Ok, so that’s what the big 4 operators have guaranteed in Levy. And of course it heralds a new era of co-operation between Bookmakers and Racing. We’re all friends now eh? 8 million agreed with Betfair – money they didn’t have to offer the Levy by statute. Leaders In Racing conferences with keynote speakers led by Andy Hornby of Coral, livening up that borefest with a call for Racing to support his FOBT’s. In doing so more shops remain in business, with the potential for more turnover on UK horse racing. We’re all very encouraged by the co-operation between the new Racing – headed up by Paul Bittar, and the representatives of the largest organisations funding it. Top marks to him heralding in a new era and spirit of bonhomie between the parties.
Now, I’m a Bookie, and by nature an independent. I pay my taxes and Levy at the going rate, and my data is an open book. So you’ll take what I say with a pinch of salt perhaps, because such independent organisations as my own are rivals in business to the majors. But hold on a minute, this ‘guarantee’ of 51.5m is significantly lower than Racing has achieved from the Horse Race Levy for many a year. The 51st Levy scheme contained a guarantee of 45m from Hills, Corals and Ladbrokes. Two years on we add Betfred and get 2.5m more? Outstanding?
Let’s forget the Levy Board’s estimates. They can’t predict results and nor can the Bookies. Nor can they in any way determine how much business is lost by attrition offshore. The Levy, to include the independent input and Betfair, over the last 6 years has fluctuated between a low of 60m and a high of 115m.
What’s the crowing about a deal which adds 2.5m more with one more major player in the cake? In fact, why bother even considering it? If you want Bookmakers to co-operate with Racing, shut them out of racetrack sponsorship, TV adverts and the like. Turn to the Government for support. Racing vs Bookmakers with legs in Gibraltar. Don’t worry, they’ll come quietly.
The multiples are popping champagne corks, and drinking to Bittar and Lee. That’s not meant as a joke. Now if I were them, I’d take all my top losers to Gibraltar because I’d know my duty bill would be topped out at £450,000, and my Levy capped at 10m. The extra 4.5m between the parties per year is in effect the same bribe to Racing that Betfair volunteered. The new way, if they won’t pay the going rate, let them pay what’s comfortable. Racing is now ‘off the back’ of the big 6, because the deal is struck. No beating down the doors of Westminster to complain. And of course for four years, they can hive off as much racing business as they like offshore and pay 11 million odd each. Lovely biscuits.
Paul Bittar -The saviour of British Racing, or a plating class salesman whose business plan involves the lowest funding level, but ‘we’ve made a deal’? I care little about the stories of meetings over months, and coffee time buddying up – if this is the end product. Bookmakers and exchanges can pay more – because their offshore duties, tax and now levy are all so low. But of course they sponsor races, and run apps for the Racing Post. Oh I see.
Why would Racing go into battle against the Bookmakers for example with two racecourse Supremos? What was their role? I don’t believe Racetracks should be negotiating on behalf of racing when their most important sponsors are across the table. Perhaps the owners would have been a better choice. After all they are the primary benficiaries of levy.
No the BHA should have been going into bat with someone like me quite frankly. Not that I’m looking for the job, I’m making a point. There’s this incredible snobbishness which I find so counter-productive to the good of the Sport. The BHA is flush with Racetrack people, Data analysts, solicitors, owners, even trainers. Yet so many decisions hinge on the betting Product which underpins the finances. Not least of all finding the right fixture levels and putting on the best balanced programme. Betting isn’t the dirty side of Racing, it is, for most folk, very much what its all about. Finance is a critical part of any business, why does the BHA ignore it? I’ve heard the call for ‘Punter’ representation for many a year at High Holborn. But still no seat at the top table of Racing for them
As a leading expert in betting pointed out to me yesterday – the Fixture list has hardly changed but for a little bit of tinkering for as long as we can remember and within each meeting are quite often the very same races. The beginners chase at Sandown yesterday – won by Hinterland, regularly has small fields! The same course in January had a meeting where four of the races worth a combined £50,000 all with fewer than 8 runners. Small fields, odds-on favourites and poor over rounds aren’t fussy, every course is blighted. If only the courses reviewed such data, improvements could be made, races changed, to make it more attractive for trainers, owners, racegoers and betting shop punters. Isn’t it the role of race planning at the BHA to look at these issues? I’m assuming we’ll end up with the same ‘Super Saturday’ next year?
