Less talk and more action is essential
With the Flat season building towards its climax this month it would be remiss not to take the opportunity to congratulate all the sport’s participants on bringing us a truly memorable summer of racing. Whether it was Adayar in the King George, Starman in the July Cup or a sensational performance in the St Leger by Hurricane Lane, racing has put on a real show for the British public. Roll on the National Hunt and all-weather seasons.
What has shone through since the resumption of racing in June 2020 has been the resilience that the industry has shown in keeping the show on the road and moving the sport forward to new levels. This is in spite of poor returns from prize-money and real difficulties for owners and spectators in enjoying the oncourse experience. An enormous amount of work has been done by the BHA, as well as by the racecourses and the RCA, which has complemented the extraordinary efforts of trainers, stable staff, jockeys and all the supporting players to adapt to ever changing regulations and sometimes nonsensical rules.
If we also reflect upon the cross-industry working group’s efforts on levy reform, the gambling review and further engagement with bookmakers over initiatives that can help grow the sport, then one could begin to believe that we may now make real progress.
However, there remains at the heart of British racing serious issues around structure, financing and fixtures, which we seem to have been discussing for almost half a century.
I believe that all owners, whatever the size of their interest, are primarily in the game for the excitement and fun that the journey can bring us. However, increasing frustration around prize-money levels, which in real terms have remained level or even fallen over the course of many years despite the dramatic increases in revenue generated by media rights, leads to periodic outbursts of anger from owners and in some cases an ending of their direct relationship with the sport.
In addition, a perceived lack of real influence over the sport and an inability to help change the landscape can only increase the tensions, especially when international competition begins to flex its muscles. Despite very different funding and regulatory models, it is hard not to glance across the water and reflect on how poorly British racing is served on so many levels.
If we look at average prize-money per race, Britain languishes in seventh place when benchmarked against other jurisdictions, despite being the highest generator of ‘value’ if one looks at yearling sales or stallion values. The winner of the 2,000 Guineas, on a three-year average, creates almost three times the stallion value of the Dubai Turf or Breeders’ Cup winner, and almost double the winner of the Japanese Derby.
The average prize-money per race in Britain is £16,000, versus £22,000 in Ireland and £24,000 in France – and £155,000 in Hong Kong!
While we cannot target Hong Kong as our benchmark, we can and must look to compete with our direct neighbours and introduce some much-needed changes.
When we analyse the return from the levy it is reasonable to calculate, based upon the previous reform package and what was considered a necessary level, that we are somewhere around £35- £40 million per annum short on where we would hope to be. If we can plug that gap, and obviously not all levy funding is targeted at prize-money, then the average prize-money per race will start to edge up. Add to this schemes that help racecourses generate more income, be it the recently announced 2022 additional Sunday cards or some imaginative changes to the type and timing of races and fixtures, then we can secure a bigger slice of a larger cake direct from the racecourses.
We must start to build the momentum, attract more investment and generate greater returns across the whole of the racing landscape.
The second piece of the jigsaw is to ensure that the governance and structure across the industry allows these changes and advances to be made. If we can operate as a true joint venture between the sports venues, its participants and the BHA to allow growth, initiatives and a collaborative approach over the coming decades, then perhaps we can stop talking about these issues and really start addressing them.