ROA Election – Let Me Be Your Voice

In a few days, ROA members should be receiving the voting forms for the upcoming Racehorse Owners Association Executive Committee election.  You will also receive a copy of the Thoroughbred Owner & Breeder, in which you will see my advertisement (below).Ad pic

In the advert, I set out the points of my manifesto, and you can read more about these in the ROA candidate booklet too.  However, I wanted to contact ROA members and a wider audience in the hope of further explaining why I am standing, and my key aims if I am privileged enough to be elected as your representative.

Prize-money

For many owners, this is a key concern, and therefore likely to be a key promise by candidates.  However, simply saying that prize money should be raised is both naive and impossible, without looking at funding, distribution and revisiting the race program.

Those of you that have read my previous blogs will have seen my detailed study of prize money distribution (click here to see it).  Suffice to say, the vast majority of races not only receive the least proportion of the prize fund, but they also provide  the income for most of the fund in the first place.  This cannot be fair and therefore this distribution needs to be more fairly delivered.  That said, the prize fund is not bottomless, and may indeed be due to shrink in the next year or so if nothing is done to overcome the likely loss of income due to the closure of betting shops.

To combat this, we need to first look at the betting market.  The BHA data shows the average field size in all racing is 8.  That means that about 50% of races have less runners than this.  Eight runners is the threshold at which the each way betting market pays out on the top 3 places.  Therefore, if the field sizes increase, then we should see improved each way markets, and as such, increased bets being placed.  Larger fields also attract better returns for racecourses and give the watching public more of a spectacle to watch.  This, in turn, will increase the likelihood that racecourses will offer prize money at such levels as to ensure the levy unlock, and as a result, owners will receive prize money down to the minor places.  I aim to ensure this part of the funding is retained, protected and expanded in future in the hope that owners can at least realise a level of appearance money.

As many readers will be aware, there have been plans to introduce city racing and a Super League team based competition.  Prize money in excess of £100K is promised for every race!  One has to ask, if this kind of funding can be found for races which do not even exist in the race program, then why can why not generate such sponsorship for races which already exist and have a depth and history unique to British racing?  There are many such examples, which, if those who would design new types of racing are to be believed, could attract all of this sponsorship money more readily and pay out the same, if not higher levels of prize-money, allowing the funding from the levy to be diverted to the lower levels of the sport.  We are seeing the highest levels of prize money ever, yet this is not reflected in the prize money paid in most races – which has to be the result of a poorly planned race program.

The Race Program

This brings me to the race program itself.  You only have to look at some of the fields for races, particularly in NH, to see that the numbers of races, now larger than at any time in history, is reducing the number of runners.  This is through increased demand to supply any type of racing into the betting shops, and so increase TV rights fees, never mind the quality.  One only has to try to juggle with split screens and delayed highlights of races to see that quantity is all and quality is secondary.  By quality, I do not mean they all need to be class 3 and above, but I mean competitive races, with a wide field and therefore a healthy betting market – at whatever level.  The introduction of these “gimmick” events mentioned above will only serve to rip the program into shreds, and, heaven forbid, set up some kind of league based racing system.  The whole attraction of racing is that the program allows an owner with a horse to aspire to win the best races – whilst any kind of separation by leagues or competition would build glass ceilings and restrict the chances of horses, and their owners, to aspire to greatness.  Without dreams, this sport, as an owner, offers little other reward.

The introduction of such a model has indeed brought great riches in other sports – to a select few, but many more have suffered from an inability to compete.  You only have to look at the FA Cup in football.  We are told any team can win, but in reality, the final is inevitably between premier league teams, and the richest of those invariably wins the day.  That is not something we should strive for in racing, but it is something we are at risk of seeing in the current direction of travel.

Prize Money & The Race Program are inextricably linked to the future of the thoroughbred as well as to the sport.

