[Note, this was written in October 2012, and I’ve only just – February 2013 – published it]
I’ve been into racing for more than twenty years. I’ve been a bit part owner for more than eleven (always had at least a few hairs on a tail with Julia Feilden in that time, and more recently have a horse syndicated with Anthony Honeyball, a share in a Clive Mulhall-trained beast, and membership of a couple of racing clubs). I’ve also been a punter for more than twenty years. And I’ve written as a blogger and a correspondent for the Irish Field and others over the course of more than six years.
Despite all of that, I still feel to some degree like an outsider. In what follows, I’ll offer some thoughts on this, as well as – far more importantly – my take on the current state of British racing, and some suggestions for the future health of the sport. Of course, as merely a bloke with a blog, I don’t expect anything much to change as a consequence of these scribbles, but who knows? There is a refreshing breeze of change puffing its way through British racing just now, so maybe… just maybe…
Before we can discuss the way forward, we need to understand the current status quo. And before we can even do that, we need to understand a little of the history of this amazing sport of ours.
A (Very) Brief History of British Racing Governance
In what will be a contender for shortest history lesson ever, we need to understand that racing as we know it (ignoring the fact that Greeks and Romans and every other civilization before our own Empire enthusiastically engaged in variants of the sport) was conceived on our isles by a boys’ club.
It was the sport of kings because James I and his regal rogerers and rollickers loved it. Charles I and II did too. Lords Derby and Bunbury famously pitted their horses against each other to name a race (no, not the Bunbury Cup). And so it goes on.
At some point, 1750 to be exact, the boys club decided they needed to manage their equine extravagance, and created the Jockey Club.
For 256 years, the Jockey Club ruled racing, if not with an iron fist then at least with a heavy-handed unilateralism that was considered by many to be anachronistic in the 21st century.
And so it was that change was reluctantly accorded.
In fact, a ‘mere’ 243 years into the Jockey Club’s administration, an offshoot sprung up, called the British Horseracing Board (BHB), dutied with “promoting the interests of our sport”. In fact, that is a short line from an extremely unfocused ‘mission statement’, which follows:
As the Governing Authority for Racing, we will promote the interests of our sport and industry in whatever way we can…. We will work to attract and retain more racehorse owners, racegoers and other customers. We will seek to maintain and promote horseracing as a competitive and attractive sport and betting medium. We also wish to see the best possible training and working conditions for those employed in the industry, and the highest possible standards of care for horses.
Noble enough, but largely without measurable basis.
On 3rd April 2006, a second body – fleeting in existence, but significant in the context of racing’s governance – called the Horseracing Regulatory Authority (HRA) finally replaced the remaining elements of the age long stewardship of the Jockey Club.
Fleeting indeed, for on 30th July 2007, both the HRA and the BHB were subsumed into the BHA: the British Horseracing Authority.
The problems of racing reflected the wider sentiments of society at that time. With the dawn of the information age, and as the morning of that age has worn on, there has been – it seems to me – a correction of the laissez-faire administration of the 80’s and 90’s, to a more interventionist policy approach in the 2000’s.
Symptoms of this, implying an over-correction, include the rise and rise of ‘political correctness’, the loss of a strong national identity, and diminution in the reverence and respect of authority.
What has that got to do with racing? Well, it’s from tail end of Thatcherism, meekly embodied by the Major years, and the beginnings of the Blair administration, that the anti-establishment (at least, the established establishment, if you see what I mean) movement gathered unstoppable momentum.
The upshot for racing was a pressure to change: to reinvigorate, to reinvent, to reinvest. The aristocratic old guard of the Jockey Club were neither perceptibly nor palpably well placed to oversee such change.
Alas, so history records, nor was its replacement.
During the decade since 1997, and throughout much of the last five or six years, racing had lost the bellowing voice of the single authority, and found a chorus – no, a cacophony – of shrill shriekers. What it also lost was its direction.
In the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king, or so the saying goes. And, to mix my metaphors still further, it may have been better the devil we knew than the many demons we didn’t.
