As one era closes, another begins. The BHA waved goodbye to Paul Bittar in January and welcomed Nick Rust into their High Holborn HQ with the news that prize-money would hit an all-time high in 2015. Unfortunately, figures show that the number of runners in Britain continues to slide.
Our sport faces many challenges but the most immediate concerns the lack of raw materials, i.e. racehorses, to serve the current number of race meetings staged each year. Sanctioning an increase in all-weather tracks is unlikely to help in that regard.
The logical answer to a declining horse population (as owner and breeder numbers fall), fewer runners and increasing number of small-field races – which turn off punters, produce lower betting activity and therefore return less via the levy – is to cut fixtures.
Yet as we know, this hasn’t happened, primarily due to the demands of the betting industry and racecourses. The appointment of a man who has spent his entire working life protecting the interests of bookmakers is, to say the least, unlikely to change matters.
That’s not to suggest that Mr Rust’s CV will be a drawback – his excellent links with bookmakers and intimate knowledge of the gambling sector helped him secure the job, after all – simply that it would be difficult for someone who has heard the ‘more is better’ message for the best part of 30 years to suddenly decide the opposite is true.
The new BHA man starts with an overflowing in-tray and must be given time to make his mark. But I hope his reign produces a better response to the small fields conundrum than simply asking owners to run their horses more often. That was never going to work, while a recent initiative to remove certain races that fail to attract sufficient entries looks doomed.
Of course, the weary quest for a replacement to the levy scheme, now centred on a ‘racing right’, which is discussed in ROA President Rachel Hood’s Leader column on page 7, would change the game as far as racing’s funding is concerned. However, putting our hopes on this particular horse coming in any time soon would be optimistic at best, especially with a General Election looming.
Previous governments have been anything but quick to act if past events are anything to go on – we haven’t the space to go into the history of the Tote sell-off but needless to say our sport came out of that decade-long debacle the worse for wear.
As we know, Fred Done’s Betfred eventually gained the Tote – much to the chagrin of Sir Martin Broughton, the former Chairman of the British Horseracing Board, who believed his consortium was in pole position to land the prize.
Broughton has pretty much done it all during his business career, as Chairman of British Airways, British American Tobacco and also Liverpool FC, when he effected the removal of the club’s unloved American owners, much to the delight of the fans.
While the Tote failure still rankles with Broughton, as he tells Alan Lee in this month’s fascinating Big Interview, events on the track have proved far more productive.
In Taquin Du Seuil and Dodging Bullets, Broughton co-owns two of the best chasers around, with the former scoring at last year’s Cheltenham Festival and subsequently voted Outstanding Novice Chaser at the ROA Awards, and the latter claiming a brace of Grade 1s this season, most recently defeating the returning Sprinter Sacre at Ascot in January. Not bad for someone with just a handful of horses in training. He must be thrilled with his lot, right? Wrong.
“I don’t have a problem with ownership being a luxury item,” he says. “Just the same as playing golf or owning a boat.
“But I do have a problem with percentages. There is a 23% return rate now. Getting that up to 50% might be a major achievement but, actually, it would be an acceptable position.”