As a breeder as well as an owner, the program and the funding of it, is imperative to the survival of studs and to the thoroughbred racehorse.  Trade at the sales for all but the very highest level of horses has been poor of late.  Most breeders are small operators and happy to breed to less fashionable stallions.  This not only retains the

prize money distribution

BHA Statistics show that 80% of races (ie. Cl4 and below) earn only 35% of the prize fund – this cannot be right or fair!

depth of the gene pool, but offers a market for horses to the majority of owners who do not have the 6 or 7 figure budgets of the large racing operations.  It is important then that the majority of owners, racing in the majority of races (80% of races are at class 4 and below), can hope to win decent prize-money and ensure this part of the industry is thriving at the sales.  It is this level, after all that is not just the grass-roots, but also the foundation, of all racing in the UK for without them, over 80% of the funding for prizes would not be found.  Which brings us back to the original point – that prize money should be more fairly distributed.  For more on this see my previous blog by clicking here

In order to make racing even more popular, it needs to attract the public not through alcohol fuelled betting, but by showing how it is part of the history and fabric of society.  Flooding the program with races which, either through timing or the race conditions, see match races and low field numbers, will not attract spectators.  By projecting racing as a story of endeavour and hope, whilst making things like the Jockey Championship more relevant by reflecting the whole season, rather than a limited part of it, will bring racing back more firmly into the public perception.  We all became owners following an introduction to the sport so we need to ensure this continues, in order to ensure new owners join in.

Welfare

The ROA, together with the other Horsemen Group members, works with the BHA to ensure the welfare of our horses is paramount.  There are some that say that by discussing it in the industry, we are enabling those that would have this sport banned.   The fact is, we are not telling them anything they do not already know – or should I say think they know.  There is a diminishing return in countering their arguments with pictures of horses being well cared for by their trainers and grooms – because the “antis” have made their minds up and whatever we show is the “exception” rather than the rule in their minds.  And of course when a horse is injured on the track, they shout that the reason we do care for the horses is through a sense of guilt and we do it to assuage ourselves of the underlying fact that we send our horses out to die every time they race – or worse still, cast them aside to the vivisectionists!  We should not rise to these lies, but instead prove them wrong.  (Click here to see my previous blog on this issue)

The approach that the BHA and the ROA need to take is not to defend against those who would not listen, but to confront their lies with facts and talk to the general public.  This will mean perhaps better data collection from those as yet not compelled to collect it (breeders, trainers, vets etc.) as we look at contributory factors to injury and other issues such as diets from birth, medical care, training regimes etc.  That said, we have a high level of data already, added to the excellent initiatives around rehoming, retraining and general welfare which is at the centre of this sport. We should not even aim these facts at those who have already made up their minds, but at the public who only ever see the reaction and propaganda in the 1 or 2 days after Aintree or Cheltenham, and do not understand that racing offers horses the best chance of a healthy and happy life, when compared to the many other horses across the UK who suffer injury and abuse.   As a member of the ROA Executive I will work to dispel the myths and build on the facts.

In Conclusion

Since entering into ownership, both in syndicates and as an individual owner,  and breeding horses through Abacus Bloodstock, I have always tried to spread the joy of being involved in this sport.  It is an industry in as much as we need to break even in the production of the horse, and we need to give owners a fighting chance, with a half decent horse, that they will cover at least some of their training fees.  However it is also the only sport where anyone, with any budget, can be part of a top flight sports team.  This is not possible in any other sport.  As an owner you can turn up with a horse for which you pay £100 per month and compete against Godolphin or Coolmore on equal terms.  I will never forget going to Lingfield Park with a horse I was given – only to beat a $450K import from America, ridden by Dettori, or going to Royal Ascot with a horse we bred, and seeing him lead home his side of the field (as ever the speed, and the winner, was on the other side!).  That is horse racing – that is what I want to share with people, be they existing owners, or twice a year punters.  Owners provide the most pivotal role in this wonderful sport and that is why I implore you to let me be your voice in the ROA elections.

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Welfare – Don’t shoot the messenger, front it out!

chelt19After a week of some of the very best NH racing in many years at Cheltenham, particularly in my view on the Thursday, it is sad to see that the over-riding echo at the end of it all is horse welfare.

The deaths of three horses at the festival is without doubt very distressing, made all the more poignant by the obvious sadness and emotion displayed by the trainers, owners and stable staff.  For all of those claiming a deep rooted welfare issue in the sport, the reaction of those closest to these horses must surely refute those unfounded and untrue charges.

