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.



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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!



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Saturday, 1 February 2020

A Whinge on Racecourse Access Roads, Car Parks and Car Park Attendants – The Power of the First Impression


Over the years since I started The Owner’s Opinion blog, the pendulum has swung between quite robust, strategic articles and highly practical and more tactical offerings. Today’s blog is firmly in the latter category.

Psychologists know that the power of the first and last impressions have significantly higher impact than what goes on between them. I’m sure that this applies equally to racecourses, and we all know that there are a number of racecourses in the country that create a magnificent first impression but, alas, there are others that fail miserably. I don’t particularly like to “name and shame”, so I’ll sidestep that, but racecourses I am particularly impressed by include Newbury, the Rowley Mile course at Newmarket and my favourite track in the country, York, as far as large tracks are concerned, whereas unfortunately most of the smaller tracks are somewhat challenged, although that is not an excuse for some of the unimpressive incidents that are all too frequent. I’m not going to mention any specific courses, but you may be able to recognise some of them. Here is my whinge.
  • Lack of signage: the locals may know the area but visiting owners often do not. Navigating your way through towns is never easy, and with many racecourses located out in the countryside it is often difficult to work out the correct way to approach them. When you eventually locate them, often the signage for Owners & Trainers car parks are too small and badly positioned.
  • Racecourse access road: why are so many too narrow, potholed and with rough, inadequate surfacing? That isn’t just the minor tracks – it is the case at some of the biggest courses in the country. It is sometimes unclear whether they are two-lane roads, so it is left to drivers to decide. Sometimes you find that two-lane roads become one-way only at various times, though nothing explains what triggers that.
  • Entrance to the car park: how many times have you encountered the custodian of the car park glaring at you for some unknown and unintended breach of procedure? While a few breezily wave you through on display of your O&T car park badge or ROA PASS card, others seem determined to block the entrance and keep you out, regardless of your entitlement to be there. It is not much of a first impression if the verbals / non-verbals are “You can’t come in”, or “You can’t park here”, or “You can come in, but can only park in that big puddle over there”, or, of course, “Anywhere you like, in the mud”.
  • The car park surface: if I was going for a normal distribution of surfacing, I would say that 20% is lamentably bad; 20% a combination of grass, gravel and mud; 20% Ok apart from when it’s raining (which is hardly uncommon in this country, particularly this winter); 20% quite acceptable and you can park on it and walk over it without getting covered in mud; and 20% superb, as it is hard standing and properly laid out.
  • Signage to Owners & Trainers: sometimes good but often non-existent. My worst experience was going to a minor NH course when I followed the signs to the racecourse car park, only to be told that I’d come to the wrong car park and should have gone to another one, which of course hadn’t been signed at all. The wrong car park did however have an O&T entrance, but when I went there, they wouldn’t allow me in, as apparently I needed to go to the “other one” across the course. They wouldn’t let me through to go to the unsigned, correct one. I had to go back to the car, drive round and find the unsigned correct one and go through the whole process again. They then wouldn’t accept my wife as an owner at the O&T entrance, and the usual embarrassment started of proving who you were. The staff at O&T had obviously been through the same charm school as the car park attendants. The training had certainly been effective – it was consistently dreadful, rude behaviour.
The famous bloodstock agent, David Redvers, on his web site, has something called Redvers’ Rant. I’m obviously launching a new series to rival that called Hughes’s Horrors. Maybe I’ve just reached the age of Victor Meldrew in One Foot in the Grave. If you hear someone ambling round the course muttering, “I just don’t believe it”, you’ll know it’s either David, Victor or me.



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Wednesday, 1 January 2020

The New Year’s Resolution for the Racehorse Owners Association Should Be to Publish the Long-Awaited Industry Ownership Strategy. Then Come Up with Ways to Incentivise Owners to Increase their Involvement.


For the last two years I have been pressing the ROA to produce and publish the Industry Ownership Strategy for which they received £1.65m of funding from the Racing Foundation. There has still been no sign of it, and I’m just hoping that the powers-that-be in Holborn have this output high up their list of New Year’s resolutions.

