Reforming our sport of utmost importance

07 March 2024

The recent decision by the BHA not to restrict the number of runners from one trainer and/or owner in major handicaps is to be applauded. The consultation process with stakeholder representatives was carried out properly, giving everyone the chance to submit their views and in this case those views were all aligned. However, there is a potential issue here around the sport’s appeal when races can be dominated numerically by a single trainer or owner.

The Dublin Racing Festival in early February saw a clean sweep of all eight Grade 1 races by Willie Mullins, with his yard providing just over 60% of the runners in those contests. Whilst this isn’t quite the same issue, when a sport becomes so dominated by one club or country the excitement and drama drops down a notch or two. As this is the March issue, most of us are focused on Cheltenham and I for one am hoping to see a diverse range of owners and trainers in the winner’s enclosure at the Festival.

Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but the clock on levy reform continues to tick and at the time of writing there is still no agreement between the industry group headed by the BHA and the betting operators, represented by the Betting and Gaming Council. The early April deadline makes it entirely possible that minister Stuart Andrew will need to make a determination based on the evidence that has been submitted by both sides.

However, things could get even more complicated, with increasing speculation that an election could be called in May rather than in the autumn. Either way, it is vital for the sport that a sensible and workable solution is found that can fill the gap in funding that has appeared since the last levy determination in 2017 and includes a mechanism that can guard against any future inflationary hiccups. Racing needs to be able to budget with some degree of certainty, with the levy not only funding a significant proportion of prize-money and BHA raceday costs but also other areas such as veterinary research and equine welfare.

There has been much written about the proposed gambling reforms, including excessive affordability and financial risk checks. The industry has been very active in supporting a petition and subsequent Westminster Hall debate, which will have taken place by the time you read this, as well as direct meetings with politicians from both sides of the house. What is interesting is the more nuanced approach of some betting operators, with examples of accounts being suspended for horseracing but remaining open for casino and slot games betting. This comes as no surprise given the chances of winning on one of these activities against the skill involved in horserace betting.

For many owners, having a punt on our horses is all part of the fun, and when the bookmakers are excessively restricting this activity citing affordability checks, we must call them out. The last thing that the racing and betting industries and the government need is a further drift towards the unregulated black-market betting operators, who give little or no customer protection and contribute zero to the levy.

With affordability checks and the cost of living having a big impact on betting turnover, the uncertainty of the economic prospects for the country, an imminent election, and the levy reform saga, it seems there are several clouds hanging over racing. However, there are some reasons to be optimistic, with 2023 data from the BHA showing an uptick in some key statistics. Whilst it is accepted that the levy does need reforming and that it should produce more money to help finance the industry, the development of premier racedays is ongoing alongside a raft of other initiatives launched in 2024 to take the sport forward.

The appetite for global investment in sport has never been stronger and there is no doubt that the flagship racing events in Britain are still seen around the world as the pinnacle. If the industry can unlock this potential and tap into new revenue streams, then prize-money could be improved at all levels, which would go some way to easing the pressure on owners and the issues around the supply of new bloodstock.

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