It may be a hard act to follow in trying to match the insightful comments of my predecessor Rachel Hood in this monthly column but, as the new ROA President, it is a challenge I look forward to.
Since racing is basically about one horse running faster than another, I have quickly realised the business and infrastructure of this industry is amazingly complicated, so much so that trusting one’s instincts is often every bit as important as having a grasp of all the detail.
One thing my instincts are now telling me is that appearance money in British racing is a good thing and should be extended. We should therefore applaud the appearance money initiatives put into place by Chester and Musselburgh and give them the recognition they deserve as two racecourses which are right up with the best when it comes to looking after owners generally.
As you will know, Chester has recently announced an appearance money scheme for this year whereby no owner of a horse who runs there will go away with less than a £400 payment (less the usual trainer, jockey, stable staff deductions). On top of an 8% increase in their 2016 total prize-money fund, this surely already makes Chester favourite to win the ROA’s best large racecourse award for a second successive year.
When we are constantly being told we need more horses in training, an expansion of appearance money would improve the industry’s dire financial model for owners. With nearly 60% of horses in training winning less than £2,500 a year and over one quarter winning nothing, it’s difficult to see how we are going to attract more owners – or discourage existing ones from leaving – when you consider the cost of having a horse in training.
Along with appearance money helping to cushion the costs for the small owner of getting a horse to the racecourse, one obvious advantage is that it would help to combat small fields, especially if racecourses worked with the BHA on the selection of events that should be targeted.
Yes, I know racing has been here before and I know one of the arguments against appearance money is that sometimes very moderate horses run just to get the appearance money, but the pluses surely outweigh the minuses. Bookmakers will tell you every time a horse runs, however moderate it might be, it attracts betting turnover. We also know that even the most mediocre of horses can play an important part in increasing field sizes for each-way betting.
The scourge of small fields is further in evidence when racecourses receive significantly less money in media rights payments for races with three or four runners – a point made by Musselburgh’s excellent Bill Farnsworth when he talked about their appearance money scheme.
One obvious advantage is that it would help to combat small fields
It would not be practical, affordable or even desirable to attach appearance money to all races. At least to begin with, it should be targeted at those races at, say, Class 4 and below that look likely to end up with small fields. With racecourses now flush with media rights money, competition between the courses for runners should be much stronger and offering appearance money would be an excellent way of fuelling this competition.
There are, of course, a lot of factors that go into deciding where to run a horse, but, all things being equal, the racecourse that is putting on the race that carries appearance money would surely get the nod.
The fact that small fields are anathema to both racecourses and bookmakers should put owners in a very strong position – but only if we vote with our feet. Not only must we get behind the initiatives of Chester and Musselburgh to show that their appearance money schemes really work, but we, as an association, must lobby the BHA and racecourses to create a scheme from which everyone benefits.