The Flat season came to both its official and unofficial end with the Breeders’ Cup providing a fitting climax once again, in the process demonstrating that many of the best turf horses in the world ply their trade in Britain and Ireland. In addition, the first four finishers in the Melbourne Cup were bred in Europe, the quartet having started their racing careers on this continent, where they ran a total of 40 times, before being transferred down under.
The Breeders’ Cup also witnessed the culmination of an amazing campaign for owners Steve and Jolene De’Lemos, whose Nunthorpe hero Live In The Dream came so close to penning a fairytale ending to 2023 in the Turf Sprint. Adam West, who trains a small team from a historic yard in Epsom, showed what could be done with limited resources and is already planning to have another crack next year. Another brilliant story from the Breeders’ Cup was supplied by Big Evs, owned by RP Racing and trained by Mick Appleby, who spearheaded a British/Irish 1-2-3 in the Juvenile Turf Sprint.
On this side of the Atlantic, the jumps season is now in full swing, and it will be interesting to see how the slimmed down fixture list and tweaks to the race programme in 2024 improve both field sizes and competitiveness.
The King’s Speech in November did not reference any legislative plans that would impact British racing in the run up to a General Election, likely to be in late 2024. So, we are left with the familiar items of betting levy reform and the dreaded Gambling Act, exacerbated by the impact of affordability checks. There have been various meetings between the industry group responsible for securing levy reform and the Betting & Gaming Council, the body that collectively represents the bookmakers. It is extremely frustrating that we are now nearing the end of the year and we still don’t have an agreed proposal for the government to action.
The original deadlines for submission of the two sides’ positions was back in the early summer, so to have made so little progress is deeply concerning. The industry has shown that the levy has not kept pace with costs in the high-inflation environment of the past few years, and it is accepted by all that reform is needed. We now just need to get on with it.
Turning to affordability checks and the consultation process that has taken place since the publication of the government’s White Paper, there are both encouraging and discouraging signs. The BHA survey of bettors received a much greater response than was anticipated and provided clear evidence that the impact of the proposals would either discourage betting or turn punters towards the unregulated black market.
The less helpful aspect is that the Gambling Commission seems to be indicating that the consultation was not going to impact its already published views; it appears that those employed by the Gambling Commission believe their job is to simply implement the policies published in the White Paper, effectively ignoring the response to their own consultation and also the input from the BHA and others. This simply cannot be right, hence the petition that was launched at the beginning of November, which at the time of writing has reached 80,000 signatures. It is crucial that the 100,000-signature target is reached and passed, thus triggering a debate in parliament. The more that this issue can be raised, the better the chance of sense prevailing.
With 2024 now almost here, the new fixture list will become effective, and the various trials will begin. In the meantime, the BHA has published an extensive list of targets and KPIs to judge the impacts and outcomes of its strategy. It is vital that the changes introduced for the two-year trial are given time to bed in, and knee-jerk reactions avoided.
What we have not yet seen are the detailed plans for the format of both premier days and core racedays. The promotion and marketing work, alongside understanding the customer and creating new pathways to entry for fans, bettors and participants, is the key to success. The industry must attract new revenue streams and urgently requires a budget to pay for the work described above. Additionally, the costs incurred by the BHA on the new strategy cannot simply be paid for by the sport’s shareholders. It must generate significant new funds to make the whole exercise a success.
There is plenty going on in British racing right now, but most importantly I would like to wish everyone a Happy Christmas and a New Year full of winners.