As we approach the fourth week of lockdown, and what seems like years since we last saw racing in the UK, there are calls from many in racing and in the wider world for a lifting of restrictions – at a time when we have seen the highest death rates so far in this pandemic! Timing could not be worse.
It is absolutely right that the BHA and Horsemen groups are planning for the return of racing, as many industries are, or should be doing, as a matter of course. However, it is very difficult to plan for anything when there are so many external variables, and we must not forget, people are seeing loved ones die on a daily basis. The discussions around racing pale into insignificance when lives are being lost. They are also poorly timed, at least when aired publicly, following the totally undeserved, but nonetheless very public attacks on Cheltenham Festival 2020.
When, like me, you are instrumental in bringing horses into the world – from the creation on paper, to the foaling and nursing at some un-godly hour of the night, it is
hard not to see what you are doing as the most important thing in the world. When what you do relies on income which has also been cut to zero, and you are already robbing Peter to pay Paul just to keep going because of historically poor sales figures in a majority of breeding operations, even before welfare and other issues, it can be the only focus of concern. But what must be remembered is that racing and all the activity and services surrounding it, is a sport and therefore relies heavily on good-will and financial investment of some sort from the public. If we become insular and think we can survive then we are wrong. There is far less money within racing than the amount of money required to keep it going, even with the £125 million levy reserve which is there for a rainy day, although those who hold the purse strings seem to think it is currently not rainy enough! If an industry supposedly worth £4 to 5 Billion is surviving only on this dwindling reserve then the whole system needs to be changed and that will need a complete change of attitude at the top.
So new money, and lots of it, is required via betting, racecourse admissions, television packages and new owners – all of which requires Joe Public to dip their hands in their pockets when the time comes to start again. And because of that, public perception, like it or not, is the most important asset we have at our disposal. But the industry cannot go to government and plead for funds when so many other sectors are in equally bad shape – and racing is seen by a public majority as a rich man’s sport at best, and an irrelevance in general.
What money there currently is will likely be diverted to trainers, jockeys and stable staff. And whilst these are absolutely deserving in some ways, the issue is that if owners and breeders are not supported then the long term funding will run out. These are the people that pay the bills and supply the raw material – and continue to be asked to pay adminsitration fees and training fees even whilst racing is stopped. They are also the people that have paid into the funding of racing over the years and should perhaps expect some respite when times are hard. They will determine the long term viability of racing and if treated poorly or forgotten now, they will leave in even greater numbers than they already are.
The large owners and breeders will certainly survive. But that takes care of the Pattern races and perhaps 15% of the trainers. The small trainer with 10 or 20 horses and owners made up of local businessmen and pub syndicates will be lost forever. Then the 840pm Class 6 0-50 handicap at Wolverhampton will be left with no horses and the £500 or whatever in levy, entry fees and TV rights that gives to racing will be lost forever too.
That is the reality for racing today, now! Not if we can stage Royal Ascot behind closed doors, but if we can stop the foundations of the sport disappearing forever. Some may
say that racing behind closed doors is fine but for many owners, paying to watch a live feed on a mobile telephone of a horse which you have paid to train, transport and enter into the race so that the BHA can charge you fees, the racecourse can sell media images of a horse you cannot video were you able to attend, and the bookies can make profit, is asking a little too much of the goodwill – particularly when the winner gets £1500 and the also rans can’t even get free coffee and biscuits in the lounge!
We are in uncharted, very choppy waters currently. Unlike foot & mouth or Equine Influenza of the past, the whole of society is changed in these times, not just racing. People who could afford horses now find themselves with no businesses or surviving on basic welfare payments, small breeders who have had a torrid time in the last few years have no reserves and little capital to realise in an already flat market. Where before a secondary income may have helped survive these times, these incomes are equally non-existent.
Racing must plan for resumption when it happens, but must do so quietly and without sounding needy or hurried. This is not just about turning the money tap back on, it is about the way it is done:
- distancing the sport from the charge that it is partly to blame for the spread of the virus whilst making sure any surge in infections does not happen at a time when racing resumes,
- looking after the source of the horses – owners and breeders,
- looking at a meaningful way of funding racing in future, devoid of sychophancy and self-preservation which colours rational thought,
Racing must be part of the recovery of this nation – the resumption of social events, the inclusion of spectators, the excitiment of sport. Racing has it all but sometimes it is woefully inadequate at taking full advantage of that fact. Racing must resonate with the public and remember that it is the public, be they owners, breeders, punters or good-time race-goers that need to be taken along on this incredible journey; showing why the sport is the 2nd highest watched sport in the country – because it is in tune with the public and reflects, albeit through a different lens, the reality of social life in a country in pain.