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BHA appointment can prove inspired

Rachel Hood agm 2014From the desk of the ROA President Rachel Hood

Those who might feel uncomfortable about giving the job of BHA Chief Executive to a man who has spent much of his working life in the betting industry should think again.

I believe, and sincerely hope, the appointment of Nick Rust is an inspired one. The fact that the current Head of Retail for Ladbrokes has ability, drive and a passion for racing is not at issue. Neither is the fact that he knows all about racing’s many intricacies. He describes himself as a passionate racing enthusiast who has worked in bookmaking, as opposed to a bookmaker who has worked in racing.

But those who find it extraordinary that we have given a leading betting industry figure the top job in racing when most of us have decried bookmakers for their paltry contribution to our sport should realise that Nick Rust will come to racing with a breadth of knowledge that is close to being unique.

Also, as a racehorse owner, he will have a good understanding of how poor prize-money hardly makes a dent in the expenses of most owners and how the dire economics of the sport reflect on stable staff and racing’s grass roots.

The importance of betting as a source of income to racing – not just through money collected by the levy but through media rights and sponsorship – is not in doubt. It wasn’t long ago that Nick was on record as saying these three major income sources should be viewed as a sort of bookmaker package. Coming from a Ladbrokes’ man, our suspicions were raised but now, in his new role, it will be interesting to hear his views.

This appointment is not, however, simply about employing a man who knows how to squeeze more money from his former colleagues. It is as much to do with using the specialised knowledge he has to increase the amount of betting that takes place on horseracing and in showing bookmakers there are benefits from increasing their promotion of racing. The so-called symbiotic relationship is a card he will doubtless play to its full effect.

Of course, Nick will need to convince racing’s constituents they have to show greater flexibility and a better grasp of the big picture. Next year’s fixture list will have been put to bed well before his arrival but the problems that surround the annual fight over the allocation of fixtures will provide him with plenty to think about in the years to come.

All the arguments as to whether the fixture list should be constructed primarily to maximise income or to fit the horse population will be well known to him. Likewise, the equally important subjects of the race programme, small fields (particularly relating to jump racing) and getting the balance right between turf and all-weather fixtures.

Nick will, of course, be joining the BHA at a time when racing’s focus will be on discussions with government about creating a sustainable, commercially-based relationship between racing and betting and whether we take the route of levy reform or levy replacement, whereby a new Horserace Betting Authorisation would empower the sport to authorise all betting activity on racing in return for an appropriate contribution from bookmakers. There are many complex arguments surrounding this most important of all issues, and Nick will be able to hit the ground running, unlike some of his recent predecessors.

He will also know that racing is primarily an entertainment business and, while attracting large crowds and converting people from being casual racegoers into racing enthusiasts is a crucial role of the sport’s governing authority, racing’s relationship with large numbers of people comes predominantly through betting.

These, then, are the main reasons why Nick Rust, under Steve Harman’s chairmanship, is a wise choice to take racing forward. His appointment also sends an irrefutable message that the BHA, far from being purely a regulator, is a body with broad and definite ambitions for the whole sport.

8 December 2014

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