With the glamour and excitement of Royal Ascot and the Epsom Derby meeting behind us, it is all too easy to believe that British racing is in a wonderfully healthy state. Fabulous racing, big crowds and huge betting turnover may send a message to the outside world that our sport is booming but industry insiders know the true picture is more complicated.
Yes, there are many positives such as racing being the country’s second largest spectator sport and being responsible for the employment of 85,000 people. We can also be proud of our internationally renowned brands such as the Grand National, Derby and Royal Ascot; of our high standards in the area of welfare and integrity; and of the eminent position we maintain on the international stage despite the much more favourable funding models in other countries.
But beneath this veneer we have an industry where declines in the foal crop and horses in training over recent years are impacting on field sizes, fixtures and betting income. Jockeys and trainers outside the top band are struggling to make a reasonable living, putting pressure on integrity, staff wages and welfare, while UK owners continue to receive the lowest returns among all major racing countries.
All this has prompted the BHA to set up a project entitled ‘British Racing – A Strategy for Growth’ under its Chairman, Steve Harman. There are six pillars to this work – integrity and regulation, welfare and training, racing and betting, horse population and ownership drive, customer growth and investment drive.
Of course, much of the work within these areas is on-going but there is now an imperative to build on the momentum created by such initiatives as the British Champions Series and to put a more defined structure on what needs to be done.
Everything that underpins horseracing is about entertainment. This means the way in which the sport is organised and promoted must appeal to the general public, whether they are race-goers, TV viewers, punters or all three. It must also be organised to appeal to owners at every level because the fundamental truth is that owners are the major financial contributors to the sport.
It is not easy for an activity that is steeped in history and tradition to promote itself in the modern world. While it is the tradition of British racing that has created the all-important punctuation points of the racing seasons to which the public has a natural affinity, this has to be balanced with modernising the sport so that it continues to capture the imagination of each passing generation.
The creation of the British Champions’ Series – and in particular British Champions’ Day – did not meet with the approval of many traditionalists. Moving Champions’ Day from Newmarket to Ascot and changing much of the surrounding programme caused hackles to rise but it was the right thing to do because the Ascot finale has already become established as an event to which the public more readily relates, notwithstanding the fact that it comes too late in the season.
It is against the ‘Strategy for Growth’ background that the BHA executive faces a more specific and immediate task in putting together the 2015 fixture list. As each racecourse or racecourse group clamours to get fixtures that suit their individual needs, a reduced horse population indicates that fewer fixtures would be more helpful in tackling the increasing problem of small fields, which devalue the racing product in both entertainment and betting terms.
Here we see the importance of one strand of the BHA’s new work stream. In boosting the number of owners and therefore horses in training, it follows that racecourses and bookmakers benefit from increased field sizes and more competitive racing.
All of this becomes so much easier now there is collaboration, not conflict, between racing’s stakeholders and now that horsemen and racecourses are working together for the overall benefit of racing.