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.

SIGNING THE PLEDGE – AND WE’RE NOT TALKING ABOUT GOING TEETOTAL

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.

“MONEY, MONEY, MONEY” – IT’S A HORSEMEN’S WORLD

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.

THE BASE OF THE PYRAMID CRUMBLES – IGNORE AT YOUR PERIL

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.

9-POINT RECOVERY PLAN FOR BRITISH RACING – A BIT OF A CURATE’S EGG

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.



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