The dispute now revolving around the 2012 fixture list was far easier to predict than it is to solve. It represents a classic case of racing’s various factions viewing matters from their own perspective and nobody agreeing. In many ways it is a symptom of both the fast diminishing funding that racing is now receiving from the Levy Board and the uncertainty that exists about where racing’s real power base lies.
The problem is summed up as this. The BHA wants the overall fixture list to be reduced by 80 to 1,400 on the grounds that the horse population is diminishing. The Levy Board and the bookmakers argue a reduction is likely to accelerate the already steep decline in funding, since there will be fewer fixtures to fill the betting slots that make up the so-called levy criteria, and punters will therefore gravitate toward spending their money on non-racing products.
The racecourses, mindful of their substantial media rights income per fixture, are also resisting the cuts, though the Horsemen’s Group and ROA, while agreeing with the BHA proposal for a reduction to centrally funded fixtures, are not as one with the BHA on how to select the fixtures that are to be cut.
There is undoubted logic to the Horsemen’s Group view that a selection process should be based on favouring those racecourses that have the best record of contributing to prize-money. Also to the argument that the process should, as much as possible, match the race programme to the horse population in a way that maximises competitive racing and field sizes.
The bigger picture sees the underlying structure of our sport becoming more fragile by the day
Although the Levy Board disagrees with the ROA about fixtures – suggesting it is a much more complicated debate than we acknowledge – we remain perplexed as to how you can justify a programme of 1,500 fixtures when the levy’s contributions to prize-money has almost halved during the last three years. How, one wonders, can this square with their desire for racing to continue to fill every single betting slot, so that fast diminishing funding is spread evermore thinly over the fixture list and the huge subsidy that the British owner pays to keep the sport afloat continues to increase?
All this has to be seen against the background of the broader picture in racing politics and the growing realisation that the industry cannot continue to be financed by a system that contains loopholes and leakages everywhere you look. While it is true that racing’s big days continue to be wonderfully successful, the underlying structure of our sport becomes more fragile by the day.
At least it is reassuring that the government is now getting centrally involved in racing’s future. It is crucially important that it does, because talk of replacing the levy has to acknowledge that whatever succeeds it must have statutory underpinning. A future built on commercial relationships is all very well but it can never achieve our central objective of ensuring that, whenever and wherever a bet is struck on UK horseracing, we share in the value of that bet.
The other important part of this equation must give peace of mind to members of the Horsemen’s Group and racecourses. The levy system, for all its perceived imperfections, has, for half a century, acted not just as a collector but also as a distributor of racing’s money. Without the levy carrying out this function, who will receive the money and who will distribute it?
This is a central point to discussions now taking place between horsemen and courses. Just as commercial agreements between the betting industry and racing must be supported by statute, so will agreements between the Horsemen’s Group and racecourses need to be based on cast iron guarantees relating to prize-money and the race programme.
If British horseracing can find a way to complete these two strands of work to everyone’s satisfaction, public rows about the fixture list can be confined to the past.