Sadly, however, racing is an easy target.  As Nick Rust from the BHA said only today on TV, we cannot have a 100% fatality free sport.  The only way to ensure that is to stop racing altogether – an aim for many anti-racing organisations, with publicly recognised

job sir erec

Joseph O’Brien & Sir Erec

animal welfare organisations amongst them.  It is easy to say that the fatality rate in horses is low (0.022% from recent figures), and that it is falling further, but the fact is that when a horse dies in a televised race, watched by millions, it will have a negative effect on racing.  We cannot as an industry bury our heads in the sand on that, or claim that those who protest loudly know nothing about racing.   After all, it is exactly those people new to racing who we must be attracting in order to maintain and grow the sport.

I have read some very disparaging comments about the BHA and Mr. Rust specifically today.  The fact is, he is right.  We cannot pretend that we have welfare at the heart of all we do and leave it at that.  We must educate, we must engage and we must be seen to be doing something – most particularly for those with the loudest anti-racing voices.  In short we must “front it out”.

ITV Racing has to be saluted for the openness they show when horses go down injured.  If not during broadcast, they will inevitably update on social media – the good and the bad.  They provide the ideal, and potentially only, public platform to educate and inform.  They do so without the need to sensationalise like the written press, to sell newspapers.

express hline

An example of the emotive headlines seen this week

Despite the time lag between racing finishing, and the printed newspapers being circulated, this search for headlines inevitably prevents any follow-up research from being done by journalists who, sadly, know little if anything about racing.  This is of course because, despite the sport being the second most followed after football, the number of papers covering racing from an editorial viewpoint is tiny, and reducing every year.  Those journalists that lived racing and understood it are a dying breed – replaced by headline seekers.  The Racing Post, superb for racing in many ways, cannot do this as it is a “trade” paper preaching to the converted already in most cases.

This surely means that having accessible and informative data out in the public domain is needed.  Not just statistics, but real stories depicting the care of horses, the veterinary advances, the life of a racehorse compared to other horses (and the positive comparisons that will show up).  The industry has published a number of good videos about this, and once again, ITV Racing and the satellite channels do features on all aspects of a racehorses care and lifestyle – albeit, in the case of the latter to those who already have an understanding.  Great advances have been made through procedures on

raceday, redesign of fences, retraining and aftercare of retired horses.  Of course there is only so much we can do, but what we do should be contrasted with the plight of horses elsewhere in the general population.  Far more horses die in a field for the want of even a small proportion of the attention and care afforded to thoroughbred racehorses.

We must broaden the appeal and accessibility of racing to the public – facing up to the negative and working to show the positives.  Otherwise the only experience that the general public get of racing is when they see stories of deaths or injuries in the news – hardly an attractive prospect for a day out.  Like it or not, the vast majority of the public do not understand or even follow racing.  If the only news they get is negative, backed up by spurious claims from organisations that would do better to concentrate on real areas of abuse and cruelty,  then this is their lasting and only impression of racing.  When it comes to a vote therefore, the party that panders to these perceptions wins, and then, as we saw only a few months from the select committee, racing will be unable to save itself.

I, like many others, who have lived with horses from foals to retirees, always remember the ones we lose.  Not through guilt but because we loved them and we miss them, and we wish it could have been different – comforted in the knowledge that we could not have given them a better life while we had them.  And that is nothing to be ashamed of – it is something to publicly celebrate.

Focus Is Needed!

Welcome to my blog: And to start I want to say thank you to Emma Berry who wrote her last article for the Owner & Breeder in this month’s edition.  Emma – you have been a constant source of inspiration, ideas and knowledge.  Good luck for the future.

