Stalemate on betting levy reform must be overcome
Well, 2024 is now very much up and running and as I write we have already had a number of Premier racedays and the first of the Sunday evening fixtures. It is fair to say that the ‘soft launch’ of Premier days has elicited a mixed reaction. Anything that is described in those terms is bound to be somewhat underwhelming, but there are a series of initiatives being worked on around presentation, broadcasting and promotion that will see the concept evolve over the coming months.
The first Sunday Premier fixture, held at Plumpton on January 7, was run for £90,000 more than the equivalent fixture in 2023, which was welcomed by owners and trainers alike and enjoyed by a buoyant crowd of over 2,600 people, the highest figure on record when that Sunday fixture does not fall on New Year’s Day weekend. It also featured an amazing recovery by jockey Joe Anderson on Transmission to win the inaugural running of the valuable Sussex Stayers Handicap Hurdle.
The Sunday evening slot with its enhanced prize-money – £145,000 for the first card at Wolverhampton – saw 203 entries and very healthy field sizes. The owners interviewed all referenced the prize-money as the incentive to declare and run. There were some negative comments from a couple of jockeys but interestingly some quotes from stable staff were more positive. The key is to analyse the betting data when it is available to gauge what impact the time slot will have on betting revenues, levy income and media rights uplift. The industry is committed to a trial of six of these fixtures in early 2024 so we will have a good view of this aspect of the new strategy fairly quickly.
Unfortunately, the New Year has also seen the same old stalemate with the bookmakers over betting levy reform. It is not even a case of one step forward and two back anymore, more like a brick wall. The industry presented its case for a review based upon the common interest that racing and bookmaking share, which clearly showed the need to increase levy returns, partly to offset inflation and partly to absorb some of the dramatic rises in the cost of owning and running racecourses. I can’t quite believe that the industry asked for an early review in 2021 and almost three years later, despite positive comments at the time, we have now reached the year of the original planned review.
Despite accepting the need for reform, the bookmakers’ offers failed to tackle the point at issue, i.e. this is a review of the levy and not what they contribute through other channels into racing. The government is obliged to review the Horserace Betting Levy in the spring, but it seems almost certain now that the minister Stuart Andrew will have to intervene in the process, something which he has not been keen to do, preferring an agreed position between racing and betting.
It may be that the bookmakers were playing a waiting game in the hope that there would be a change of government and the levy would slip further down the agenda, but we are now looking at an autumn general election. In any case, a Labour government could well be more stringent on perceived problem gambling and look at levy reform as a way of looking after the racing industry.
The petitions committee has confirmed that a parliamentary debate around affordability checks will be held on February 26, following racing’s petition exceeding the threshold of 100,000 signatures. This remains a key issue for 2024 and beyond, as there have been some worrying financial updates from betting operators pointing towards the checks as a significant reason for the marked downturn. Sense must prevail to avoid a big reduction to revenues.
Away from racing politics, one item at the top of the news lists in recent weeks has been the horrendous weather over Christmas and New Year. Witnessing at first hand the work that goes on in racing yards and stud farms despite those challenging conditions is truly inspiring and demonstrates the passion that the staff involved have for their horses. Rain, floods, gales, and freezing conditions have all been prevalent, but our horses still need looking after. Caring for and training the horses is a tough and physically demanding business at the best of times but doing it whilst having to deal with the worst the elements can throw at you demonstrates the dedication and professionalism of the industry’s workforce.
However, a new year brings new excitement and new dreams, with the first of the 2024 foal crop on the ground and exciting two- year-olds fueling owners’ dreams for the season ahead. Good luck to you all, whatever your involvement in the racing game.