So what actually happened over the last five (to fifteen) years?
In the place of the authoritarian Jockey Club, the old school pedagogue, came a disparate group of largely self-serving parochialists. Left unchecked in the early days by the diluted BHB / HRA, self-proclaimed ‘Groups’ emerged. They still exist.
We have the Racecourse Group. And the Horseman’s Group. Underneath these, there is the Racehorse Owners’ Association, as well as various unions.
Now, lest you think I’m a despot in blogger’s clothing (as if 😉 ), I’m pleased these groups exist, and I think they serve a necessary function… up to a point.
The problem, up until this year at least, was that the lily-livered and largely lousy leadership of the BHA since 2007, had failed to take accountability for the full governance of racing.
In fairness, it wasn’t entirely their fault – it never is, is it? You saw the mission statement quote earlier in this piece which gives a flavour of the amorphous remit against which the Jockey Club replacement functions were expected to ‘deliver’.
With little clue of accountability, and little record of deliverability, it is little wonder that pressure groups grew into ‘top table’ entities in racing.
But herein lies the first of racing’s major problems. From the autocracy of the Jockey Club has evolved a melange of agendas, which are – in the main – incompatible.
Racing has lost its strong guiding voice. Whether you liked the diktats of the previous governors, or you loathed them, you knew where you stood.
Since then, the patchwork quilt of stakeholders’ interests in racing has been pulled apart by the various antagonists and their power base scraps.
This has become more political than I intended it to, which probably means it has even less chance of cutting any mustard with the decision makers. That’s assuming there’s anything of utility to be discerned from my verbosity, in any case.
So that’s the potted history lesson, and it brings us to 2012… and the aforementioned breeze of change blowing the cobwebs out of Portman Square (or High Holborn, as it is these days).
It’s little surprise that the driver of change is one NOT steeped in our own cultural paranoid self-awareness, but rather an Aussie. Paul Bittar stepped up to the job on 18th January this year, and his impact has been quietly revolutionary.
I’m a cynical old hick, and I’m not given to light praise (how I despise the misuse of the word ‘legend’ in sport!). So you can take it read that I’m impressed with Mr Bittar’s early contributions.
The first issue he had to face was the self-flagellating one of the whip rules: introduced by the BHA (in consultation with others) at the behest of external lobbyists. The farce which followed was a serious own goal at a time when racing’s star was waxing to new highs.
Bittar uttered an old school – dare I say it, a Jockey Club-esque – edict that we, the BHA, are the arbiters of the sport, and we will determine what is best for the sport. The rules were amended unilaterally and without consultation with the RSPCA, who immediately, predictably and (unfortunately, for everyone) embarrassingly blubbed ‘foul’, using enormously misguided and misleading rhetoric.
It’s quite hard to forget the initial RSPCA response, where their statement trumpeted that jockeys now had “a licence to beat them [horses] with impunity”.
To clarify, dictionary.com has this definition of ‘impunity‘: exemption from punishment.
Preposterous. Irresponsible. Credibility-destroying.
It is hardly surprising that this important body – who do fantastic work in the field of animal welfare – have since left racing alone, for now at least. It’s my sincere hope that in future racing and sensible, compassionate animal welfare groups can work more closely together. And it may prove, somewhat perversely, that the spokesman’s PR howler, catalyses that relationship. Then again…
Onwards, for there is much to cover, and I’ve barely set the scene.
This act of petty arson on racing’s own house – a sub-plot bringing racing to the front pages for all the wrong reasons – was quickly extinguished by Bittar, in a manner that perhaps only a new broom can. And a non-establishment new broom at that.
So far, so good. But what about racing’s real problems?
As I see it, racing has two enormous issues with which to get to grips.
The first is the previously alluded to issue of ownership and accountability: who truly governs the sport? And how?
The second is that hoary old chestnut, funding. Who pays for the sport? And how?