3 Key Parts

As racing jerks from one issue to another we must remember three areas that, in my view, must remain core for racing to survive:

  1. Planning of the Race Program

As I have written before, there are issues around the race program which need to be Capture2addressed.  In my earlier blogs I have written about prize money distribution and the lack of big fields.  I am firmly of the belief that less racing will mean more income from betting.  The BHA published figures show that the average number of runners in all races is 8.2 horses.  That means therefore that roughly 50% of races are below that figure, and as such do not offer a 3 place each-way betting market – a key to income as we have seen with large handicaps even at the lowest levels; generating punter interest.  Even Martin Cruddace of ARC agreed that 80% of rights and levy income is derived from Class 4-7 racing! Anyone in business will tell you that the big spender is always nice, but businesses survive on the regular, low level income provided by regular customers.  Reduce the number of races by a small amount, think about the distribution and timing of those races, and the income from small bets will boost any loss due to volume of races and maybe even lessen some of the FOBT impact. – after all if the FOBT stake has reduced we could see some of that money diverted back to core betting.

2. Preservation of the Race Program

In planning the race program better, we must not allow the introduction of a two or three tier system.  Whilst we may wish to see racing emulate football’s Premier League, we have a very different sport.  Horses need to be nurtured and for two year olds this can mean a Class 5 maiden – which is a spring board to greater things.  In my own case, a

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A combined race program allows every horse & owner the chance to dream big!

horse I bred won just such a race and in so doing we were able to go to Royal Ascot and finish in the top half of the Windsor Castle Stakes a month later.  Likewise many group winning horses came up through what we term as “lower grade” races, but are in fact the nursery for most horses and an invaluable tool in allowing all owners to dream of the big win.  If we put up a barrier by introducing leagues or separate team competitions, that ability to dream will disappear and so might 80% of the owners and their horses.  If the argument is that this action would encourage more sponsorship and interest then are we seriously saying that the current program of world renown racing cannot?   After all it would be hard to find an improvement on Cheltenham Festival, Royal Ascot, Champions Day, York, Aintree, Goodwood & & ………. (need I go on?)

3. It’s not ALL about the winning!

We hear about the levels of prize money and, for sure, it is not sufficient.  However, let us be serious for a moment and look at the facts.  There are around 17000 horses in training, competing in around 6500 races.  Even if there were a different winner for every race, over 10000 horses would never win sufficient prize money to cover their costs.  Therefore, whilst it would be nice to think all owners were able to race for nothing, even if we were to increase prize money ten-fold, only the top three or four placed horses would earn any money.  The others would still race for no return. It is a pipe-dream to think that we can run our sport as a profitable business as owners. It is therefore important to remember that the recent introduction of the extended prize fund down to 8th place is key.  Whilst I agree that the prize fund levels at the ARC tracks (and some others) are woeful, it was the fact that in cutting the prize money, ARC also lost the unlock threshold that really should be concerning us.  To be clear, a class 6 race at an ARC track has a prize fund of £3500 spread over 4 horses.  By unlocking the additional fund (ie. increasing the racecourse generated minimum to £4400), the total prize fund becomes just short of £6600 – divided by eight horses! (Thanks to Nicholas Cooper from the ROA for the figures)

Based on the figures already mentioned, whilst we can never realistically hope to cover our costs for racing, it would go a long way if every race were able to pay every entrant (remember average race fields are 8.2 horses) the cost of the entrance fee,  jockey, the transport and maybe even a pint at the races!  We must fight not only to preserve this excellent incentive, but to extend it across the majority of the program.

Happy (hopefully soon) Racing everyone.

 

Is the worm about to turn?

Looking at social media today, there seems a growing discontent around the levels of prize money paid out at the lower end of the racing calendar.  I say “lower end”, but in truth it is the end of the sport which actually supports the remainder, particularly in the Winter season where there is a choice of low runner NH racing or flood-lit all weather racing to see us (and the levy) over the dark months.

Much of the discontent comes with Arena Racing Company or ARC as it is better known.  This racecourse owner’s decision to cut prize money in response to the yet to happen FOBT stake cap has figured prominently in my own pages and those of many others.  This evening (Monday) every race at ARC owned Newcastle will pay winning connections less than £3000.  At Sedgefield (another ARC track) Thursday’s Class 5 handicap hurdle will pay just £2274 to winning connections.  Due to the woefully low prize money, the appearance money which is unlocked for horses after prize money exceeds a certain level will not be available either.

