My delight at taking over the role of ROA President cannot mask the growing apprehension I feel for the future of British horseracing. A combination of losing the Tote – despite assurances given by the BHA – and, even worse, watching the levy figures slide from the mediocre to the disastrous, illustrates well enough how the time for radical thinking is upon us. I sincerely hope racing’s leadership has got the stomach to initiate the changes that must be made.
Throughout the ten years I have sat on the ROA Council, I have listened to arguments that support one of the underlying themes of the levy system. They are based on bookmakers needing so many fixtures on certain days of the week to maximise betting on horseracing – the so-called levy criteria.
It is a system that is so ingrained in racing’s structure that when it stops working – as it clearly has – nobody can bring themselves to change it.
Its collapse is reflected in figures for the coming years that suggest levy yield will be about half of what it was five years ago when the annual levy could be relied on to produce £90-£110 million.
So why do we cling to the hope that a bloated fixture list will result in lots of money for racing when the facts show the inexorable rise in fixtures has actually coincided with a catastrophic decline in the levy?
It is surely time to get tough with bookmakers and racecourses which, together, have insisted on perpetuating this ludicrous situation. Otherwise, the one aspect of this industry in which we continue to take pride – our top races and festival meetings – will deteriorate as superior overseas prize-money attracts an increasing number of owners to race abroad.
This whole subject is, of course, interwoven with racecourse media rights. As bookmakers have rightly been forced to pay a commercial rate to have pictures in their betting shops, they have used every ruse imaginable to diminish what they pay in levy. For us, there are two major problems with this. One is that the rate of increase in media rights income is not matching that of the decrease in the levy. The other is that there is no compulsion on racecourses to pay a proportion of their media rights money into prize -money.
Our situation demands immediate and radical solutions. It demands that the so-called fixture criteria is discontinued. It demands we devise a fixture list that is based primarily on the best the sport has to offer, that the levy is spent almost entirely on sustaining these fixtures and that fixtures which cater for mediocre horses should either be self-financing or not exist.
In this way we will test the bookmakers’ position on when and how many fixtures they require. If they want more fixtures, they will pay for them through a direct commercial relationship with the racecourses and horsemen over and above what they pay in media rights. If fixtures fail to attract this support and can’t make ends meet through other income, then why do they exist at all?
A system such as this, where the order of things is dictated by rampant market forces, would of course have its casualties, but it would leave British racing leaner and fitter, more able to structure itself in a way where, in marketing and public perception terms, we could really make much more of British Racing plc.
This is not to say that, if there are horses to run and racecourses that want to put on fixtures, they should not be allowed to do so. A so-called third tier of racing should be introduced with a much more relaxed attitude as to when fixtures are put on.
If we are to react to the plight of our situation, racing’s leaders must create a new framework based entirely on class and meritocracy. This, I believe, would put a brake on the deterioration that is unfolding before our eyes.