I don’t want to bore you with statistics, sometimes they can prove meaningless, but there’s one stat that cannot be ignored in the sport we hold so dear. From 2008-2014, the horse population has declined by 1600, around 10%, that’s to say horses in training. In the same period – the number of races has grown by 15%. I hesitate to coin the phrase ‘the net result thereof’ – but you have to admit there appears a strong correlation in these two figures. More races – less horses..
Next year- six more fixtures. I want to make clear from the outset, I was given more than fair opportunity by the British Racing Authority to state the case on behalf of those of us who believe there’s simply too much racing. I was simply out-voted, or failed to press my arguments, indeed I think it’s fair to say my view stood pretty much alone in the face of data and reports compiled by important racing entities, to include the Racecourse Association, Arena leisure and Jockey Club. Racecourse Media Group, and Attheraces. The Levy Board also support the current level, based on data provided by big betting.
The consultation group doesn’t include any elements of Betting..
The aforementioned ‘pick five’ of racing (excluding Bet365, who oddly declined any participation, perhaps they don’t see us as serious?) Ladbrokes, Betfred, Coral, William Hill, Betfair broadly agreed with the current levels. This, despite their complaints on field sizes, elements of planning with competing fixtures devaluing certain races they sponsor, quite understandable, – that .
As to the influential Horseman’s Group? I honestly don’t know where they stand.
The BHA? As usual they get the blame, despite only controlling 200 odd fixtures themselves. One has to bear in mind, the OFT stripped the body of its powers in effect, and this is the result. I believe they definitely favour a reasonable cut. After all, the consultation was their plan. They weren’t prepared for the various stake holders to play rough, with spurious claims as to what any kind of cull would cost, without mind to the potential benefits in a raising of the bar on quality.
The sport is losing TV viewers and racegoers midweek. Bookmakers are the dominant sponsors, even if some view that as distasteful. Cheltenham lost six sponsors for their major festival races alone. The margin in betting has seriously declined, so has racing’s market share of the betting cake and lay to lose is a cancer on the sport. I’m sure racing’s most important group of tracks would prefer to move to a more balanced sponsors book given the pervasive influence of betting, but can’t find sufficient alternate companies at the current time. After all our tv networks and newspapers are literally stuffed with adverts from gaming empires. I’m aware some of you don’t care, nor understand the long term impact of this. But a full moon is coming.
Ladbrokes, one of the largest operators in betting worldwide, have already told you of their concern as to the viability of racing as a betting product. Were you listening, or did you put it down to their failures as a company to deliver a competitive digital platform?
In order for the BHA to ‘monetise’ the sport abroad, to betting, and to new sponsors, they must deliver on field sizes, and control the level of ‘grunge’ – low quality racing put on exclusively for betting, and stop the tendency for our best meetings to compete with England vs Moldova. An instant fail.
The critical Asian market, we base some of our Levy upon, bases itself on numbers betting, – often backing several in a race. The odds permit this kind of play. How does that fit with a five runner race at Southwell? Indeed, of what interest are such events to our betting public – other than the professional players? None. Of course, I’m painfully aware to some track bosses this is of no importance right now, but change is coming with the new media rights negotiations.
In the face of the spirit of change from the Authority, Arena leisure have threatened legal action. Yes folks, the same group who benefitted from the whole Good Friday concession is now holding the sport to ransom over their demands for a gothically dull floodlit mile for predominately low class horses at Gosforth Park. In much the same way as Pat Cosgrave was delivered back to racing – by lawyers, and their assertions. Tracks aren’t about to permit any reduction in their share of a media rights cake that has seen Bookmakers pay more than a hundred million more in recent times in fees to racing, with racetracks the primary beneficiary, and they’re not going to let a good thing go lightly..
We’ve reacted to the threat to field sizes by actually increasing the number of fixtures. Hard to believe it’s true. One is bound to question the purpose behind expensive consultation processes, other than to witness a circling of the wagons from ‘stakeholders.’ They simply refuse to countenance change, even if its utterly clear this is exactly what the sport requires to prosper.
The consultation discussed the removal of races that attracted low turnouts midweek. What’s wrong with that? It also discussed reducing the grade in certain races, to grow field sizes because we have more horses of very poor quality. This is to embark on a programme of lowering the overall quality of the programme still further. That wouldn’t be my choice, but I believe there are those who would use rocking horses if it made up a race.
