Syndicates – Is it time for proper regulation?

There is no denying that the advent of syndicates has had a massive, beneficial effect on horseracing both here in the UK and elsewhere.  Those who follow my musings on here will know that my support for them, and any means we can find to introduce new people to the joys of racehorse ownership, is something I have long supported.  A well run, accountable syndicate is fantastic for all concerned and I do not wish to give the impression that issues are widespread in this part of the racing industry – they are not!  We are lucky to have a majority of honest syndicate managers but they can be cruelly tarred with the wrong brush because of the unscrupulous and poorly regulated activities of a few.

Never a day goes by without a syndicate winning a race in the UK, with some regularly featuring in Group races.  The chance that a well run syndicate or racing club offers to its syndicate examplemembers to reach the highest levels of racing for affordable sums has to be welcomed, and has certainly given a new market to breeders who can now offer horses to a wider pool of buyers or even lease horses in order to gain the benefits of race results, whilst reducing the outlay to syndicate and club members in buying horses in the first place.

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The RSA is a welcome, albeit self-regulated, part of syndication

Of course, in previous times, syndicates and clubs tended to be partnerships between exisiting owners, close family, established business partners or run by newspapers (Daily Mirror Racing Club for example) or other established agencies.  However with the relaxation of qualifying criteria by the BHA a few years ago, and the abundance of horses at the lower end of the sales spectrum, this is no longer always the case.  As a result total strangers can now become partners in a horse, marketing on social media allows syndicates to fairly easily reach mass markets and to offer what appear to be, in the majority, excellent deals.  The only issue is that the framework seems to be missing vital protections for many people involved in the process:

Members – they are asked to pay a fee either as a lump sum or on-going monthly payments – some both.  This may include actually owning a part of the horse or it can be just a lease basis where they pay the training and other fees but never own the horse.  This was the case famously with Rock of Gibraltar at Coolmore and Motivator and the Royal Ascot Racing Club – both of which ended with unhappy partners.

Syndicate / Club Managers – they are required to perhaps carry the cost of the horse until the shares are sold and may find that they are left with uncovered debts in the event that members cannot be found or fail to pay their dues.  Of course they can use syndicates to finance their own racing apsirations and, in some cases, run the horse under their own name and fail to inform the authorities of any other involvements.  That demands a high level of trust from members, and from the BHA with their integrity concerns.  Worse still they are entrusted with other people’s money with no requirement to provide accounts to the BHA, and only annually (based on BHA / ROA best practice) to members.

Trainers – they have to provide training for a horse where they know all the shares are not sold and therefore may have to give a discount as a result.  They may decide to take a part of the horse to ease the burden.  And if it all goes wrong, whilst the BHA provides for such eventualities, it can take a number of months with mounting costs to resolve,

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Rebecca Menzies was forced to take control after the failure of EPDS – a move which saved members the loss of money – but should it be down to trainers to sort this?

and if the trainer then sells the horse as is his or her right, they can be accused of robbing the membership of their horse.  The well documented cases recently of this happening such as EPDS Racing in June 2019 serve testament to this.

Breeders – they sometimes lease their horses, may  reduce the selling price or on a “no win – no fee” sale basis, or may even give surplus stock away to new syndicates to help them start up and to reduce holdings of unsold, well bred stock.  If that goes wrong then they have a horse that never races and may even be returned in the event of syndicate failure – an unproven, older and unsellable mouth to feed.

If you visit the BHA or ROA websites you can download draft syndicate agreements.  These seem at first sight to be ideal for purpose, but they refer to areas of ownership and regulation which some syndicate managers and members do not understand.  I know from experience that when a dispute is raised with the BHA over ownership issues, they simply tell the parties to go to court as they are not interested.  Certainly the syndicate manager / senior partners have to be registered owners, but this can be circumvented fairly easily by using a proxy to “keep the costs down”.

In a recent case a breeder had attended the sales in September 2018 with a well bred yearling colt which failed to sell.  Left with fields full of mares and fillies, the breeder contacted a trainer and asked if he would take the horse and either sell it to existing owners or perhaps offer it to a syndicate so as to reduce purchase costs and allow affordable ownership to its members.  In the meantime the breeder agreed to pay a small “keep fee” to cover feed and stables, and, in the event of a sale they could either recoup that cost from the sale or, as in this case, simply retain a small percentage of the horse to race.  After all it would assist any syndicate to know that at least some of the shares were already taken.  The horse would then run as “X Syndicate & Partners” with the breeder remaining separate to the syndicate financially but in partnership with it.

