All-weather racing in Great Britain has increased to such an extent since its inception at Lingfield in 1989 that in 2017 nearly 22% of the fixture list – about 25% of all races run – will be on an artificial surface.
Racing on the all-weather has moved from being a desirable development for our industry to an essential part of the race programme. Originally set up to ensure there was an unbroken run of racing fixtures during the winter months when racing was either frozen or rained off, it is now very much part of the furniture of British horseracing.
The real increase in all-weather racing began in October 2006 with the introduction of 40 so-called ‘twilight’ Flat fixtures to be run under floodlights in October, November and December. They were put on primarily for the betting industry and now around 100 of these fixtures are staged from September to mid-April.
The controversial digging up of Newcastle’s cherished turf to create an all-weather track heralded Britain’s sixth all-weather track, the fifth owned by Arena Racing Company (ARC). It seems distinctly possible Catterick will soon be following suit.
The arguments for racing on an artificial surface are well-rehearsed and irrefutable. All-weather provides an immense number of running opportunities for owners and drives horseracing betting turnover, particularly at times when there is little or no racing on turf. It creates the means for racecourses to earn millions of pounds (primarily ARC) in media rights income and therefore plays a pivotal role in keeping the industry going, its workforce employed and the betting public engaged.
More often than not the all-weather racing fare is played out in front of near-empty stands, with moderate horses running for prize-money that sometimes does not allow the horsemen involved even to meet their direct costs.
But this is not to belittle the attempts to inject quality into the all-weather programme, most notably Good Friday’s All-Weather Championships, which, by any measure, has been a success. Neither to bemoan Newcastle’s first all-weather running of the Northumberland Plate which, it has to be said, attracted a great field and a fine spectacle watched by a big crowd.
Yet, for all this, there remains a lingering concern about all-weather racing in this country – not so much about the product but about its rapid growth.
Once artificial tracks have been built, they are easier and cheaper to maintain than turf courses and provide a racing surface that is virtually inexhaustible. Against this background, market forces will continue to exert a constant pressure to expand the all-weather programme, quite possibly to the point where the number of fixtures will be challenging those of turf racing – and therefore at the expense of turf racing.
Once artificial tracks have been built, they are easier and cheaper to maintain than turf courses and provide a racing surface that is virtually inexhaustible
To some, this may not matter; just a few might actually welcome it. But I believe there is a hard core of racing fans, owners and professionals who find this a worrying prospect, not because they do not recognise the huge benefits brought by all-weather, but because British racing is and always will be fundamentally about racing on turf.
Newcastle has already shown that fixtures once destined for the turf can end up as all-weather fixtures and it is not difficult to see this trend developing, especially as racecourses believe they are on firm ground over their ownership of fixtures. To date, jump racing has remained virtually unaffected and it has to be hoped that no racecourse would ever challenge the BHA’s rule that prevents a jump fixture being converted into a Flat fixture.
The big festival meetings are the important punctuation marks in the racing calendar and one can be fairly sure they will always remain safe against this encroaching tide. Not so the numerous lower-to-middle rung Flat turf meetings, which look increasingly vulnerable as all-weather fixtures continue to proliferate and the horse population inevitably gravitates towards them.