All weather is on the increase, despite poor attendances, which adequately demonstrate the public have no appetite for it. The fare is largely unappealing. Racetracks focus our jewels in a one hour slot on Saturdays, often opposing more popular sports such as soccer. The midweek continues to be run down to the extreme. Sunday night racing, distressingly, has now appeared on the calendar. Nobody trumpeted that. Hardly surprising.
Few of these measures are customer focussed or about increasing quality. They evidence of an Authority boxed in the corner. Placed there by the office of fair trading. What a mess they made, ignorants with clipboards.
I’m fully aware though, there’s a strong body of fans and insiders who believe the current volume of the sport is farce. That to prune the programme by less than 1% and move a few races about won’t change things much. It’s a view I’ve heard many times from my customers, read constantly on social networking. Most of these views are the punters of course. The vital stakeholders group in racing who don’t have a seat at the top table, as things stand currently. They are joined though by a few brave souls from the training ranks, and some well intentioned journalists.
As we keep lowering the bar on quality, we make the whole thing just that bit less interesting to bet on. The USA has seen a dramatic decline in interest and betting in the sport. Excessively dull as a product. That’s precisely where we’re heading. Believe it’s true. The global data is fully at odds from that argued by the Levy Board and Betting.
Of course, I know we can offer some superb product, and accept we can’t always have group ones. Anyone at Ascot last weekend on British Champions Day can only be thoroughly impressed by the event. Cheltenham, Aintree, York and Goodwood showcase the best of Racing. Horseracing in Britain can be utterly superb at times. I want no mistake made that I have the utmost faith in the sport. Yet we seem to be choosing the route as driven by big betting, and backed up by their highly questionable data. I don’t want to dwell on the tracks themselves. If they’re paid to race in front of empty stands, they will do just that. It’s a business. They will inevitably favour the current level. Many have impressive debt levels to service.
People are persuaded by betting by two very simple phrases. ‘Every race contributes to the Levy’ and ‘if we don’t provide racing when the punters are in the shops, we will simply sell rival products.’ Data is brought out to back up this argument. As a colleague correctly pointed out, it’s hard to take the argument for a cut in the volume of racing forward when the data appears to show we could lose substantially from any cut in the programme. I argue in a different vein. No data has been produced, nor analysed, to show what would happen to the sport’s finances were we to embark on a programme which raised the overall bar on quality. No figures have been produced to show that in fact were we to raise the average field sizes by just one – from the current average of 7 to 8 horses a race, that the extra business we would ‘field’ would more than balance any loss in the total volume. Horses would seek other opportunities.
I hope I have made that simple point well.
Let me explain big betting for those who do not understand it. No, I’m not here to discuss those who ‘get on.’ Broadly speaking, what the multiples desire is ‘product’ – lots of it. The successful supergiant will deliver as many betting opportunities as they can in an hour. Racing is marginalised as a product in comparison to gaming, which is the engine of their businesses, and other sports such as soccer. The actual number of races put on every week, make the sport relatively inexpensive to bookmakers in real terms, and they generate noise and footfall in the LBO’s. They get so many spins of the wheel. Anyone who’s remotely threatening in the modern betting environment is closed down with alacrity.
What’s our future? I believe the data rights deals racetracks have enjoyed likely heftily squeezed by the bookmakers, and we will see racetracks close. The bookmakers simply carry far more commercial nous. Midweek racing most weeks has simply collapsed. Even our finest races ‘carve up’ between a select few, whilst lesser owners struggle at the cost of keeping their horse as the balance between prize money at the highest level and most of the programme is thoroughly disproportionate We can make more of the product.
We can grow, by embarking on a programme to cull more fixtures and move the overall quality and competitiveness right of centre. How many of you are prepared and supportive of the battle the BHA faces in forcing change, or to contribute financially towards a more interesting programme? The simple fact of life – we need a robust BHA, thoroughly in charge of what’s best for Racing. How vocal will you be in support of the surgery we actually require? I don’t see many leaders. We need a few more prepared to serve the sport and not eat its lunch.
Racetracks are feeding off rich machine based pickings from Betting, whilst many fixtures deliver a very poor product much of the time. Their focus has to be in deliverance of a better product for bettors. Not holding their hand out because 8 races makes more money than 7. Poor thinking
If I’m ever asked to stand to post and serve the sport I love in a capacity other than pricing up races, by people who seek and desire constructive change, I shall of course, but will evidently have to climb over a few stakeholders on the way! Geoff Banks October 2014