Early in 2019 the trainer was approached by an individual looking to set up a syndicate, and of course the horse in question was ideal for this.  My understanding is that the trainer agreed to reduce training fees for a short period to allow shares to be sold and retain whatever shares were still left until they were sold if required to do so.  Obviously the longer the shares went unsold, the more the trainer invested of his own time and money and as such a “premium” was agreed whereby there was a small intial fee to cover the transfer of the shareholding to the new member (and reimburse the trainer) whilst the new member would then pay a small monthly all-inclusive fee to the syndicate for training etc.  The breeder was not aware of any of this and indeed did not need to be given his share would not be part of the syndicate anyway.

Early in July, alarm bells rang when the trainer contacted the breeder to say he did not know what to do with the horse as the training fees were not paid by the syndicate.  Certainly he had received some fees but with a horse in training now for 6 months, the costs were mounting and the syndicate had not updated him with the amount of shares sold.   Furthermore, a social event in aid of the Injured Jockeys Fund had been organised by the syndicate manager,  held in June and a donation of around £900 had been raised.  The event was also used as a members’ social event and marketing opportunity to attract new shareholders.  The trainer had contacted the IJF to see if that money had been paid to them, and it had not.

Next, the syndicate manager contacted the members and said he could no longer run the syndicate and volunteered the breeder to run the syndicate.  Obviously this was a unilateral decision by the syndicate manager, but the breeder, left with little other options, asked the syndicate manager to forward details of ownership shares, funds paid etc. in order that the necessary due diligence could be carried out and a decision made by the breeder if they would take the syndicate over.  As you may already have guessed, all of a sudden this information was not forthcoming.  Furthermore, the syndicate manager contacted the members, who by now were rightly feeling that there was a scam going on, and said that the breeder and the trainer had somehow planned it all and that he, as well as them, were victims of a pre-planned conspiracy – even posting such on social media.

To be clear, the trainer is a very successful Group winning professional of the highest integrity and the breeder had simply given a horse away and kept a small interest in order to, at the very least, ensure the horse was fed and cared for until a buyer could be secured, and for which he had no expectation of a fee.  Additionally, save for attending an owners’ day in April 2019, the breeder had no other contact with the syndicate and had received no money or benefits from anyone in the deal.

The circumstances in this case show how an unscrupulous syndicate manager can not only receive thousands of pounds from people with little or no understanding of the BHA requirements or regulations around syndication, but as a result can dupe them into thinking none of it is his fault and that rather than giving them a copy of the accounts to assess, instead is trying to say 2 other parties with far more to lose than could ever be gained, should be questioned and asked to account for the money – despite having never received any of the money he so cruelly duped from the members and witheld from the IJF.

As discussed at length by many in the racing community in June when EPDS collapsed, it is surely time to ensure such group ownerships are properly registered and administered, have a base-line financial deposit scheme (trainers after all have to show a £40K available cash fund to be licensed), and there is recourse for all parties in the event of failure or wrong-doing.  Syndicates are vital to the future of racing and ALL concerned deserve the protection and reassurance such requirments would offer.  Exisiting syndicates and racing clubs, run by professionals of the highest integrity have nothing to fear, and new syndicates and members can feel they are joining a well managed and financially protected agreement.

 

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Racing – Time to be relevant!

Anyone who reads my occasional ramblings (thanks if you do!) will recall that back in January I wrote about the perception that racing is elitist and therefore may be a turn-off to racegoers as well as potential owners. A Yawning Gap? – maybe it’s the elitism not the spectacle!

I have already stated that I do not hold the puritanical view that entertainment and Captureparty-packages should not be part of racing as I believe it will bring more people to the courses.  Certainly it gets bums on seats.  My concern though is not for the racecourse balance sheet, but that those “newbies” are the next generation of owners, breeders and racing fans and that this potential is  being missed – both at the racecourse itself and in the way racing portrays itself.  These events should be sold as a RACE MEETING with after race entertainment, not a concert with 3 hours of something to be endured (sometimes sadly with copious amounts of alcohol) before the music starts!

Back in January I mentioned that the Owner & Breeder magazine had a number of pages dedicated to “Lifestyle”.  It was my view that the magazine was falsely portraying a world of elitism and wealth which was not a true reflection of the vast majority of the racing world.  Whilst I do not expect the editor of that publication to bother with my blogs, I would have hoped that one of the many racing experts who write in the magazine would have thought along the same lines as I do.  Certainly the straw poll taken from the response to my tweet of yesterday shows I am not alone in my opinion.

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Racehorse ownership is accessible – so why make it seem elitist?

