sales). For every pound spent on training fees the median return was 8p on the Flat and 6p for National Hunt. It will be even worse in 2020 as prize-money declines further. This is unsustainable and increasingly drives owners out of the sport.
  4. The trend is not racing’s friend: racing faces strong headwinds this decade due to economic contraction, owner demographics and the need to rebuild personal and company balance sheets. The average age of owners is over 60 with substantial numbers over 70. Most are extremely concerned about Covid-19 and wary of going racing. This inhibits further any desire to continue investing in racehorses.
  5. Be radical in response: racing needs a recovery plan that retains and attracts owners as the prime goal for the next five years. There is no time to lose. Racing can address this in one of two ways. Option one is to deny the scale of the challenge, massively underestimate its impact, muddle through with divided leadership, claim that it is already doing things and avoid making difficult decisions, keeping fingers crossed and hoping the “old normal” returns soon. It won’t. Option two is to embrace radical change, form a coalition of all the stakeholders and drive forward wide-ranging responses that create the “next normal”. We urge British Racing to adopt option two. It is not short of the talent to do this, but they tend to operate in isolation and seem focused on narrow stakeholder interests that are often in competition with the others.
Stakeholders need to come together, put their disputed issues on the table and find sufficient common ground to implement the necessary initiatives, such as those outlined in this Blueprint. We have made our “call to arms” and now challenge the industry to develop and communicate a Recovery of Racing Plan within the next 100 days.

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 July 2020

Do You See the Racing and Ownership Cup as Half Full or Half Empty Post-Lockdown? More Storm Clouds are Building and we Desperately Need a Racing Recovery Plan

Did Royal Ascot work for you? I doubt if there’s ever been a stranger race meeting there since 1711, but full marks to everyone involved in staging the meeting behind closed doors, and there were certainly lots of innovations to keep everyone engaged and (relatively) amused. Of course, there was no Queen, no royal procession, no fancy hats or frocks (so no dress codes), no overseas jockeys, no owners and no bookmakers. There were a few trainers present, who privately were probably thinking that this was ideal racing with no pesky owners to cause problems and a completely uninterrupted focus on their steeds. They may well have bemoaned the slashing of prize-money that was halved to a total of £3.7m, spread over 36 races and the five days of the meeting, but it’s definitely worth emphasising that this huge reduction in pots had zero impact on the quality of horses that raced across Ascot Heath, nor on the total number of entries or runners. It was very much “business as usual” – if you can say that about the bizarre world of lockdown racing.

The TV channels tried ever so hard to make the meeting engaging for owners and racing fans at home, as did Ascot itself. There were virtual racecards, 360 degree parade-ring cameras, Zoom interviews with owners at home, racing tips aplenty, recipes and cocktail recommendations for drinks such as Absolut Passion, colouring pages (???) and even virtual singing around the bandstand. It was encouraging that ITV was rewarded with its highest viewing figures for terrestrial TV since 2012, with an average for its 20 hours of broadcasting of 1.2 million viewers, and they had even more than that to watch Stradivarius romp home in the Gold Cup. What a fabulous horse he is – and I’m hoping that one day Scented Lily, the broodmare we own with friends and who is currently in foal to Getaway, will have a date with this superstar.

Unfortunately though, half-way through the month, normal hostilities were resumed again between the Horsemen’s Group and the Racecourse Association over the vexed subject of prize-money – or rather, the lack of executive contribution by some racecourses towards prize-money since racing resumed on 1st June. The collaborative spirit of the Resumption of Racing Group that so impressed us all will struggle to survive threats of legal action and accusations of anti-competitive collusion by horsemen against the tracks. This breakdown in working relations is one of the reasons that I fear storm clouds are building, as it will be absolutely vital that from today onwards – National Hunt has finally resumed – the Resumption of Racing Group is transformed into a Recovery of Racing Group to address the inevitable contraction of ownership that is coming, and the huge knock-on effect of that across the whole industry.