Prize Money Distribution

Recent letters to the BHA, TBA and ROA have resulted in replies from all three organisations.  I will go into detail in another post, but I would like to share one piece of data sent from the BHA.

The table below shows the ratio of prize money distributed by class of race.  What it does not show is the number of races in each category.  This of course means that whilst the table shows the percentage, the per race prize fund is massively higher at the top end than the table suggests.  By numbers, around 80% of the race program is for class 4 and below races.  With 1500 fixtures this year, at an average of 6 races per meeting, that equates to 7200 of the total 9000 races planned.

prize money distribution

Figures courtesy of the BHA Jan 2019

As you will see from the table, these races are allocated just 35% of the prize fund in 2019.  Nick Rust points out that this is “boosted” to this level by the introduction of the appearance money scheme by around 5%.    £165million was paid out from all sources in prize money in 2018  meaning 7200 races received around £57.75million, whilst 1800 races received £107.25million.  Of course this is somewhat skewed as in reality, the prize fund includes entry stakes and sponsorship funding – the highest of which will be at the highest levels of the sport, further boosting funds at this level.    Obviously with ARC courses rarely paying appearance money by falling short of the unlock figure, the true distribution at ARC courses is far worse – and is to the further detriment of class 4 to 7 horses due to these being the races which attract the appearance money.

What can we do?

The National Trainers Federation were the first of the Horseman groups to communicate their dissatisfaction with ARC, and I know there is similar sentiment at the TBA and ROA.  From Nick Rust at the BHA, I am also aware that they are far from happy either.  The issue is of course that the racing fixtures have been agreed and therefore ARC cannot be dispossessed of the races.  Neither can these Horseman groups be seen to launch a boycott against ARC, as this would cause a likely court case and is not something these organisations could recommend given their role in the industry.  However, there is nothing stopping their members failing to enter horses at ARC tracks. It is not just owners who go inadequately rewarded after all, but also those who share a percentage of any purse – trainers, stable staff, jockeys and ultimately breeders all rely on a healthy and fair system of prize money; many of them as a matter of business survival.  One meeting, with a horse entered in each race (after all we would not want ARC to save the prize money altogether), and the BHA denying any future right for ARC races to be divided due to numbers, would send the right message.  If individuals work together, then the Horseman groups can support this action without fear of legal reprisal, and perhaps ARC will see that to survive they need horses and owners.

Back to the drawing board

What is apparent from the various communications I have received and seen elsewhere is that the number of races in the calendar exceed any form of sustainable level.  With total prize money at its highest level, we are seeing connections paid less than they were 10 years ago in many cases.  Simple long division will show that the numbers of races are madness.  Add to this the quality of coverage on Racing TV since the beginning of the year.  I am fully aware that they also show Irish racing, with the argument being that TV coverage pays for the levy through TV rights and betting income.  However, the numbers of races means that this channel cannot hope to cover all the races at once, and when they do, it is with no depth around the horses or the people – a dimension  which has paid dividends for ITV coverage; attracting new viewers – and maybe even new owners as a result.  My hope is that we see a cut in races in the next round of scheduling in order to ensure larger fields (and therefore a bigger each way betting market) and better returns for connections.  Less is more!

 

One Month In – 2019

It seems that Christmas was months ago with all the goings-on in the last month or so.  We have finalised our mating plans for this season with 2 mares off to see new boy Poet’s Word at Shadwell Stud, one to Darley’s Group 1 winner Outstrip, and another to Lethal Force who stands at Cheveley Park.  The A14 will become a very familiar road in the next few months!

As you will be aware, the market for horses is fairly tough at present, but we hope that

wilma

Wilma joins Abacus

by improving our broodmare band, and choosing commercially attractive stallions, we will be able to survive where others, sadly, have had to quit the business.  It is far from easy though – with somewhere like £15000 needed to raise a newborn to yearling stage, returns are way behind investments for many.  Our new addition, Willbeme (Kyllachy), should prove a successful broodmare given she was a multiple winning sprinter rated in the high 90’s and has black-type listed status – as well as a rare pedigree free from both Danehill and Sadlers Wells lines.  Wilma, as we call her, joined us only a week or so ago and has settled in well for what will be her maiden season.