The excellent initiatives underway through the TBA and ROA (both contributors to the magazine and providers of the majority of the readership through their members), this month sit alongside articles on a trainer who sees his helicopter as a “necessity”, the story of the multi-billionaire who is trying to expand the Tote betting and NINE PAGES of what is now termed “Racing Life” (they cannot be saved from themselves!) dedicated to cocktails at a 5 star London hotel, hand-made shotguns, original artworks and tailor made country clothing.  How is this “Racing Life”?  It has nothing to do with racing, and is all about the “Loadsa Money” attitude we saw in the recession of the 1980’s, or the “Let them eat cake” view which served the French monarchy so well!  Aspiration is fine, but humiliation…really?

To be clear, I am not spouting some radical socialist ideal or saying that the rich should be stripped of their wealth.  Indeed I go shooting, I own and breed racehorses and I have even enjoyed a tipple in a posh hotel but I do not flaunt this as the reason I am able to enjoy racing, because it isn’t.  It is extremely harmful not just that the Owner & Breeder magazine thinks they should publish such articles, but that no one within racing’s hierarchy has seen the lack of resonance it has with the general public and said something about it.  I have been in racing for many years now and it has no resonance with me – so how can it possibly with a potential new entrant? There are great articles in the magazine as I have said and I urge you to read what is a superb publication full, in the main, with excellent journalism and informative stories, but to read those, you have to leaf through the elitist message to get there – and many people will see the money and equate that with the cost of racehorse ownership and find something with which they have more comfort and affinity.

The BHA have just launched a study into inclusivity across racing.  Well Mr. Rust and team, start by realising that the disposable income required to become an owner needs only be the price of a beer a day, not the cost of a stately home in Belgravia!  Get some perspective, make racing seem possible, make it resonate with the public and with the new generation, speak the language of inclusiveness and not of elitism – and make sure others do too!

As the “powers that be” sit back in their Bentleys as they drive to their London club (for that is the image they portray), and see that average ownership age is now in the mid-50’s and breeders are dwindling due to retirement and / or lack of profits, that recruitment of stable staff is the hardest it has ever been, and that meanwhile the record number of fixtures for 2019 requires increases in owners and horses to cope, perhaps they will realise that good intentions count for nothing if the messaging is packaged wrongly.

 

 

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?

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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.

 

Abacus Bloodstock Racing Club Launched

Abacus Bloodstock has launched its new racing club, aimed at offering “full” ownership without the expense.  Many clubs offer low rates of membership, but in return members get a tiny percentage of prize money (more like a dividend), if indeed any is offered; a lottery entry into race day ticket draws; and a few extra perks – none of which constitute a true ownership experience.

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ABRC’s first horse – Elegant Joan (Treacle) is a daughter of winner Fangfoss Girls

Abacus Bloodstock Racing Club is different however in as much as it GUARANTEES a raceday ticket for all members with a 5% or greater stake, prize money is not a dividend but paid out in direct proportion to the shareholding, and members can choose shares from 1% and upwards in 5% share allotments.  Prices start from £25 per month with 5% costing just £80.  There are no hidden fees and nothing more to pay.

Stuart Matheson, club manager and co-owner of Abacus Bloodstock, says “As breeders we wanted to offer a way for people to enjoy racing without blowing the bank, and to also benefit from being part of the experience from the birth of a foal, into racing and through to retirement and potentially into the breeding sheds. We will predominantly race our fillies through the club, and with the ‘This Filly Can’ scheme currently in place, the potential prize money is excellent.”

Members can enjoy the full raceday experience as well as additional benefits like social events, regular visits to the stud in Staffordshire, updates on all the horses, and of course trainer visits.  The horses will be leased to the club, meaning costs are low as there are no purchase prices to recoup, and options will be offered on horses upon retirement to the stud as broodmares or stallions.

Stuart went on to say, “So whilst members do not physically own the  race horses, we want to offer members the chance to invest in longer term breeding options once the horses have shown their potential.  It’s a bit like ‘try before you buy’, and it also means that by investing in a horse at an early stage, there is the potential to benefit in the longer term and reap the rewards so often denied club members elsewhere.  A fact we believe is fair and innovative in the world of racing clubs.”

The first horse to run in the club colours is the homebred filly Elegant Joan (known as Treacle), a daughter of Assertive and of Abacus Bloodstock mare Fangfoss Girls.  She is half sister to two multiple winners in Pancake Day (a recent winner in Belgium – The Prix

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Group winning trainer David Griffiths

Strasbourg) and Roll on Rory who contested the Windsor Castle Stakes as a 2 year old and has gone on to achieve a rating as high as 93.  Both brothers have won in every year they have raced and been in the money places in more than 60% of their races.  With the mare having a 100% strike rate for producing winners, Treacle is poised to add another winner to the family and will race throughout Winter 2017 and through 2018.  She is in training with group winning trainer David Griffiths.

 

To become a member please visit the Abacus Bloodstock Racing Club website, or contact us at racing@abacus-bloodstock.co.uk