Why is my cup half-empty? Back in 2016 the BHA and ROA commissioned an excellent National Racehorse Owners Survey from a specialist sports consultancy, Two Circles. I reported on their findings in this blog on 15th August and 1st September that year. Their analysis and findings were well presented, and although they didn’t frame them in the way that I am about to do, I certainly agreed with their conclusions.

At university, where I studied social psychology, I was impressed by the concept of “expectation theory” to explain the motivation of individuals. Sociologists and psychologists never make anything simple, of course, but the basic concept was that each individual has a complex set of their own expectations, and whether these are or are not met directly influences their motivation to do something. It is also a two-factor theory, which means that the factors that prompt you to do something are not necessarily the same as those that might dissuade you. Anyway, I applied that approach to ownership and, as you can see in the diagram, I concluded that the factors that bring owners into the sport are to do with the emotional return that they receive on their ownership (excitement, glamour, status, close contact with their beautiful horse etc.), whereas those that drive them out are directly connected with poor financial return (bad prize-money, high costs, irritating fees and charges etc.) I was hoping that after 2016, racing’s leadership would develop a whole set of strategies to boost owner acquisition (bringing new owners and their money into the sport), together with another set to foster owner retention (reducing the churn rate of owners). I was tolerant about the relative lack of action, and then encouraged again in 2018 when the ROA announced that they were leading the development and implementation of a new Ownership Strategy. After three years without sight of it, my tolerance is just about exhausted. Does anyone know where it is, what it says, what it is designed to achieve and how it will be implemented?

If you look over your shoulder, though, all you can see o4n the ownership front is storm clouds. When racing resumed on 1st June, it was clumsily stated that owners would not be able to go racing as they were not deemed to be “essential”. That was terribly received. Owners are funding the sport and, using my two-factor model, the emotional return has been massively reduced (as until recently they could neither see their horses in the stables nor go racing) while the financial return has similarly contracted (with reduced prize-money, not least because of the reluctance of racecourses to make their executive contribution). Owner frustration has certainly increased, and this has been acknowledged by the BHA, ROA and RCA. Indeed, as I write this blog I’ve just seen a letter from the chief executive of the ROA, Charlie Liverton, explaining that “Owners contribute so much to the sport and it has been frustrating not to be on the track to see their horses run. Their patience and loyalty have been very much appreciated during this challenging period.” Much appreciated, Mr. Liverton, and I look forward to hearing what racing is now going to do, going forward, to persuade me and co-owners to expand our involvement in the sport, or as a minimum, maintain it at current levels.

Without that, racing is heading for deep trouble. In the period after the last financial crisis of 2008/09, owners and horses in training declined in a straight line for seven years. Is there any reason why this won’t happen again? Actually, and filling the cup to the brim, I believe that a Recovery of Racing Group could implement a set of initiatives to have a hugely beneficial impact on racing and ownership, and significantly mitigate this contraction. Such is the level of enthusiasm for this approach that I’ve persuaded a friend and fellow owner, Ged Shields, to work with me on the development of a blueprint for a recovery programme. We intend to release it after the Derby, and it will be detailed in the next blog.

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 June 2020

“Under Starter’s Orders … and We’re Off” (Hopefully). Racing Resumes and Everyone is Thrilled, but Now the Real Challenges Begin for British Racing.

Today racing is highly likely to get under way again at Newcastle, and it will be the first race meeting since the sport was closed down after 17th March. Once the seriousness of the pandemic is over, there will probably be a racing quiz question to name the final horse to win before lockdown – it came from the yard of one of our trainers, Charlie Longsdon, and was Glencassley, a 5yo in a Class 5 bumper, ridden by Aidan Coleman, and winning the princely sum of £2,599.20. Rarely will a Class 6 mile handicap at Newcastle have received so much attention, and doubtless huge viewing figures and betting investments. May everything go smoothly and safely.

