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Reasons to be cheerful

Nicolas CooperBy ROA President Nicholas Cooper

What will the New Year bring for British racing? There is a lot on the sport’s political agenda, not least the effect of whatever is eventually decided on Brexit and the extent to which this might restrict the free movement of horses within Europe. But, important though this is, it is a subject for another day, when the Brexit parameters have finally been drawn.

Closer to home, what can we make of the Levy Board having again received a stay of execution now that government reforms have, at least temporarily, hit the buffers? It is well known the Board’s distribution function was to be placed into the hands of a new Racing Authority, while the Gambling Commission was to take on the collection of levy funds. It seems this change can only now come about through primary legislation, but it is anybody’s guess, in this period of political turmoil, as to when the necessary parliamentary time can be found.

So much work has gone in to setting up the Racing Authority under the chairmanship of Sir Hugh Robertson, who showed great magnanimity in suggesting in his recent Gimcrack speech that we should now exercise caution in continuing to push for the Levy Board’s demise.

Those who felt this was a strange reaction from a man who was going to be in charge of a body that was to supersede the Board, should perhaps think again. Rocking the Levy Board boat is maybe not a wise thing to do in these uncertain times and racing has, in any case, gained the most important advantage in this area when levy payments were extended to include overseas bookmakers taking bets on UK racing, this having already produced a substantial increase in the levy yield.

Sir Hugh also pointed out that much of the parliamentary debate about the Levy Board’s future was used by some MPs as a platform for their views on animal welfare as it relates to racing.

Welfare is indeed a recurring theme among those who view racing from the outside and, while we must always be forthright in our reaction to attempts to change our sport, we cannot be blind to public perception, which is so often reflected in how governments think.

It is, then, easy to predict that 2019 and beyond will see a further hardening of public attitude towards animal welfare, with an increased focus on such precious events as the Grand National and Cheltenham, to say nothing of the use of the whip, which outside of racing is increasingly viewed as being unacceptable.

It is easy to understand, as Nick Rust said in his recent Racing Post article, why racing folk should be defensive about these issues when most of them would rather maim themselves before hurting the horses in their care, but, sadly, public perception often does not take this into account.

We have also seen how government has shown its commitment to protecting vulnerable elements in our society with the new FOBTs legislation to be implemented in the spring, safer gambling restrictions being imposed on the betting industry and pressure having successfully been put on bookmakers to curb TV advertising during general sports coverage.

Although the reduction of stakes on FOBTs will cause betting shop closures, with its inevitable impact on racing’s income, it is reassuring that racing has been excluded from the betting advertising exemption on sporting events, thereby ensuring that our sport can continue to enjoy the all-important exposure it currently receives from ITV.

Horserace betting once accounted for 80% of betting shop business. Those times will never return but enough has happened in the past year to suggest the sport of horseracing continues to be seen as the perfect betting medium. Not just by many of those who bet but by those who regulate betting. For all our problems, this is reassuring as we go into 2019.

January 2019

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