Before we can answer those questions – if indeed we can get anywhere even close to answering them – we need to understand who are the players in this most absorbing and complex of dramas. As you might expect, they are numerous.
First up, of course, there is the BHA – the new and improved BHA – headed up by the Aussie enforcer, Paul Bittar. The BHA is a central body and needs to update its ‘overview’ page where it still has those old unmeasurable objectives (doesn’t everyone have SMART objectives these days?!). In fairness, they have been busy with the job of actually ‘doing’, which is also refreshing in this age of spin and bluster over substance.
Then there are the racecourses, and their theatre impresario owners… ahem. We’ll come onto my general disdain for racecourse management in due course. These are wholly commercial entities, who are largely privately owned. Of course, they’re generally not obliged to abide by the usual tenets of commerce – you know, supply and demand, break even or better or go skint, and all that…
There are, of course, the horses. The beautiful creatures which we all love, whether we’re hardcore punters, or recreational riders, or wizened old scribes. They are actually pretty well tended, despite the occasional – and deeply regrettable – loss of life on the track/gallops.
The jockeys and trainers and stable staff are there too. Without this collective, we’d have to train and muck out and ride our own horses. There are some who do, and some who’d like to, but a majority who don’t and don’t want to.
The ‘we’ of the above are the owners. Owners pay in large part for jockeys, trainers and stable staff.
Then we have the specialist media and those in the mainstream media tasked with covering this specialist sport.
Finally, in the main cast at least, we have the betting elements. Yes, they do always seem to be considered last. That’s if they’re considered at all.
Bookmakers are seen – perhaps wrongly, perhaps not – as the biggest leech on the belly of racing’s purses. Offshore bookies, rails bookies, exchanges, privatised tote… They’re a very hard group to treat as a single entity, so we’ll consider them collectively and individually.
And, gawd bless ’em, there’s the punters! Big, small, rich, poor (generally, poor). The punters. They have a large, and largely silent, role to play in the talkie of racing.
The interactions between these players are myriad, with virtually all of the cast sharing at least one ‘act’ with all other cast members. In such a context, is it any wonder that all is not always sweetness and light?
So, at last, with the scene set and the players introduced, let’s look at the first of the issues: funding.
The Funding Conundrum
Britain (along with Ireland) is, I think, unique in the horse racing world in that it is the only racing nation where the vast majority of the proceeds of betting turnover leave the sport.
Australia’s bookmakers take about a third of betting turnover, compared with the UK’s 95% and Ireland’s 99%. In the rest of the major racing countries, New Zealand’s 11% is the next highest.
Where nation’s – such as France and Japan – have tote monopolies (or virtual tote monopolies), the sport is awash with cash. In these cases, the government owns most or all of the racetracks, and funds prize money levels handsomely to attract more owners and therefore bigger fields of horses to race.
In the US, a full commercial supply and demand model operates, with privately owned racecourses ploughing tote profits back into their tracks. Those with lower tote ‘handles’ (i.e. turnover) offer lower prize money, and tend to suffer from smaller fields, which in turn leads to still lower tote handle.
This vicious circle of reduction has seen possible redemption through the addictive nature of gambling in the form of slots (or fruit machines as we know them). A number of US racetracks have been able to subsidize racing through the take from on site casinos, where licenses have been granted.
In the UK, of course, we infamously have these slots in the betting shops on the high streets, leading to more money leaving racing, via alternative betting patterns dissociated from the sport. That betting shops are now able to house more of these machines is, in my view, a disgusting and myopic (to the point of blindness) reaction to the problem of too many high street bookmakers.
(Simple solution to too many bookies on the high street is to limit their numbers by license, in the same way that bars are limited).
Anyway, I digress.
Bookmakers take almost all of the proceeds of horse racing betting turnover in the UK, in their various guises: on course, high street, offshore (internet/telephone), exchange.
They return to racing… well, this year’s estimate is £65.9m. In the main, this represents less than 11% of gross profits.
B.etfair has agreed to a ‘voluntary contribution’ of £6.5m, making a total of around £72.4m.