British Racing has not had a particularly good reputation in the past for burying its differences, collaborating and co-operating, but the Resumption of Racing Group led by the BHA has excelled over the last few months and the way in which they have tackled the complexities and challenges of getting racing back on the road has been exemplary. Multiple work streams were launched, tasks prioritised and allocated to lead individuals and then the highly detailed race planning, reprogramming and creation of safety protocols were addressed in a thoroughly professional and robust manner. Everyone in the sport should take their hats off to the “Gang of Four”, namely Brant Dunshea, Chief Regulatory Officer; Dr. Jerry Hill, Chief Medical Adviser; Ruth Quinn, Director of International Racing and Racing Development; and Richard Wayman, Chief Operating Officer, for all their hard work while managing successfully to keep the stakeholders on board and the government supportive of racing’s resumption, albeit behind closed doors. More radical change has been driven forward over this couple of months of crisis than would have been achieved in years under a less collaborative way of working.

There are many messages to take out of this period, and a key learning is for racing to continue with this collaborative and far more proactive style of working … not least because the really hard work now has to commence. The implementation of the Resumption of Racing Plan doesn’t mark the end of the activity, but the beginning of the far more complex Recovery of Racing Plan. There is a huge challenge for the sport over the next few years as it is inevitable that there will be contraction in ownership ranks, racecourse attendances, trainers, stable staff and all the other participants in “racing’s ecosystem”. The unfortunate parallel I believe is to look at the impact of the financial crisis in 2008 / 2009. In the following six years there was a straight decline every year in the number of owners and horses in training. In total 17% of owners quit the sport and the horse population contracted by 11%. The bloodstock industry almost collapsed, with the middle and lower market horses almost impossible to sell. The financial impact of this on the whole sport was huge and ran into many millions of pounds of lost investment. Why should it be any different after the pandemic crisis? The global economy may have been pumped up with liquidity, but two recent quotations show the crisis that is coming. “We are likely to face a severe recession, the likes of which we haven’t seen … it’s not obvious there will be an immediate economic bounce-back”, Rishi Sunak, Chancellor. Sir Howard Davies, Chairman of RBS, said: “Three or four weeks ago, the assumption was that there was a pent-up economy desperate to get out. All it needed was the government to say, ‘the water’s not too cold’, and we’d jump back in. Now we’re realising there are all kinds of friction points, which means a V-shaped recovery is much less plausible. The recovery is going to be very slow.”

A fundamental question therefore for our sport is whether there is any consideration at all even being given at the moment to a Recovery of Racing Plan. An immediate short-term plan is essential if owners are to be motivated to remain in the sport and invest in future racehorses. It is only too easy to imagine many owners deciding to suspend or terminate their commitment to invest, and the results of the sales season will confirm or disprove that statement. My challenge would be for the industry to start the first phase of a plan from 1st June to the final day of Tattersalls Book 4 Yearling Sale on 17th October. What should be done in that 139 days? Once racing is through that period, it then needs to drill down into a three-year Recovery and Growth Plan. Sorry to sound so pessimistic but without this, I believe a very serious economic crisis lies ahead for the sport.

Very encouragingly, the seeds of recovery can be found in the way of working of the Resumption of Racing Group. The whole race programme, fixture list and rescheduling of the Classics has been a huge undertaking and achieved, successfully, in less than ten weeks. it is not an over-statement to say that in normal times this wouldn’t have occurred in ten years. That sort of radical change needs to become the keynote for the recovery plan. Another example – something that Owners for Owners has been proposing for ages – is the need to rebalance prize-money from the top tier of the sport to the grass roots. Faced with a considerable reduction in prize-money and levy funding due to the negative impact on racing income of racing behind closed doors, reduced fixtures and lost media rights, it was inevitable that prize-money would have to be slashed, but rather than spread the pain equally the BHA has done everything possible to support the grass-roots. The pain is being felt most at the top of the sport, as the chart below for Flat prize-money clearly shows. 84% of all horses in training on the Flat race at Class 4 or below, with 46% of the horse population at Class 6 level where the drama and clamour of the sport is hardly evident. This realignment of prize-money ought to be a permanent feature and be one pillar of the recovery plan.

