It is an ongoing dilemma for the ROA. Whether, in an effort to encourage as many people as possible to participate in racehorse ownership, we refrain from publicising details of the dire economics of British racing. Or whether we continue to remind people that the return on investment for the British owner is the worst on the international scale in the hope that a constant rehearsal of the arguments will eventually improve those finances.
The reality is, of course, the ROA would be neglecting its duties if it did not give the true picture of costs and prize-money of British racing. Along with this, however, the association does an excellent job in enhancing many different aspects of racehorse ownership.
We were reminded of the costs of having a horse in training in Britain by a recent ROA survey. It revealed that in 2015 the average total annual cost of having a horse on the Flat was calculated at £22,595, and over jumps £16,325. Allowing for the fact that these are very much average figures and there are wide geographical variations, this was, nevertheless, a very revealing survey.
On this basis, anyone winning a Class 6 race under either code would still be a financial loser on the day
A particularly salient figure was the average cost per run, which the survey said was just over £3,000 on the Flat and £3,500 for a jumps race. On this basis, anyone winning a Class 6 race under either code would still be a financial loser on the day. It would also suggest that owners need to be aiming their horses at races with a total prize fund of at least £5,000 to break even on winning a race.
As poor as these figures are, things are actually improving across-the-board for the British owner, albeit slowly. In the past ten years total prize-money has increased from £98.7 million to £137.6m, representing a percentage increase of nearly 40% against an inflation figure of about half that. However, not only is this skewed because 2007 was a low starting point, but we have to recognise that most owners have not benefited from this uplift as the majority of it would have been directed at the top tiers.
Owners remain by far the biggest contributors to British racing. In 2016, there were over 18,000 individual horses that ran at least once and when you multiply this by, say, £20,000 (an approximate annual average cost of having a horse in training), you get to a total of £360m. After subtracting net prize-money of £110m, the overall annual contribution by owners is £250m – and considerably more if you allow for the many thousands of horses that never make it to the track.
So, even ignoring the capital outlay for the horse, it is clear the owners’ contribution to the racing pot easily dwarfs that of the racecourses and the betting industry put together.
But, that aside, there are now definite reasons for optimism. First, the owners’ percentage cost recovery, while still very low by international standards, is now creeping up towards the 30% level, which is significantly better than it was ten years ago.
Second, racecourses’ contributions to prize-money, boosted greatly by media rights income, has more than doubled in the last decade and should continue to increase; and, third, with the reform of the levy system, the betting industry’s contribution to prize-money is expected to increase by £20m-£30m annually when the new system properly comes on stream.
It is now generally recognised and agreed upon that the area where prize-money must be increased is for the middle and lower tiers of racing. Almost three-quarters of the horses in training in 2016 won less than £2,500 in prize-money, while over one third of those won nothing at all.
It is just as well that prize-money is not the prime motivation for most owners, but if the imbalance between costs and income is not rectified then the numbers of active owners will continue to decline.