Final point, is the timing – less than a year before point of consumption comes into play we sign a deal. Nowadays, you can buy a cup of coffee made in the high street, served by British staff, sit peering out of the window at a red bus. In the meantime the duty for that transaction is paid in Holland. I don’t believe for a second point of consumption, if it gets through Parliament, represents the holy grail. Everything else is circumvented, so will this. Gibraltar won’t fall into the Mediterranean any time soon. Result for Racing? More, not less, of the best customers routed offshore. By extension more dependency on a ‘guarantee’ of 51 million. Consider this, what would have occurred had the famed Ladbrokes high roller who shored up the levy to its highest level in recent years, 115m, been routed abroad?
Some key statistics.
January to March – 21% of all races, spread evenly between both codes, contained an odds on favourite. 24 races worth £5000 or more in January had less than 8 runners.
June, July, and August 15% of all races involved an odds on chance. A third of which were worse than 1\2, only 2.6% of Handicaps contained 16 or more runners -8% Percent of all handicaps had either 3 or 4 runners! 41% of ALL handicaps in those months – less than 8 runners! Handicaps I said..
The effect of odds-on chances? In August 35% of races returned an SP of 2% a runner or worse. In September – 30% of all races returned the same. Attractive? In June, July, August and September, there were only 4 days not containing an odds-on favourite.
Let’s look at the Chief Executive’s arguments on fixture levels. He says 1464 is the right level for Racing. This argument backed up by such as Andy Hornby of Coral, who argued, with merit, that to put on a third meeting daily midweek ‘increased his turnover by 30%’. We’re talking about shop turnover here. In the same speech, I invite you to listen, he then muddles the word ‘profit’ into the same argument, at the same level. In other words he argued a third meeting every day would represent 30% more for the Levy.
That’s a distortion of the facts. To argue that turnover equals profit directly simply isn’t true, it might be true in the case of Waitrose, because turnover is more directly linked to profit. It’s a mistake King Ralph for example would not make, but then he never ran Boots. I can assure you folks, in Racing the same is most certainly not the case. If you put on low field sizes, with odds-on chances riddling the events, they are a Levy minefield. There are bad races. Punters simply do not like wagering in races containing odds on favourites.
Levy income is directly related to quality, competitiveness and field sizes. Punters don’t groan at 7 the field – they embrace it. Hornby’s wants Racing every ten minutes, because it adds to the vibrancy of his arcades. He wants a customer to walk in at lunch (when nobody wants to go Racing by the way) and sit on his machines generating £900 a week whilst the Racing provides the background noise.
So here’s Bittar’s thesis. Get into bed with these organisations. Openly support their machines and provide fixture levels they demand. In doing so he keeps the shops actually in business and increases the pot. Even going so far as to introduce racing on good Friday in support of the LBO’s, religion and decades of history matter little when the machines are running. The argument for which will prove to be a sham in less than a year. ARC will be fortunate to pull in a million in sponsorship, it’s hard enough to find a sponsor for the Grand National. I don’t doubt they can afford the gamble though, given many of their races run for £1940.
There are 28 shops in Newmarket. Shops are literally yards apart. Do we need that many to service Racing in one little town? So what if we lose a few mini casinos? Racing isn’t the focus. Perhaps we should be about making it exactly that, with measures to improve field sizes and margins in the sport? I have argued for a substantial cut in the level of fixtures, I’m not going to get that. Racing has become boring too much of the time. I rarely pass a shop every day without sticking my head in. For large parts of the programme they’re empty. British Racing is littered with fun festivals and events and cracking racing. But let’s cut the programme by just 100 fixtures and monitor the effect on the sub cards. Hardly a slash and burn is it?
So let’s deal with integrity. For many of you I appreciate this is a new subject. Certainly if you buy the Racing Post every day, you’re unlikely to find exposes on this important area, except in the odd letter. And if the leading trade paper ignores the subject, it’s hardly at the forefront of most people’s minds – especially if you don’t bet.
Does integrity matter? The Sport is underpinned by bettors. What is hugely underestimated, and certainly not understood, is the damage caused to customers’ confidence when they see something drift from 6’s to 16’s or greater and run down the park. It’s treated with derision in the shops. I tell you plainly, this is not happen-chance, although just enough drifters win to cause doubt. Equally its utterly routine to watch a horse backed from 12/1 to 9/4 hose up in spite of dire recent form.
Trawl through the list of enquiries taking place at the BHA and you’ll find a glaring hole. Non-triers. It’s like the subject simply doesn’t exist. Oh sure, we get the odd case running through, and the sentences are generally harsh. It’s the spin. British Racing will react with vigour if you break the rules. You get the idea.
If its the regulators role to police the sport, then Bittar is clearly failing in his duty of care to the image of this same by not grasping the nettle. Heralding from a state notorious for calling out Jockeys and trainers in this department. He must wince at how weak we are by comparison. Look at Hong Kong – they are red hot on integrity and employ 240 people to look after a programme that races 6 days a month. How many do we employ for 1464? 10?