Minimum Prize Values Introduced from 1st June 2020

Class 2-year-old 3-year-old-plus
Old Minimum Value New Minimum Value % Old Minimum Value New Minimum Value %
1(G1) £ 150,000 £  75,000 50% £  200,00 £  100,000 50%
1(G1) £  65,000 £  37,000 57% £   90,000 £    52,000 58%
1(G3) £  40,000 £  25,500 64% £   60,000 £    37,000 62%
1(Lstd) £  25,500 £  17,500 69% £   37,000 £    25,500 69%
2(H) £         - £         -
£   45,000 £    40,000 89%
2 £  14,000 £  11,500 82% £   19,000 £    15,000 79%
3 £  10,000 £   9,000 90% £   11,500 £    10,400 90%
4* £    6,100 £   6,100 100% £     7,250 £      7,250 100%
5* £    4,500 £   5,400 120% £     4,500 £      5,400 120%
6* £    3,500 £   4,300 123% £     3,500 £      4,300 123%

The ownership experience from June onwards is likely to be critical in owner retention. Unfortunately at the moment owners are unable to attend racecourses and see their horses in action, frustrated at the difficulties of actually getting horses into races with huge entries, forbidden to attend social gatherings with fellow owners and restricted by trainers from access to yards while having to follow all the required social distancing measures. The bottom line is that the bills remain the same, but the ownership experience is significantly curtailed. That is the demotivating reality that confronts the owners of racehorses. It is absolutely vital in the short term 139-day plan that racing, and particularly racecourses and trainers, come up with compensatory benefits to ensure that owners remain sufficiently motivated and connected to the sport to continue in it. This will be the subject of the next blog, by which time it is to be hoped that some encouraging initiatives will be under way.

On a purely personal note, my wife and I have actually enjoyed the “staycation” of lockdown. There has been no rushing around the country and our mileage has never been lower. We’ve stayed well and healthy, with daily exercise burning off the calories from some fine wine tasting. The garden has never looked better. Finally, we’re lucky that some of our trainers have gone into overdrive on communication and there have been some magnificent photos and videos in circulation. Particularly well done to Martin Keighley in this regard as his videos are a work of art. Definitely a key part of keeping owners motivated, engaged and connected to the sport.

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 May 2020

Coming Out of Lockdown – The Resumption of Racing Appears to be Getting Nearer

Has anyone experienced an April like the one we’ve just been through? I was uncertain whether to start this blog with a small number of personal reflections, or to concentrate on the gravity of the situation and the grim news that we have all been encountering – lighter news prevailed, before the sombre.

NHS rainbow sheep, Mayfair Rock’s filly foal, Luttrell Lad loving his grub, A new form of G&T, Life’s too short for bad wine
We’ll all have our own personal memories of the crisis, and for me they will be triggered in future years by the five photographs. Without any doubt (subject of course to disasters!) I’m going to come out of the lockdown in a far healthier state than when I went into it. My wife and I are having an hour’s walk around the Cotswold hills every day, and the trudge back to our house is quite steep. We’ve both enjoyed watching the newborn lambs, and our local farmer amused the village by painting “NHS” on the heaviest lamb that had been born to date, and his mum.

Earlier in the month, our mare Mayfair Rock produced her first foal, and we’re all hoping that this lovely grey filly will go on to great things. She is by Gr.1-winning Havana Grey, trained by Karl Burke, and he very generously helped us with a free nomination to this stallion, who has been well supported by breeders.

It has been very interesting to see all the various forms of communication being adopted by the racing world, not least our network of trainers, studs and pre-training yards. Several of them have really risen to the challenge of keeping owners fully informed and in touch with their horses, and I particularly want to commend Claire Hart and Martin Keighley for the almost daily flow of super photos and videos. Claire is looking after Luttrell Lad, who was due to race at Stratford, but alas the meeting had to be cancelled due to the lockdown. He’s a horse we’re particularly looking forward to seeing out and he’ll run for Philip Hobbs in bumpers at the end of the summer or early in the autumn.

