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.

 

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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

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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

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.