This figure has to provide for around 50% of race prize money. It also has to support the provision of interest-free loans to racecourses, for maintenance and upkeep.
And, amongst other things, it also supports integrity services, via the BHA, and helps to pay for Channel 4’s racing coverage. (Yes, racing pays to have its product on terrestrial TV!)
So, who else is paying in to, and taking out of, British racing?
Well, owners pay in a big way. They buy horses. They pay training fees. They pay race entry fees. And they pay jockey fees, including insurance. They also pay for things like gallops upkeep, transport to races, farriers and vets, and so on.
Basically, owners pay for most things in racing.
For a minority of owners, who collectively tend to farm the best races, their patronage is both business and pleasure. For instance, the Coolmore operation use racing as the platform for their hugely successful breeding programmes.
To a lesser degree, so do the Emirati’s, via their Darley breeding programmes. Sheikh Mohammed’s contribution to British racing is highly significant. Not only does he further subsidise Channel 4 racing (yes, it costs racing a fair bit to be on the telly!), but he also continues to lose large amounts of money in British racing as an appreciator of the sport.
We are very lucky to have benefactors like the Maktoum family supporting British racing, and it is probably not a stretch of the truth to suggest that without their contribution, the ramifications for the sport in UK would be seismic (metaphorically, of course).
Like most owners, both Coolmore and the Maktoums run their racing operations at a direct net loss. That is, their return in prize money is less than their investment in race horses, training, and so on. They are however able to accrue a notable chunk back from the bloodstock industry, a salvation not available to most owners.
For the majority of owners, it is simply the case that they can expect to return about a quarter of their outlay. Given the cost of buying and racing horses, this means that the sport has to seriously review how it looks after its owners in Britain.
In France, for instance, owners can expect an average return on their investment of 56%. Still not exactly a sound commercial enterprise, but a chance to make a hobby pay for itself in the best case scenario.
In difficult economic times, it is no surprise that the number of owners has fallen, from a peak in 2007 of 17,999 to a 2010 figure of 16,852. I couldn’t find the 2011 figures on the BHA website, so they may not have been published yet.
That’s a drop of pushing 10%.
More striking is the reduction in the number of new owner registrations: this is down from 2,169 in 2006 to just 1,636, a fall of roughly a quarter!
And between 2008 and 2010, the number of horses in training has shrunken from 15,349 to 14,549, around seven per cent.
Perhaps most striking of all are the figures for prize money and number of runners per race.
In 2007, just 4.5% of all flat races had five runners or less. By 2010, that figure had risen to 8.5%, almost double. By contrast, the number of flat races with eleven or more runners was 52.1% in 2006, and just 37.7% by 2010.
The average field size per race had dropped to 9.8 by 2010, from 11.4 in 2004, and 11.6 in 2002.
But here’s where it gets really interesting… to me at least. Over the five year period between 2006 and 2010, the racecourse contribution to prize money (for racing it hosts, and from which it benefits overall in terms of paying customers, food and beverage sales, and so on) was, on average, a dismal 11.92%.
Owners stumped up 15% of prize money, despite receiving such a paltry return. Sponsors coughed for 17.13%; the Levy Board contributed 57.14%; and the residual 2% or so was provided by a combination of the BHA and the divided race fund.
Now think about this: racecourses are virtually all privately owned, by the likes of the legacy estates (Jockey Club Racecourses, the Goodwood and Ascot estates) or venture capitalists (Reuben Brothers bought both Northern Racing and Arena Leisure, and have proceeded to asset strip).
Some are better than others at giving back to the sport. Jockey Club Racecourses returned 60% of profits in prize money in 2010, and have been instrumental in securing headline sponsorship deals for racing, such as QIPCO’s continued support of the British Champions Series.
Whilst this is laudable in the general context of British racecourses’ contribution to prize money, it is in point of fact no more (and possibly less) than they should be doing in order to retain their status as hosts of the most prestigious racing. In other recreation businesses, the venue typically pays for all associated costs of getting bums on seats, aside from the support of sponsors.