Many of us have been disappointed by and / or incredulous about the performance of politicians. There has often seemed to be a considerable gap between the rhetoric of what they blather on about and the reality on the ground. If that has been a frequent public criticism in the UK, it has been nothing compared to the reactions to the “Leader of the Western World”, President Trump. A new drink has even made its appearance – although one quickly expressly prohibited by all right-thinking people. No-one wants to consider a Gin & Trump made of disinfectant. Nothing is further from my mind – indeed, every Saturday my wife and I have been enjoying a top-quality wine tasting, the latest being a superb 2003 Château Léoville-Barton from St-Julien. This estate is owned by the admirable Anthony Barton, who represents the longest-standing vineyard ownership in Anglo-Irish hands. His philosophy has always been to produce top-quality Claret and sell it for a (relatively) reasonable sum. Superb.

Now back to the grim reality. As of the end of April there had been 165,000+ confirmed cases of coronavirus infections in the UK, and 26,000+ deaths in hospitals, care homes and the wider community. Apparently 1:3 who have been ill enough to be admitted to intensive care have died. It’s hard to comprehend the sadness of this, nor the amazing dedication of the NHS and the front line of care. The country has been rightly appreciative of the bravery of all these staff, and none of us will forget the accomplishment of Captain (now Honorary Colonel) Tom Moore who has raised £31m for NHS charities by walking 100 laps of his garden.

Doubtless there will be many commissions of enquiry into the preparedness of the country for dealing with this pandemic. Already several experts, with vastly more insight than I possess, have been highly critical. As one example, Richard Horton, the Editor-in-Chief of The Lancet, has published a number of articles accusing ministers and their advisers of failing to scale up capacity for testing, contact tracing and intensive care, and adopting a laissez-faire response and a misguided strategy of “herd immunity”. The first paper on the existence of Covid-19 was published in The Lancet on 19th January, but the assessment within it was passed over by Whitehall. Horton’s withering accusation is that this has become “the biggest science policy failure in generations”.

There has been no racing in the UK since Taunton and Wetherby on 17th March, but very encouragingly the whole of racing has come together to work collaboratively in the Resumption of Racing Group, and it is looking increasingly likely that Flat racing will come back behind closed doors around the middle to end of May, with the return of NH racing provisionally announced for 1st July. The breadth and detail of work within this group has been impressive, as has its close liaison with government and, particularly, the Department of Culture, Media & Sport. The government has provided considerable sums of money to support businesses and many trainers have taken advantage of grants and loans. In addition the Horseracing Levy Board and the Racing Foundation have provided £22m of emergency funding to help sustain racing and its participants through the pandemic, particularly concentrating on the most vulnerable. This has been an excellent piece of self-help.

Unfortunately one major crack in the collaborative endeavour made its appearance when the frustration of trainers Ralph Beckett and Mark Johnston spilled over, with calls for the immediate departure of BHA Chief Executive, Nick Rust. The timing and tone of this outburst could not have been worse, as it is essential for racing to present a united front to government while also being sensitive to, and reflective of, public opinion. It would be potentially damaging for racing to be seen to be putting a mere sport ahead of public health and the needs of the population. Apart from this, the level of co-operation has been magnificent, although without any doubt deep divisions and factions remain within the sport. Once racing resumes, the various stakeholders will most certainly need to concentrate on an even more demanding plan – the Recovery of Racing. Achieving co-operation and consensus on that plan will be a huge challenge for the leadership of racing, which will be the theme for the next blog.

Normally the blog for 1st May would have been reflecting on the end of the NH season at Sandown, the pleasures of the Punchestown Festival and the excitement of the Guineas meeting coming up at Newmarket. Alas, not this year, but at least there is likely to be fine racing ahead, and who knows – we might see some of it in May. Stay safe and 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 April 2020

Coping with the Covid-19 Crisis – Massive Shock to the Country, the Population and the Racing Ecosystem

With eight years’ experience of writing the Owner’s Opinion blog, our 1st April edition normally writes itself. One strand is trapping the reader into an April fool (and you’d be surprised how many big names have succumbed), while the other is covering contentious issues from the Cheltenham Festival. This year, I suppose, the April fool would have been about owners offering to pay trainers their fees in toilet rolls; while I was itching to write about the dominance of top trainers at the Festival, not least the notable fact of 60% of the races (16 in all) being won by novices and the considerable advantage that these trainers have in being able to assess which horses are massively ahead of the handicapper. But the Prime Minister’s sombre announcement on Monday 23rd March that emergency measures were to be introduced to lock down the country quickly parked such irrelevancies.