The Battle continues….

Those of you that follow me either on here or on Twitter will be aware that I have contacted the BHA, TBA and ROA to discuss some issues raised by me and many others around the worrying challenges facing all parts of the industry.  I have now received a reply from each of them and will be posting the letters in the coming weeks, together with some next steps.  Whilst the parties I have written to represent important parts of the industry, they can at times seem to be representing an element which seems far removed from the majority of horsemen and race-goers.  We must hold them accountable as paying members and producers of the raw materials needed to make racing happen – whilst ensuring we do not see a widening gap between the various levels of the sport.  After all we all breed, own and train horses with the hope they will win a Derby, or a July Cup or a Champion Hurdle depending on our preferences.  To lose the hope of that would be more damaging than any funding or Brexit crisis.

ARC Prize Money Decision

It is a travesty that ARC group have decided to reduce the prize money on offer at their arc logotracks even before the reduction in the FOBT stake has come into effect.  There is no doubt that the loss of income to bookmakers, and the resultant dip in likely payments into the levy, will threaten current levels of prize money.  However, for ARC to act so prematurely, with the result being that this will also reduce the likelihood of the excellent appearance money payments for owners due to not reaching the threshold required, is scandalous.  The industry is working hard to find alternate sources of funding to maintain levels and other racecourses are honouring their commitments pending an outcome. One can only hope that an immediate reduction is made to the money paid to ARC by the levy.   I suggest that if ARC are not willing to stand by those who provide the horses for their races, then owners and trainers should think twice about supporting their racecourses.

Welfare is ours to sort

Following the BHA’s much publicised self-inflicted foot shooting incidents of late (coat waving, hind shoes etc.)  and their statement that horses should race due to their own “free will”, the industry is coming increasingly under pressure to address public welfare concerns.  In my view, a small but vociferous anti-racing faction is making the very most of the opportunities presented to them both through deaths of horses, and through the Capturemisguided actions and statements from within the sport.  Whilst the horse people amongst us will react with dismissals based upon long-held practices, racing needs to recognise some of these concerns.  In my view these should be tackled head on.  We should be happy to open our doors to the discussions, but by the same token, we need to back up our beliefs and arguments with facts.  We all know that the “whip” is nothing more than a foam padded stick which, used correctly, does no harm to the horse, but if we are arguing that it is a safety requirement then let us show that to be the case.  In the case of equine deaths, rather than flattening fences and likely increasing the likelihood of injury at speed, let us compare these with deaths from paddock injuries or look at the root causes (if such things exist) and address the issues with science and irrefutable evidence.  Likewise, the industry is showing the professional and caring side of racing.  This must be increased by open days, by inviting those that would ban racing to visit the yards and see for themselves, and by ensuring retired horses have useful, safe lives after racing.  We do so much good in this area, but fail to really engage the lay-man on these key areas.

It is not helped of course when Australian trainer Darren Weir is only today banned for 4 years for cruelty.  It is a world away both literally and metaphorically from how horses are looked after usually – but the press surrounding this will once again fuel the ardour of those who would steal our sport away.  Weir’s punishment, whilst affecting many staff and suppliers, in my view is nowhere near sufficient for the damage he has done to racing in Australia and worldwide – and the likely suffering he has overseen.  

Please drop me a line with your comments either on here, on my Twitter page or by email.  Meanwhile enjoy the racing and stay safe. – Stuart

Letter to Racing Authority

Below is the letter I have sent today to Nick Rust at the BHA and the chairmen of the Thoroughbred Breeders’ Assoc. & Racehorse Owners’ Assoc., both of which I am a member. I hope it lays down not only my views, but those of the many of you who contact me on a daily basis either directly or via my Twitter account.  It is a bit of a read but stick with it.

Lets us see what they respond with, if at all.  Your comments and views would be appreciated.

 

21st December 2016

Dear Sir,

 I write both as a breeder and owner, the latter becoming an unintended necessity given the poor clearance rates of horses at the sales.