Other tracks, such as Musselburgh, are run as ‘not for profit’. Obviously, they can be seen as giving enough back to racing, though whether ‘not for profit’ also means ‘not very good at marketing’ is a moot point.
By contrast, Arena Leisure reported pre-tax profit up by almost 15% last year to £4.2m, prior to the Reuben Brothers’ acquisition, and at the same time reported a reduction in prize money levels of £3m. Hmm.
The decision by Arena/Northern to close both Hereford and Folkestone is, of course, a commercial one. Without being privy to the accounts for those tracks, it’s hard to know just how insurmountable the finances were.
The flip side for them is that companies reporting millions in profits should not find themselves having races at their tracks boycotted for the sake of £900.
But it’s not that simple…
One of the delicacies of the racecourse debate is that all tracks are not made equal. Indeed, in my view, there are [at least] three tiers of racecourse, largely (though not entirely) hosting three tiers of races, as follows:
Top tier – premium tracks hosting the majority of pattern racing, and accommodating large crowds for most meetings. Examples are Ascot, York.
Middle tier – tracks which host predominantly good class racing and/or a majority of ‘holiday’ meetings. Examples are Doncaster (good class racing), Yarmouth, Newton Abbot (mainly holiday fixtures).
Bottom tier – tracks which host low grade racing, primarily for the benefit of ‘bookmaker product’. Crowds on course will generally be small. Examples are Wolverhampton and Folkestone.
So what can be done about funding? (Part 1, racecourses)
If you support the assertion that there are different tiers of racing/track, then the financial solution cannot be a ‘one size fits all’ response.
In simple terms, the best racecourses should be able to pay for their maintenance through gate receipts, food and drink sales, and other non-betting profit. The prize money for racing at the best racecourses should be funded by a combination of company profits, and also by sponsorship.
Obviously, this would be akin to the proverbial turkeys voting for Christmas amongst racecourses, who will all immediately declare that their businesses would become untenable under such self-financing (like other businesses) conditions.
So it is likely that there would have to be a tapered reduction in levy support for top tracks. This seems reasonable when we recall that the levy is paid by bookmakers and that average stake on those top class races is not so very different to average stake on all weather racing, when calculated across the entire betting population.
I find it hard to understand why the levy would be required to make significant prize money contributions at this exalted top tier racecourse level, with the sponsorship, media rights, and attendances that accompany it.
And especially so when you consider that the 2010 pattern’s 142 races (Listed class or better) accounted for £20,483,170 from a total prize money allocation of £67,572,859, to be spread across 6,309 races.
That’s the top 2.25% of races receiving 30.3% of prize money… at an average of £15,275 per runner.
Compare this with the rest of racing’s pyramid, which stretched 69.7% of the prize fund across 97.75% of the races… at an average of just £791 per runner.
I couldn’t find anything based on race class, but I suspect the Class 5 / 6 race average per runner would be somewhere around £315. This is based on the an average of £3083 per Class 5/6 race on the day I checked, and the overall average runners per race (2010) of 9.8, so loose figures, but indicative nevertheless.
Given that it costs around £1500 a month for an owner to keep a flat horse in training, irrespective of its ability level, this represents a little over 80% loss on investment on average for those owners racing their horses on the ground floor. That’s an ugly figure for racing, given that more than 43% of all races were in this class bracket.
And so we come to the middle tier tracks. The Doncasters and Yarmouths and Newton Abbots of this world. This is a difficult group to pigeonhole, as they don’t all demonstrate the same attributes. Doncaster for instance hosts two Grade 1’s: the St Leger and the Racing Post Trophy, both very important races.
But outside of these flagship events, two-thirds of its races in 2011 were Class 4, 5, or 6. In a case like Donny then, it may not be possible to attract the sponsors away from the highest profile heats; and it may also not be possible to attract the same crowds.
