Phil Reed looks at the current issues facing the British horse racing industry, and how recent PR issues are impacting the sport's reputation
There can be fewer industries with a greater propensity for shooting itself in the foot than the British horse racing industry.
It is our second biggest spectator sport (almost 5.8 million people visited racecourses in 2018) and we have the best, most diverse racing in the world. The Grand National, The Derby and the Gold Cup at Cheltenham are famous way beyond these shores.
We have the greatest variety of racecourses, ranging from the historic city centre setting of Chester, to Goodwood’s jaw-dropping views of the South Downs. And in Newmarket, Ascot, Epsom and York we have world-famous courses that can trace their roots back to the 18th century. On top of that there’s Aintree, perhaps the first racecourse that most people would name, if asked.
And let’s not forget that Britain is also the home of the thoroughbred, the epicentre of the global bloodstock industry. From Eclipse to Frankel, many of the greatest four-legged athletes the world has ever seen were born and bred here.
Yet barely a week seems to go by without the media highlighting some issue, scandal or cock-up that threatens the sport’s integrity and reputation, whether that’s a row over the handling of an equine flu outbreak, daft ideas about races in city centres or the wrong horse being declared the winner.
The latest PR gaffe to engulf British racing is the dispute between horsemen (owners, trainers and jockeys) and one of the industry’s biggest players, the Arena Racing Company (ARC).
ARC runs 16 racecourses around Britain, and it relies on bookmakers for its revenue. It’s a complex business model, but essentially there’s a direct link between the number of betting shops and the media rights that ARC, and other racecourse groups, rely on.
When the government announced a reduction in the maximum stake on fixed odds betting terminals (FOBTs) from £100 to £2 from 1 April this year, the bookies claimed that thousands of betting shops could close as a result. If that happened, the value of media rights deals would be affected.
Although no shops have closed yet as a direct result of the FOBT decision, ARC took the view that its business would suffer, so it took £3m out of its prize money pot for 2019.
Trainers and owners responded by effectively boycotting some ARC-run races, reducing fields to two or three runners and, in extreme cases, to one or even none!
An undignified war of words between ARC and the horsemen broke out, with the sport’s regulator – the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) – failing to stamp its…err…authority on the situation.
Regardless of where the blame lies for this particular PR shambles, anyone looking in from outside could only conclude that here is a sport (and an important British industry worth more than £3.5bn to our economy) that doesn’t know its derrière from its coude.
I actually think that would be a very unfair conclusion, but you can understand why many people – even ones who regularly go racing – have that opinion.
The BHA governs the sport, but it doesn’t run the racecourses or have direct control over the fixtures or prize money. Nor does it have responsibility for racing’s administration – that’s the job of Weatherbys – and the racecourses are left to sort their own media rights deals (and one of the UK’s two dedicated racing TV channels is owned by a consortium of racecourses).
The racecourses (some independent, some part of big groups) own the fixtures and, to a large extent, control the prize money for each race. But, as the ARC row has revealed, when it comes to cash they’re heavily reliant on the bookmakers.
In order to tackle that mess, we first need to know who’s in charge. So who does actually run British horse racing?
In most sports, it’s clear who’s responsible. In football, for instance, there’s a well-established hierarchy of governance and control: FIFA, UEFA, the Football Association and then the leagues, such as the Premier League and EFL. Ditto cricket, tennis, rugby union and so on.
Can you imagine the Premier League allowing individual or small groups of football clubs to agree their own media deals, or F1 leaving its media rights in the hands of each circuit?
Horse racing has a huge challenge in attracting a younger, less betting-fixated audience and in being relevant in a social media age, but how can it possibly hope to achieve that when the industry is so fragmented and blighted by in-fighting?
A restructure that creates something along the lines of the FA/Premier League/EFL model would be interesting, but it works in football because those bodies control its governance, administration and finances. For it to work in racing, you’d have to take some – if not all – of that financial power away from bookmakers.
So, back to my earlier question. Who runs horse racing in Britain? Answers on a betting slip, please.