Professionals, including myself, and journalists in the sport have been writing in their respective publications and on the internet, highlighting the plight of horsemen involved in all aspects and levels of the industry.  The excellent research by Daniel Ross highlighting the disparity in prize money allocation amongst both owners and trainers; the sales statistics showing less than 50% clearance rates and  sales averages of £3-4000 highlighted in the Owner & Breeder sales pages; Kevin Blake’s piece recently in Thoroughbred Daily News regarding the foal market (and subsequently the yearling market), and many blogs and statistics freely available with a little research.

Only this week ARC racecourses have cut prize money based, they say, on the loss of revenue from the betting levy due to reduction in FOBT stakes.  One has to question how they can firstly put a figure on this before it has even taken place, and secondly, how they can justify making these cuts before the legislation comes into effect.  In short they are going to be receiving the current share of income from the FOBT, and pocketing it rather than paying out at least until the legislation comes into play.  Yet, other than the reaction across social media, there has been no word from your organisation or any of the others who supposedly represent the interests of their members, with the notable exception of the NTF.

According to the BHA’s own published data, the average runners in a race is 8 – which in theory means half of the races run do so with less than the required 8 runners that would, in turn, open up the each-way betting market.  Only a few weeks ago we saw a single “runner” in a race and match races in National Hunt seem to be almost daily.  One of the reasons for this has to be that in the pursuit of volume, the race program has lost depth.  To have to rely on the socially damaging FOBT betrays callousness in racing hierarchy which does our sport no credit, and would be better served, and equally well financed, by returning to the more traditional betting scenarios which larger fields, and fewer races, would allow.

One might argue that more races mean an increased demand for horses.  Whilst this is one possible scenario, it has not manifested itself yet.  The prize money offered in 80% of the races is insufficient to offer any meaningful return for current owners, let alone attract new owners.  Therefore many races contain the usual suspects.  One only has to look at races at Southwell or Wolverhampton for examples  – the horses running are almost always the same every week.  That has a detrimental effect not only on the field sizes and excitement of racing, but surely on the potential welfare of those horses. 

In his research for the TRC, Daniel Ross suggests that 15% of trainers take over 80% of the prize money on offer in the sport.  In reverse therefore, one could say that 85% of trainers take under 20% of the prize money.  It follows therefore that if most horses raced do so for those 85% of trainers, then they are the ones which provide the vast majority of the horses for the race program which then generates the betting levy and TV rights income which in turn is paid to the top 15% of trainers and their owners.  If we say that around 85% of all the horses in training race at about 80% of the races which make up the race program, most of which are at Class 3 or below, then it must follow that they race only to support the financing of the prize funds which are paid out in races of Class 2 and above – hence the findings made by Daniel Ross, and confirmed by trainers and owners across the UK.

This is why horses which are from good, winning (or winner producing) stock, bred at exactly the right levels to fill the races at Class 3 levels and below, do not sell – either as yearlings or as horses in training.  Horses are left unsold and studs are going out of business, but then we are told by the BHA that we need more horses – and none of the Horsemen Group member organisations do anything to dissuade the industry of that belief – or tell the BHA to stop this catastrophic course of action.

In trying to attract more owners, and encouraging more breeding, the TBA and ROA talk incessantly of self-funding breeder led bonus schemes.  For a breeder already fighting to survive, to be asked to pay yet more into a fund which, based upon statistics, adds no resale value to the horse, and is statistically won by the very same owners who take home the majority of prize money anyway, this is cold comfort.  Indeed it is reminiscent of making an employee redundant and telling them that you have bought them a lottery ticket with their own money to see tie them over!  Furthermore, it lets the BHA of the hook.

Prize money must be addressed.  I am not saying we should be able to magic up more money and just put it into the existing structure – in the ham fisted, unimaginative way that the BHA seems to.  An action they seem  allowed to do with the encouragement of the very organisations who claim to represent the interests of the various constituents, but in reality keep their field of vision and focus way above the majority, grass roots levels of racing.  Neither am I saying that races of a higher standard should not be rewarded with better prize money, but what has to be addressed is the disproportionate difference in prize money available across the classes of race, and the ability for racecourses to decide that they do not have to offer prize money at a pre-agreed rate for the class of race being run.  Either there are too many races in the program, or the racecourses and the races they run are of such poor quality that they cannot attract attendances and sponsorship to supplement their levy / rights funding and so boost the prize money.  The program must nonetheless be a factor.