While they dilly and dally, ownership is in decline. Indeed, sole ownership has been declining for ten years, while the age profile of owners has been only increasing. As the prime investing stakeholder in the sport, it is absolutely vital that new owners are brought into the game, while retaining the current ones. At the heart of the Industry Ownership Strategy there has to be a commitment to promoting shared ownership through syndicates, and that needs both resources to run national marketing campaigns and the creation of incentives designed to prompt owners to increase their involvement.

There has been a lot of discussion during 2019 about how to deal with the increasing numbers of owners within the facilities of the racecourses. As syndicates increase in number and in size, a much greater strain has been placed on O&T facilities. Racecourses only really have two options available: they can increase provision and / or restrict access. It is quite likely during 2020 that racecourses, individually or collectively, will adopt one of two solutions. Either they will introduce a tiering of owner privileges (rather like First Class and Business Class lounges on airlines) or they will start to offer a “package” of benefits whereby, for example, a syndicate can trade off free lunches for additional badges.

I’m sure a number of these blogs will be devoted to this subject because it has potential for unintended consequences. For example, racecourses could be tempted to treat owners as first-class or second-class citizens with sole owners “up in first class” and syndicates and partnerships “down the back of the plane”.

What is really needed is a much more thoughtful approach which actually incentivises owners to increase their involvement in order to access different tiers of benefits, which I believe is the model used in Australia. Basically the more horses / shares in horses you own (and the greater your economic contribution to racing), the greater the benefits that you enjoy. It also has to be emphasised that, at the moment, racing has no real insight into that economic contribution. So, for example, there are many syndicate owners who have multiple shares in horses but there is no way for racing to pick that up and respond to them as to more valuable sole owners. It is essential in an ownership strategy that this capability is developed and applied across the whole ownership base, and that requires a different registration process, ownership IDs and technology platforms to support it. However, none of that process / technology is particularly innovative, and has been in use in the retail and airline sectors for thirty years or more. Racing is well behind the wave on this, but the good news is that none of the systems required are particularly complex and should not be expensive to introduce.

At the same time, such a registration process would remove the potential abuses such as those encountered by one of our owners through his involvement in the Supreme Racing Club. Ged Shields recently had a letter published on the subject in the Racing Post, and it is worth reproducing it in full below:

“As one of the many victims of the Supreme Horse Racing overselling scandal I think its long overdue that the racing authorities in the UK and Ireland introduce an owners’ registration system that is fit for purpose. The current approach is hopelessly inadequate. Obviously.

Since the scandal broke, we’ve heard the BHA and ROA and other bodies making the case for syndicate operators to sign up to strengthened codes of conduct and suggesting some sort of licensing scheme may be the answer. The blunt truth is that neither suggestion would have prevented the Supreme situation.

What we need is a transparent online share register that allows owners, no matter what size of share, to check their share has been registered and the combined ownership shares for each horse. So, for example, John Smith can see he has been registered for 5% in Horse A , 10% in Horse B etc and then when he clicks on Horse A he can see his 5% and the % shares other owners have in the same horse. He doesn’t need to know the names of the other owners so GDPR shouldn’t be an issue. He just needs to see his share has been registered accurately and that the combined shares in the horse don’t add up to more than 100%. This kind of online platform would allow owners themselves to police the share register of the horses they are involved in and would have prevented the overselling undertaken by Supreme Horse Racing. It would represent a huge improvement on the current system.

As racehorse owners we invest thousands in the sport and deserve a registration system that works much harder to protect our investment. This needs to become a top priority for the racing authorities in the UK and Ireland and there is no sensible reason why it should not be implemented in a matter of months. I hope for once they will act quickly.”
All of this shows the urgent need for an Industry Ownership Strategy that is genuinely innovative, and backed up by detailed operational plans required to introduce these much-needed changes. It has taken the ROA almost two years to produce very little, and yet a number of owners with whom I am regularly in contact could readily create the framework of the strategy during the course of a long dinner and a few bottles of fine wine. And British Racing would have received a lot of change from its £1.65m. Indeed, my view is that unless there is progress quickly, this strategic initiative should be taken away from the ROA and put in the hands of a new industry leadership group with the insights, motivation and skills to do something about it. In short, ROA – get on with it or move out of the way.



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.