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.



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