Doncaster, like many other savvy tracks, has followed the lead which Leicester set about twenty years ago, and entertained large crowds by bringing pop acts to play after racing. Purists can argue all they like about ‘non-racing folk’ busying the course, as long as they also recognise that these music fans a) may become racing fans, and b) at the very least are subsidising the facilities for the regular racegoer.
But let’s leave the concerts to one side momentarily, as these are an option open to all racetracks, irrespective of tier.
The other middle tier tracks run moderate racing but still enjoy large crowds, thanks to their locations, generally close popular seaside or country holiday destinations. Such courses can have starkly contrasting attendance figures depending on whether the meeting is held on, say, a Sunday or public holiday, or on a winter Tuesday.
Clearly, course revenue will also vary widely between a holiday Sunday and a winter Tuesday, despite largely unchanged operating costs. It makes sense then, for middle tier tracks to be principally self-funding for their holiday / flagship fixtures, i.e. when attendances are at their maximum.
It equally stands to reason that on those occasions when the racing is moderate and punters are not piling through the turnstiles in droves that the levy pay a majority of prize money costs.
After all, the main beneficiaries of such fixtures are the bookmakers, who demand daily product, when it makes no commercial sense for racecourses to accommodate it. If the bookies want it, they pay for it.
Which leads us onto the bottom tier. Aside from a few key days in their respective fixture lists, most of these tracks present modest ‘run-of-the-mill’ racing for low grade horses in less than primetime slots in the calendar.
The core driver for this is, as I’ve mentioned, the bookmakers, and they should fund prize money via the levy, almost in entirety.
So what can be done about funding? (Part 2, bookmakers)
The other major beneficiary of the racing industry is the bookmaking fraternity. This is of course a broad church, and in this discussion it encompasses on course, off course, offshore, and exchanges.
The levy in its current form (token contributions from on course bookmakers and 10.75% of gross profit from off course operators) is probably at the lower end of what should be tolerable, but the real challenge is to get something meaningful from the off shore fraternity.
Bookmakers headed to islands like Malta and Gibraltar as a means of swerving their tax liability, which is shabby enough, but they’ve since realised that they can also opt out of paying for the daily racing that they demand.
It’s difficult to get precise figures relating to how much of bookmaker turnover and profit is derived from horse racing but, as with the racecourses, it is clear that they continue to benefit financially from taking bets on the sport.
Some estimates put the lost levy at between £10m and £20m per year. Given that the total levy stands at around £70m, this is between 15% and 30% of extra funding racing is missing out on.
If we were to use £15m as a reasonable estimate, this single cash injection to racing’s coffers would enable an extra £240 per runner outside of pattern class, if allocated solely to prize funding.
Naturally, there would be others who laid claim to some of that pot, but the difference this would make at the lower end of the spectrum is material. An average of around £315 per runner in Class 5 and 6 races now, would be boosted to something in the order of £450 per runner.
Owners would still be running at a significant loss – around 70% – but that’s a good bit better than the 80% hit they currently take.
If offshore bookmakers refuse to contribute to the levy, then racing should be able to take measures to prevent them from accepting bets on the sport. Bookmakers would never be in a position of loss on this, so it should make perfect sense for them to pay up. Currently, the carrot is present but there’s no sign of the stick.
When the offshore firms are forced to pay tax from December 2014, it’s quite possible that many who moved offshore for tax expediency/dodging* (delete as per your perspective) reasons, will relocate back to the mainland. In this instance, they will automatically be obliged to pay in, which would be great news for both racing and government.
Paying racing a reasonable and uniformly applied percentage of profits across the bet-taking community should be a ‘no brainer’, to this outsider at least.
The upshot of the above is the nigh on certainty that neither bookmakers nor racecourses contribute enough to racing, and that the authorities, led by BHA, must bring more pressure to bear. It is only right that those reporting the highest profits should at the very least not be seeking subsidies and handouts, and better yet should be sustaining the racing that they demand, be they bookmaker or racecourse.
The Governance Dilemma
To be continued, one day…