They take holidays don’t they? Can they cope with 7 day, 5 night programme servicing 1464 fixtures? Not for a second. Without Betfair tipping the hat to them from time to time, they couldn’t turn over an egg. Staffing levels are so poor with budgets cut, it’s an impossible task.
On arrival in the UK, Paul Bittar stated, ‘if you have low funded Racing, you will have a problem with the integrity.’ That’s an entirely accurate statement. So what’s he done about it? In the recent round of negotiations first with Betfair, and then with the Bookmakers, did he argue on behalf of the sport for a substantial increase in funding to support the fixture levels they demand? Is that not part and parcel of any deal?
There are several horses a month – all with similar profiles, exceptionally poor performances in lead up races, some beaten by margins approaching an incredible 80 lengths, heftily gambled upon, but with historical form that suggested they were well capable of winning races, masked by a series of poor outings. Check the reports into inquiries at the BHA how many of these horses end up being sanctioned, or their connections. What’s happened with the referrals we hear about? Or was it all just a big happy surprise? Customer confidence demands the regulator takes measured steps to ensure any unusual gambles are fully investigated. If a horse with form figures of 8,8,7,0,7 suddenly goes from 33/1 to 9/2 it demands urgent action to find out why, for the good of the sport. Sky News seem more interested than the BHA into some of the shenanigans going on routinely. Is it now condoned to prop your training fees up by planning transparent gambles and slapping each other on the back? Was the backbone knocked out of the regulators with their failures over the Top Cees case?
Jockey changes, withdrawing horses, horses drifting substantially, shoring up of morning odds on Betfair with amounts as low as £51 – all part and parcel of such gambles. Horses laid in running as the tapes go up at far greater odds than their SP. Isn’t the BHA failing in not investigating any strange movements in the market? We need far more draconian rules and most certainly no recourse to the courts to second guess decisions. If you run them under our rules, accept them warts and all. This should be a first step for the lawyers to push through.
If Mr Bittar doesn’t start to appreciate the importance to Racing of the smallest cog in the wheel – that of the humble punter, and his confidence in the betting product, – then we have a problem of leadership. Because to me, it’s of paramount importance. The customer must have faith in the product. We run the risk customers funding the whole deal through betting feel their views on integrity don’t matter to those running the sport. That’s a dangerous position to be in. How do we deal with it? Stop using the expression ‘we can’t discuss it’.
What about recent cases involving connections through the BHA hmm? Let’s brush over the Godolphin saga, it’s way too complex. However, what was with the Chapple-Hyam penalty. £3000 for misleading investigators by doctoring telephone records? Equivalent to one month’s training fees for a top horse. Cloak and dagger regulating with Frank Sheridan’s horse – Bert Trick, at Wolverhampton- being quietly asked to withdraw it after reports it had run in flapping races and following a collapse in price from 14/1 to 5/2? A top jockey called before the stewards to explain dropping his hands at Kempton, who simply denied it, which the stewards ‘noted’, or a horse at Hamilton in July which managed to improve 67lbs according to Timeform, with the trainer declaring he ‘didn’t think it would improve’. Again accepted by the stewards. What is going on with stewarding these days?
I recognise many of the problems outlined above were in place well before the arrival of the Australian. Fixture levels for example have remained a constant since 2003. The major independants whose business focus on Racing, have so far been excluded from any discussion on fixtures, planning or Levy. It’s all about the casino operators. I’m uncomfortable with getting into bed with large organisations if the result in so doing is to sell the whole product well short of its value and it’s a tool to market other products. Signing for a record low level isn’t laudable, it’s a sell out. Finally, if its the BHA’s choice instead of tackling sometimes rancid events head on, rather than pretending it doesn’t happen, then I feel it’s time for stronger leadership.
Bittar, contrary to popular folklore, didn’t sort out the whip two seconds after his arrival, more like a horrified Paul Roy rushing to clear up the mess created by a sub-committee formed to examine the whip issue. Roy had his critics, but he worked hard for racing and at least was far more visible than the incoming Chairman, and not afraid to take on Betting companies, patterns, or the establishment. Give him his due, he wasn’t a yes man.
The new chief-executive however, strikes me as rather like having a Scottish Chancellor. Everyone thinks its refreshing to have someone who doesn’t speak in polished tones. To my mind his obsession with large concerns has gone well beyond what is productive. When the Chairman of Coral starts eulogizing about the head of the BHA for striking deals and supporting fobt’s, we should, in my view, be deeply uncomfortable with what’s going on here. Unless that is, you consider Coral are more in love with racing than they are their machines
The honeymoon is definitively over.