As of the end of March, there have been 784,000 infections worldwide from the Covid-19 virus, resulting in 37,000 deaths. It took 67 days for the first 100,000 infections; 11 days for the second; four days for the third, and that miserable exponential climb is continuing. Some politicians, particularly President Trump, have been complacent in the extreme (at the end of January he commented that “We have it totally under control. It’s just one person coming in from China”, before expecting the US to be back to normal by Easter and even coming up with a mind-numbing comment that “People have died, who have never died before”). After a disappointingly slow and typically British response of “Keep calm and carry on”, during which the country wasted a vital three months of planning, testing and production of ventilators, the gravity of the situation has been fully embraced by the vast majority of the population through lockdown and social distancing. Sadly there have been 22,141 infections to date in the UK, resulting in 1,408 deaths, but this rate does appear to be declining slightly. We all pray that this trend continues, although the Deputy Chief Medical Officer, Jenny Harries, believes that it could be six months before all the current social distancing restrictions are lifted.

Is it really only just over a fortnight since we were cheering on Al Boum Photo in his thoroughly game back-to-back win in the Gold Cup? For virtually all of us, this will have been the most incredible few weeks of our lives. The lockdown has already had a profound impact on everyone, and the shutters have come down on almost every business sector. A whole plantation of money trees has been found, and an arsenal of fiscal bazookas launched: $2 trillion of funds in the US; €750 billion in the EU; and £330 billion in the UK. Central banks and governments have made it clear that “spend, spend, spend” is the order of the day and they will do “whatever it takes” to bail out otherwise viable businesses. We’ve had a national “clap session” for the NHS and 700,000 people have volunteered to help support them. This is definitely the UK at war – against a terrible virus.

It was inevitable, therefore, that racing would be abandoned. During the three days of 16th to 18th March we went from racing behind closed doors to total suspension. The same happened in Ireland on 25th March. Six Nations rugby was cancelled; the Dubai World Cup postponed to 2021; the Tokyo Olympics put back to July next year; and we won’t be cheering on the winners of the trio of Grand Nationals at Fairyhouse, Aintree or Ayr. The BHA handled the situation well and avoided the reputational damage which would have ensued if racing had struggled to carry on at a time of national emergency. As ever there were a number of strong counter-arguments, particularly from former BHA Chairman Peter Savill who felt that racing had missed a huge opportunity to engage a new audience and significantly expand betting turnover, while Mark Johnston felt that it was a “grave mistake to suspend racing”.

The £4bn industry of racing employs 6,500 racing staff, looks after 14,000 racehorses and directly supports a huge ecosystem of full-time and self-employed staff. The seismic shock of lockdown is still rippling through the industry and no-one can predict the damage that will be done to racecourses, trainers, bookmakers, sales houses, breeders, consignors, stable staff, jockeys, valets, bloodstock agents, farriers, equine physiotherapists, specialist vets, feed suppliers …. and of course owners, who for the most part will continue to pay out training or keep fees even though there is no prospect of seeing their horses out on the track in the immediate future. Encouragingly, though, there has been a massive collaborative effort from all the stakeholders in racing with a constant stream of advice and a multi-workstream “industry plan” focused on racing’s resumption. Racing seems to work best in adversity, and full marks to all the groups who have rallied round.

