Balancing act to boost bloodstock and betting
It has been heartening to see so many owners and fans back on racecourses. Despite a wet August it feels fantastic to see the sport returning to normal. Now we are into the sales season, with strong trade already seen in Deauville, which I hope will continue to demonstrate the strength of our sport and product.
The sales are a reminder that while we focus on racing as a sport and a revenue generator at the highest level, the breeding and bloodstock industry provide the horses for racing. It follows that our race programme has to match our horse population and support the development of the horses as they mature.
When we look at our bloodstock product and our racing product, we must ensure that they work in harmony and, together, protect the future of the racing industry in Britain.
Sadly, horses in training figures for this year show that the two-year-old horse population in the UK is falling – and dramatically so. We have seen a decline of around 9% in 2021. This may be in part due to a contraction in the breeding crop, albeit the class of 2021 were conceived in 2018, well before Covid arrived. But it could also be to do with where the two-year-old crop are plying their trade, away from the UK. Many professionals from overseas racing jurisdictions have recognised the quality of our bloodstock, the way they are reared and raised, and are investing earlier.
However, the UK also has a race programme that is becoming less attractive for young horses when compared against our international competitors with respect to potential rewards.
This is in part due to a move away from the balance between a strong developmental race programme and good betting races. We are beginning to focus on driving only betting revenue with shorter pathways to handicaps and more juvenile racing.
You can already run a horse in a handicap chase that’s never jumped a fence, not that I would want to! We are losing maidens and novice races because people don’t bet on them as much – and therefore they are not as valuable to racecourses as a fixture full of handicaps. We need to assess this pathway carefully.
With a lack of investment into the developmental race programme, you start to lose young horses from racing too. You are driving investors, whose value is in the paddock, away and into the hands of other racing jurisdictions.
We need to look at balancing the product again, to support the needs of those investing in bloodstock, betting and racing.
It is something we must bear in mind as we look at our race programme going forward to maintain investment in UK racing, from owners and breeders, both large and small. I believe we can provide a product that creates a strong bloodstock pipeline, develops the breed and more high-quality horses, whilst maximising betting revenues. It is necessary to do so to protect our future.
For example, the industry should look at current Rules of Racing that stipulate which cards must host a maiden. We know which fixtures are better betting days, with more engagement on and off course, so let’s maximise those days and deliver the right race programme. We also know which days and times of the week are less popular with punters and racegoers, with lower engagement. So why not tweak the programme to align strong revenue-generating races on high engagement days and ensure a strong developmental programme on lower engagement days.
Alongside that, you can continue to promote and maximise revenue from existing races, driving field sizes up and maintaining the numbers of horses in training. More radically, you could look at improving prize-money for developmental races, like last month’s maiden at York, as the sport did with the funds from the Sports Winter Package, which saw material investment in the maiden race programme. These sorts of initiatives promote the development of the horse and an interest in keeping young horses in the UK.
British racing should be aspirational. Horses need to be given space to develop and get their handicap mark. If we rush horses through the development race programme with a lack of investment, be that time or financially, you could even start harming the betting product. I hope that we keep sight of the future and maintain the balance to maximise revenue across the sport from breeder to owner to racecourse, and keep the quality of the breed as a priority across the whole industry.