At a time when the horse population continues its recent decline, tough decisions need to be made about the fixture list and race programme for the coming years. And they need to be made in an efficient, rational, responsive and effective manner.
As part of the detailed discussions between horsemen, racecourses, BHA and Levy Board on this crucial issue, there must be a sensible deadline set for the completion of the fixture list. Without this, we will end up in the same embarrassing mess as last year when the 2012 fixture list was completed so late that many diaries and calendars either had to be published without the information, or risked missing the Christmas market.
We rightly aspire to spend much time and energy on marketing British racing and yet seemingly ignore the fact that the annual fixture list is one of the central marketing planks of any professional sport. A multi-million pound sport that cannot organise itself in a way where the list of fixtures is compiled on time deserves to be ridiculed.
People in British racing may point to the complications of our fixture process, but the world outside merely shakes its collective head in disbelief. Whatever the whys and wherefores, it is simply about agreeing that certain race-meetings should take place on specified days. Rocket science it isn’t.
A multi-million pound sport that cannot compile its fixture list on time should be ridiculed
A further important consideration now hangs over the whole fixture process. With fewer horses in training, logic demands there should be fewer fixtures. If not, field sizes will get smaller and races less competitive, reducing racing’s appeal as a spectator sport and a betting medium.
Figures show a worrying trend in this direction. Flat races having fewer than eight runners increased from 18% in 2007 to 30% in 2011. While the number of horses in training reduced by 8.6% last year, fixtures shrunk by only 3.2% – and this at a time when racecourses increasingly stage more races per fixture.
It is a concern that the Levy Board continues to be swayed by the demands of bookmakers in insisting that more is better, while the racecourses, primarily interested in maximising their media rights income, grasp every fixture they can get.
This is, however, not just about fixtures. It is also about the creation of a race programme that matches the profile of the horse population. The two things must work in tandem.
Racing insiders will tell you that, in these commercially driven days, it is impractical to finalise a fixture list before levy negotiations have been completed, which, in essence, means after the statutory deadline of October 31. The solution therefore is to establish a core fixture list well before that date, say the end of August. Since the core is likely to constitute over 90% of fixtures – and those remaining will be of very moderate quality – the effect on the officially published fixture list would be minimal.
Market forces would then come into play for those interested in staging the non-core fixtures. If bookmakers are prepared to pay for them, racecourses want to put them on and, crucially, the horsemen can provide the horses, then I say, through gritted teeth, let it happen. But these poor quality fixtures will need to find their own level.
The diminishing horse population means there is an increasing probability that these races will attract small fields of moderate horses. In the current economic climate, they hold limited attraction for racegoers and punters.
With all this, it is, as ever, vitally important that the meritocratic principles underpinning our race programme remain firmly entrenched in the system, which, in the simplest of terms, means the better the horse the better the prize-money.
The fixture process must be about knowing where to draw the line – the line between the proper fixture list and the bits that bookmakers, racecourses and horsemen can haggle over in their final negotiations. Let everybody agree on this as a starting point for 2013.