At a personal level I’m close to Martin Keighley’s yard and with the active support of key owners we created and implemented a business continuity plan that is now fully operational around two phases. The first covers the period from 1st April to 31st May, when the majority of horses will have been turned out into the paddocks and only a very small number being kept in training and “ticking over” so that if racing does resume they can take part at summer jumps meetings. The second phase is from 1st June to 31st August when hopefully most horses will return to full training and, most importantly, the full team will come back into normal employment after two months being furloughed under the government’s emergency funding measures. Every single employee, owner and supplier was briefed on the plan within 48 hours of its creation and there has been a hugely positive response – not least from Martin’s owners who have been tremendously supportive.

In some ways, although it has been a huge challenge for National Hunt yards – not least because such plans have led to a 50% reduction in income – it is more straightforward for them than for training colleagues on the Flat, all of whom were focused on getting their horses out on the track in April / May from the traditional start of the season with the Lincoln at Doncaster on Saturday 28th March. Do these trainers continue, or stand their horses down while awaiting more clarity on when racing will resume? The impact on the Racing Pattern cannot yet really be evaluated – what will happen to the Classics, and will Royal Ascot take place?

Very detailed planning has been taking place on the potential resumption of racing, although it is most unlikely to restart until the viral infection rate has begun to decline significantly. Apparently the plans include racing operating behind closed doors through regional hubs in the North, Midlands and South of the country with consecutive fixtures taking place at these tracks over, say, a week at a time, and it would be easy to imagine a considerable number of maiden two-year-old races and jumpers’ bumpers being held. These plans are designed to ensure minimal impact on the NHS, and there will be reduced field sizes and only the most experienced jockeys participating, to reduce the risk of injury. Essential racing staff and jockeys would stay at hotels (so it could be that the racecourses selected would be those with such facilities either on site or nearby) and the horses would be transported to each track daily.

The government has been encouraging the industry to develop such “self-help plans” so that racing is ready to return at the earliest possibility. Although there have been no guidelines on other plans, it is to be hoped that these will emerge soon, particularly on racing-specific financial support. In particular, the Levy Board sits on reserves of over £45m, and the Racing Foundation a further £82m, which could help considerably. In the meantime all the emergency financial measures introduced by the chancellor Rishi Sunak (who as the member for Richmond is well aware of racing’s requirements, not least in Middleham) have been seized on by trainers, racecourses, contract and self-employed staff, and also the BHA who have furloughed 200 of their 260 staff, saving £1m a month.

A crisis of epic proportions! It is to be hoped that most of us will emerge relatively unscathed, and the number one priority clearly must be the health and welfare of the population of the country. Survival is paramount, before we all turn our attention to restoring the country’s economy. The effects of the crisis are bound to be felt for many years to come, and the racing industry will be buffeted in the same way as most other business sectors. Let’s hope there aren’t too many casualties. Unfortunately the industry was not in good financial shape going into the crisis, and it’s hard to imagine it will come out of it without there being significant damage. In the short term – stay safe and stay at home.

At a personal level we will all be trying to find solace and ways of surviving the challenges of social distancing and isolation. Those who know me well are aware of my enthusiasm and passion for fine wine. My wife and I have introduced a weekend wine tasting of the very finest in our cellar. Last Saturday we savoured the delights of a 1999 Maximin Grunhauser Abtsberg Riesling Auslese, Cask Nr. 165, Von Schubert. It was sublime and awe-inspiring. They always say that you shouldn’t waste a crisis – and we certainly don’t intend to, on the vinous front. May you find similar pleasures.

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 March 2020

Why Cheltenham Should be a Five-Day Festival – Even Though My Knees, Liver and Wallet will Struggle to Cope

When you’re in the stands at Prestbury Park and look across to Cleeve Hill, you’ll see the radio masts at the top. Travel a few miles beyond them in a straight line and you’ll get to my house. I sometimes say (though it isn’t strictly true) that if you slip the hand-brake on my car, it’s downhill all the way to the members’ car park. I’m here primarily because I adore Cheltenham Races and the Cotswolds. So do most of my friends, many of whom I am going to antagonise with this blog, so apologies in advance.

Here is my prescription for a proposed new Festival – make it five days; have the Gold Cup as the centrepiece on the Saturday; reduce the number of races to six per day; frame extremely valuable handicaps to end each day; ensure that these races enable grass-roots owners to have runners; and set a target for 300,000+ attendees.

