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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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.

 

A Yawning Gap? – maybe it’s the elitism not the spectacle!

So horse racing has been identified as a boring sport.  We have all seen the UGov poll published this week and, as expected, many people have had much to say in defence of the sport they love – or hate depending on, of course, personal tastes.most boring sport

I would rather watch paint dry than watch Formula 1 racing.  That said, when I was in Singapore on a rainy day a few years ago with nothing to do, and no freshly painted walls to occupy my time, I watched some Grand Prix or other and remember there were a few crashes, some bad visibility and an excited commentator and, guess what, F1 suddenly became exciting – for 30 minutes until the rain in Singapore stopped and the pool seemed a better option.  And that is the point: all sport is exciting when there are exciting things going on, and it’s tedious to the extreme when there isn’t.

Racing might kick itself and say the poll shows the sport we love to be dull more times

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Crowds at Sydney’s Royal Randwick Racecourse – many of whom own a part of the horses running

than it is exciting, but remember it is still the second largest spectator sport in the country – yes people actually get out of their armchairs and GO RACING!  Football is the most popular of course and this is much to do with the TV coverage and newspaper column inches of course, but it is also because you can buy a £2 football and, at any age, dream of being the next Beckham, or impress your mates with your ball juggling – even if in reality you are an estate agent from Bradford!

Racing does not have that “anyone can do this” affinity.   To become part of the sport the public perception is that you have to be a multi-millionaire, or an Arab prince, or “Lord Monocle of Pass the Port”.  The attempts of the racecourses to attract race-goers has to be applauded.  Even if to the purist, Olly Murs and a best dressed child competition detracts from the racing.  What now needs to happen is the myth of racing being elitist needs to be tackled, and ownership become a possibility.  This is where racing beats football – you are highly unlikely to own a football club but you can own a horse (or part at least).

In Australia around 60% of Aussies own part of a racehorse – albeit the tip of an ear.   In the far-East, albeit fuelled by betting, the crowds are massive and the interest huge – and shared ownership common.  Even in the Arab states where there is no gambling (although despite being a non-gambler I find this reduces the element of jeopardy) a night at Meydan or Jebel Ali is packed to the roof. But racing is seen as an inclusive sport in these places, whereas in the UK it is not.

The rise of syndicates and clubs in the UK and Ireland is a boost much needed to increase this interest.  Many trainers rely increasingly on them to stay in business.  At last many racecourses have increased the owners’ ticket allocation to meet increased shared ownership.  Even the BHA have streamlined the ownership process and made it easier to police the quality and standard of the growing numbers of syndicate bodies – and have a levy system now fit to deliver rewards to the grass roots.

But the very agencies who should be fighting hardest do not.  For all the good changes, the BHA has a policy, as encapsulated in the rules on balloting out, that lower grade horses should be discouraged from running.  Good for the sport? Well it is if we want to keep the riff raff out, but there are many sub-50 rated horses who, when pitted against each other, will make for exciting racing, and low cost ownership options. – as well as swell the levy through betting income.

Great British Racing ; Rod Street and his team – I have yet to see any tangible benefit from their efforts.  Certainly they have the Champions Series but that is Qipco doing all the hard work and making it actually happen.  I remember being at a “do” at Ascot once where GBR were holding a small gathering.  Everyone of those attending it were already owners, and when one young couple approached the cordoned area, they were intercepted by a woman who looked at them like they had stepped in something the dog does and told them “This isn’t for you”!  Well who is it for if not exactly those people?

OB lifestyle

Owner & Breeder magazine – widening the gap? 

Even the superb Owner & Breeder magazine has, in the last few months, dedicated pages of print to “Lifestyle”.  This is a publication which is the gateway to racing yet perpetuates the idea of millionaires and Faberge eggs.  Stop it!

We are quick to turn our nose up at the drunkenness we see at Royal Ascot, and rightly so.  But has anyone stopped to think that these young and, I agree unruly, people are acting like this precisely because they feel like outsiders.  I love to feel special as an owner, but I also resent that racing portrays its participants as champagne swilling, helicopter owning, winter-in-the-Caribbean chinless wonders.  Tell that to the trainers up at 4am, or the breeders knee deep in muck, or the grassroots owners worried if they can pay the mortgage as well as their £100 a month racehorse share.  Aspiration is great but setting unreachable goals and packaging a sport so that it appears that owning a Rolex and driving a Merc are prerequisites will only harm the most exciting sport I know and love.  The only yawning then is not about boredom but the gap between what racing is seen as and what it should be.

 

Cheltenham or bust?

Those of you that follow my tweets (@stumat) will be aware that I have recently been

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Top class racing but is Cheltenham the only real test of a horse?

twittering on about jump racing’s pre-occupation with all things Cheltenham.  There is no denying that the Cheltenham Festival, and indeed this weekend’s pre-Christmas meeting, offers a feast of some of the best National Hunt horses in training.  BUT not all – and to pretend this is the case would degrade the hard work of all the yards who have horses running elsewhere in the country, and all the horses who try their hardest to win.

In my comments, I have tried not to down play the importance of Cheltenham to the racing calendar – I am a fan of the place and the spectacle of racing there, but it seems

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My Tent Or Yours wins his first race at Cheltenham  – overcoming The New One

the yard stick used by the racing press and pundits is “but will the horse win at Cheltenham?”.  It was not until today that My Tent or Yours won at Cheltenham, despite having been at the top of the game for many years.  So does that mean he wasn’t a successful and highly rated horse until he succeeded today?  Does it mean that Red Rum was not arguably the best chaser over long distances because none of his wins came at Cheltenham?  Does it mean that the many prolific, hard working trainers yet to win on the Cheltenham stage are somehow “also rans”?

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Despite never winning at Cheltenham, Red Rum can hardly be seen as a second rate chaser

Importantly, if NH racing allows everything it does to be distilled down into two weeks of racing at one track in Gloucestershire, then the public will not be interested in the less exciting meetings throughout the rest of the year.  Last Saturday, Doncaster races included two Grade 2’s – and yet it was the under card on the day and had one news item

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Less known tracks offer racing as exciting and as good a test for a horse.

all  the preceding week included on the Racing Post app.  By contrast, as far back as last Thursday week, pundits were writing daily about the cold snap and the effect it may have on Cheltenham.  What about Ayr, Newcastle or Uttoxeter who did have meetings called off?  Attendances are low at many jump races, particularly mid-week and it does nothing to help when the impression is that the only way to see exciting racing is to go to Cheltenham – this is clearly not the case but is a perception being projected.   Go to Towcester or Wincanton and all you get is racing akin to non-league football?  Really?

Equally importantly is the perception which owners could mistakenly be given.  Many owners, despite being fans of racing, are increasingly coming from syndicates and, thankfully, newer avenues of introduction into racing.  But if they they are repeatedly told their success is measured in having a Cheltenham horse, then their passion for the game will soon be exhausted by a mid-week placing at Fontwell Park.

National Hunt racing is a great sport – heroic, tragic, exciting and enthralling.  Not just at Cheltenham but anywhere that well trained horses compete, supported by dedicated professionals and committed owners.  Don’t let them tell you it’s Cheltenham or nothing!