Surely a proportionate division of the available fixed prize pool, supplemented by sponsorship and attendance – meaning the better the races,  the better the prize fund is supplemented by attendance or sponsorship – is a better model.  At the moment the chasm between big prizes paid to 15% of the racehorse owner and breeding population, is paid for by the remaining 85% of the smaller owners and breeders.  Set the correct tariff and then worry about how much the money is, not the other way around.  Owners do not mind running their horses for a decent potential prize pot, and losing to a better horse, but to run their horse to win and collecting a derisory sum for doing so means they will never stand any chance of covering even a margin of their costs and as such the supply chain of both new owners and new bloodstock suffers, with racing unable to attract the required benefits either.

Finally, it should be remembered that horses have to start somewhere.  The belittling and underfunding of the lower level races which provide the majority of the income base for the prize fund,  will reduce the quality and number of horses who go on to compete at the higher levels, and fuel the one thing this sport gives to people – Hope!  Races will eventually only be run at group level where the money currently is,  meaning less opportunity and less owners.  The breeding pool will narrow to those that win those races and the thoroughbred will become so highly bred that it will be unable to survive.  This is not just a short-term problem, this is the livelihood of many and the future of a species that we all devote our lives and hard earned money to.  This is about what we pass on to the generations that follow us – both Horsemen and their horses.

I look forward to your comments and the chance to discuss mine in more detail with you.

Yours sincerely,

Stuart Matheson 

Senior Partner, Abacus Bloodstock.

 

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.

Abacus Counts the Cost

Another month of Summer has passed by in a flash – but at least with the increased

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Yearlings are being fed hay in August

rainfall we now have something resembling grass on the paddocks.  As with all livestock owners, the stud industry has been feeding both hard feed and hay to the horses which would usually be enjoying the green stuff at the moment.  This will inevitably increase production costs, at a time when the initial sales figures for 2019 are not looking promising.

The BHA have recently increased the number of races, and therefore the demand for horses, to record levels for 2019 and yet the market for horses seems to demand the cheapest possible price.  We received an offer for a yearling recently for £2000 – on a covering which cost £5000 – let alone the associated costs!  How can that be sustainable

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Fixtures increased & sale prices under pressure – not a good combination

for breeders?  The increase in races, together with the slump in market prices will lead, in my opinion, to one of three issues (or a mixture of all of them) –

  • either the same horses will race in them and increase the risk of injury as a result,
  • or field sizes will be small due to lack of fresh runners,
    • Both of the above due to breeders cutting their production
  • or breeders will breed cheap horses  for the lower level market leading to a reduction in the quality of the pedigree and a potential chasm between the group / listed races (10% of the calendar) and handicaps (the vast majority of races) by way of breed quality and accessibility to non-millionaire owners.

The last point will inevitably lead to lower prize money and an even greater feeling of “them and us”.  It will also reduce the number of good stallions, at currently good prices, as many stallion handlers will find it unprofitable to keep them.

Syndicate buyers and smaller owners must realise that whilst they dream of “bought cheaply and wins a Group 1” horses, the reality is that there is a difference between cheap and unsustainable prices.  It seems that buyers and their trainers are happy to drive prices down from breeders, but then make few allowances in their own training fees.  As the old saying goes “it costs as much to train a bad horse as a good one.”  Look at the horses which win the classics – few, if any of them are cheap buys!

Goodbye Little Mo

As some of you who follow me on Twitter will have seen, we sadly had to say goodbye to our broodmare Littlemoor Lass.  She suffered a training injury which prevented her

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Littlemoor Lass as a yearling – she will be missed.

racing, and was retired to stud by  us as a result.  The daughter of  Derby-winner Motivator, she was a beautiful looking animal who produced two colts and two fillies in her all too short career.   We loved her from the day I bought her as a 9 month old, to the day I held her for the vet.  The pain of loss is a measure, I hope, of the affection we had for her.  Rest easy lass.