In an ideal world, my personal preference would have been for a two-day, concentrated event – a National Hunt Breeders’ Cup meeting, or something similar to the superb Dublin Festival of Racing at Leopardstown in February. Putting all the top races together in a two-day extravaganza would be fabulous, but there is clearly no chance whatsoever of that occurring. Cheltenham over the years has quite rightly made the event bigger and broadened its appeal. All the arguments against this on the basis of dilution appear pretty weak, and really we have to regard the Festival as one of British Racing’s most valuable assets. Let’s make it bigger and better, as soon as possible.

The starting point is to do with the bigger picture of British Racing, which seems to be in decline in terms of ownership and racecourse attendance. Owner numbers have been on a steady downward trajectory throughout most of the past decade, and despite the ambitious goal of seven million racecourse attendances by 2020 – set as a key target of racing’s Strategy for Growth – the reality is unfortunately that numbers have dropped, to 5.62 million last year, from 6.13 million in 2015. There are doubtless quite a few structural factors behind this, and it is likely to be impossible to reverse these declines without significant change on a broad but targeted front. Attracting new racegoers into the sport is absolutely essential, and the demand appears to be strong for festivals and marquee days, which is something that the racecourse groups can’t afford to ignore. Without going into too much detail, why doesn’t racing incorporate a programme of top-quality Saturday events throughout the year, designed to appeal to this demand. One of the arguments will always be that it would clash with football or other sporting events but, for starters, how about a sequence of even bigger racedays for the Aintree Grand National, Epsom Derby, York’s Melbourne Cup (aka the Ebor), Ascot’s Champions’ Day, Haydock’s Betfair meeting and, of course, Cheltenham and The Festival (which I’ve noticed is now trademarked, with by-lines such as The Best Spectacle in Sport and In March, the Only Place to Be.

From the ownership standpoint, all roads lead to Cheltenham. It’s incredible that for this year’s Festival there are 928 entries for the 10 handicaps alone, including 156 for the Martin Pipe, 148 for the Coral Cup, 99 for the County Hurdle and 96 for a race that I can’t even remember what it’s now called – the Plate. All owners, and particularly those at the grass-roots level, want to be part of the Festival. For trainers it is a symbol of success to have runners, never mind winners, and for staff it is hugely motivating to lead up the horses in the famous Cheltenham amphitheatre. The ideal would be to frame races to enable broader participation, and it would be terrific if every day there were hugely valuable handicaps that put significant winnings into the hands of lesser trainers and owners. It wouldn’t be difficult to design races to facilitate that. Indeed, I’ll be at the forefront of a campaign for a syndicate series that has its final at the Festival. These types of races could also be linked in with nationwide qualifiers that would spread the wealth and increase field sizes at the lesser tracks.

Many will characterise the expansion of the Festival as commercial greed, designed to “milk” the racegoer and punter. There are already lots of events and sideshows around the Festival that a lot of people dislike. It won’t be everyone’s cup of tea to participate in The Park, which is, apparently, “a totally unique area ….. offering an alternative experience ….. the Insta-worthy place to be” (whatever this might mean). But we shouldn’t belittle the marketing talent that is going into the Festival, and the considerable contribution made by Jockey Club Racecourses to prize-money as a result. In 2010 this was £13m per year, and by the end of the decade it has climbed to £27.1m. Hats off to JCR!

Over to Martin St. Quinton, the new Chairman of Cheltenham, not only to grab this commercial opportunity with both hands but to bring in a broader audience of racegoers, especially when the Gold Cup is on a Saturday. If a few of the traditional fans reduce their attendance or even drop by the wayside, so be it. As one of them, I’m sure I’ll adapt, even if the physical demands are becoming more onerous with age. But doubtless the Cheltenham roar at the beginning of each day will make attendance worthwhile …. and when one of my horses wins the Syndicate Final on the Saturday of Cheltenham, I’ll be in seventh heaven. Bring it on!

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.