by Nicholas Cooper, ROA President
In view of what is now happening with Brexit, it is ironic that the racing industry continues to wait with bated breath to hear whether its new funding model has received clearance from Europe. It is my fervent hope that by the time these words are in print the last major hurdle frustrating the path of new legislation will have been cleared.
Assuming this is racing’s position by the beginning of April, it is estimated the sport can eventually look forward to receiving annual central funding of £90 million – a boost of around £35m, thanks to a levy being charged on all bets being placed by UK bettors on British horseracing. This will, crucially, include bets made online.
But that is only half of the good news; the other half is that racing will, for the first time in nearly 60 years, be able to have control over the funds it generates through betting. A Racing Authority, whose constitution is currently being put together, will take over the distribution role of the Levy Board from the beginning of next year, while the collection of funds from betting operators will be carried out by the Gambling Commission.
Unlike the Levy Board, the Racing Authority will be unfettered by either direct bookmaker or government involvement, although there must always be visibility that the authority is acting in the best interests of the whole industry.
It will mean the end of the annual ‘High Noon’ showdown between the betting and racing industries over which the government has frequently had to adjudicate. Not only that, but the current costs of supporting both the Bookmakers’ Committee and the Levy Board itself can instead be diverted into the overall fund for racing.
While almost all of the Levy Board’s income is spent on the ‘improvement of horseracing’, there are many strands of expenditure within that definition. Spending on prize-money, integrity and regulatory costs will certainly remain the Racing Authority’s main focus but for many years the Levy Board has helped to prop up a number of worthy causes – some of them not even related to horseracing – in order to comply with its statutory obligation. How many of these the Racing Authority will continue to support is unclear at this stage, but there is likely to be a good deal of sympathy shown towards veterinary science, especially when it relates to the thoroughbred horse.
A structure that ensures racing is master of its own destiny represents a golden opportunity for the sport, but, equally, the responsibility attached to this major change will not be lost on racing’s administrators. With a board made up of equal representation from the Horsemen’s Group, the Racecourse Association and the British Horseracing Authority, it would be naïve to believe there will not be frequent differences of opinion. But then all board members will surely be aware that disagreements must be kept behind closed doors.
Certainly, with the absolute need for the Racing Authority board to be unified, a case has been made for the board to have an independent chairman. While there is an argument that an outside, unbiased chairman would be able to advise and adjudicate on the inevitable difficult decisions, we still have to assess whether the functioning of this board would really be improved by the appointment of such a person.
The irony over Europe is inescapable but, that aside, there it is also something of an irony in that racing is about to control its own finances at a time when central funding no longer brings most money into the sport.
It is true that media rights are now racing’s biggest earner but these are harnessed by racecourses and racecourse groups, who naturally make spending decisions based on their own individual businesses. The Racing Authority, however, must be flexible and creative in deciding how to spend this central funding for the greater good of the sport.