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.

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