Racing: Can it survive with so much disparity?

Only last week we saw prices of 3.5 million guineas paid for a yearling, and the Tattersalls Book 1 median at a high of around £168K.  This week the Book 2 looks set to be a good earner for some breeders.  So from these figures it seems racing is in fine fettle.  However for those, like me, who have read Daniel Ross’s excellent study into the disparity between large and small training yards (TRC October 2018), his study has such resonance in other parts of the horse racing community also.

We are told that prize money is growing year on year – yes it is.  We are told that the growth in syndicates is at an all time high – yes it is.  We are told that access to the top stallions is the best it has ever been with bumper covering books in the hundreds for many stallions – yes it is.  However, what these messages do not reveal is the disparity across the industry.  It is something which, albeit the study focuses on trainers, Ross’s findings reflect the trends in the wider industry.

On Twitter recently, a comment was made to the effect that with huge auction prices, it was little wonder that new owners could not be attracted to the sport, and did breeders pay a levy from part of their fat profits?  In reality of course, the Book 1 sale at Newmarket accounts for only 3.5% of all yearlings sold into the market each year.  Of that, many come from overseas (Ireland and France) and so places at the sale become competitive.  This is only right as the best auction should attract the “best” horses.  The result however is not necessarily what racing needs to be a successful sport.

It is fair to say that those paying the extraordinary amounts for horses at auction are the same ones who have large interests in horses anyway and therefore, in line with Ross’s study, it is likely that these new purchases will end up with their usual trainers.  I note no one asked if the £1 million plus horses would be going to Stuart Williams or Jedd O’Keeffe or any number of the vast numbers of statistically excellent trainers in the “lower” echelons.  Instead the names were all those of the trainers we all see winning the Group 1’s every week.  Not for one moment do I blame these owners.  If I pay those kind of rates, then I want the best trainers – and many of those will be in that lofty position because they are retained by owners anyway.  Neither do I resent the success of these trainers – indeed they are rightly heroic figures.  The system however is building a glass ceiling and the resulting “them and us” is a real threat.

However that is the 3.5%  of the bred horses – not the remainder.  A rough estimate would say that of the 12000 or so horses bred each year, around 35-40 % will go to the sales on a good year.  80% of those will sell, although most at less than the cost of production (see the TBA Economic Impact Study 2018).  The remainder will be sold privately or even given away.

So we now have the fact that the most expensive horses go to the richest, most prolific owners, who send them to the top 10-20% of trainers.  On top of this, Ross highlighted that the prize money is so poorly distributed, further fuelling the problem of attraction and survivability for so many.  In 2017 60% of overall prize money went to Class 1 & 2 races.  The BHA figures for 2017 show there were 1172 races in these two classes – there were 9079 in all the others!

That means that 60% of prize money goes to just 11.4% of races in the calendar –   a strikingly similar ratio to the split of prize money to the number of trainers in the top tier according to Ross.  A rough estimate would say that this ratio is also quite similar when we look at the top priced horses and the breeders selling them.  One can argue that the best races should get the best prize money – and indeed that is quite right, but to such a degree?

Let us not forget that in order for a horse to become a Group winner it will have had to likely race in a Class 4 or 5 maiden.  They may even have been through a circuitous route due to a delayed  show of promise.   The lower tier races are the route for horses to get to the top tier and so if we do not have a healthy sport at the lower levels, it is highly likely that we will degrade the breed and the sport irrevocably.  They also bring forward horses which would otherwise go undiscovered were we, for example, to have a two tier, league type structure – an idea mooted in past years and which, thankfully, has been abandoned.  Football, for all its attractive benchmarks, is not the ideal model to use in racing.

Lastly, the BHA 2017 statistics show the average number of runners in a race is 8.2.  If, as we are led to believe, betting is the financial cash-cow of racing, then it is in the interests of racing to promote the vast majority of races (ie. those at Class 3 and below) to ensure this average rises and place-bet  payments can go to the first 4 more often that the first two or three over the line.  To do this it has to equalise the prize pool to invest in the 88.6% of races – and in the owners, trainers and breeders who are struggling against their own odds to fulfil the demand without the rewards.

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