These are difficult times for horseracing in Britain, with global events continue to impact the economy, creating a cost-of-living crisis that is affecting how and where people spend their money.

Consternation over the protracted levy negotiations, affordability checks, falling attendances and cuts to prize-money highlight the ongoing challenges facing the sport, yet the UK’s rich heritage and assets, from breeding and training operations to racecourses and sales houses, means there are many reasons to be positive about the future – as we discover in this article.


The small breeder

Dena Merson is a member of an elite club, having bred a winner at both Royal Ascot and the Cheltenham Festival – quite an achievement, especially for someone whose broodmare band has never reached double figures.

Missoula, winner of the 2008 Ascot Stakes, and Slade Steel, victorious in the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle in March, descend from Merson’s foundation mare Medway, a daughter of Shernazar purchased at Goffs.

Merson’s story as a small breeder is one of perseverance and self-belief, overcoming tragedies to triumph on the sport’s biggest stages.

“It’s years of knockbacks, which at the time seem insurmountable,” says Merson, a former Eurobond trader and founder of Women in Racing who is well-versed in the industry’s politics, having spent two terms on the Board of the Racehorse Owners Association.

“Slade Steel’s grandam, Medway, died on the same day that I lost Highbrook, the grandam of [recent Cheltenham winner] Somespring Special. Losing two broodmares within hours of each other – when that happens you never want to see a horse again and you never want to go racing again.

“But you have to be practical – we had two foster mares offered to us and ended up taking them both. The thing with horses is that they project you into the future.”

Merson sells her National Hunt stock as foals – Slade Steel, a Telescope gelding and the first offspring from Medway’s daughter Mariet, realised €12,500 at Goffs, while the latest to go under the hammer, an Old Persian colt, returned €60,000 at Tattersalls Ireland in November.

Mariet is currently in foal to Poet’s Word; with a Grade 1-winning sibling, the resulting progeny is sure to be popular at auction, a boost to the breeder who did not receive any other financial benefit from Slade Steel’s Cheltenham heroics.

“We need a system that rewards success,” Merson says. “In terms of Slade Steel, I got the biggest reward one can get and that’s emotional. It was total euphoria and vindication of my breeding programme. You can’t put that in monetary terms.

“However, most of the time we’re not going to Cheltenham – we’re having a fabulous day at Fontwell or Plumpton. As a small owner, you’re lucky if you get a month or two’s training fees from a winner.

“The funding system needs revamping at some stage. We can’t be reliant on a declining levy that’s reliant on bookmaker revenues. I was on the ROA Council from 2005 to 2013 and I read the same arguments being made now as then.

“The threat now from the Gambling Commission regarding affordability checks is real and I do think it will drive people out of racing.”

Merson believes that too many good stallions are leaving the UK and feels that others are written off too quickly, such as Slade Steel’s sire Telescope.

Mariet, her sole broodmare – “she is the culmination of 30 years’ work” – is a British-bred mare who raced exclusively on these shores, now based in Ireland. Her British breeder sent her to a British-based sire, but she foaled in Ireland and therefore Slade Steel carries the IRE suffix.

Merson says: “The distinction we’re making with things like the Prestbury Cup at Cheltenham – I think it’s damaging the sport. It’s a symbiotic relationship.

“I went to Ireland originally because I was paying a third of what I was paying here. But don’t blame Britain. We aren’t supported in the way the French breeders are with premiums and don’t receive the help from government that the Irish do on the breeding side.

“Mariet is now an elite mare, so the TBA’s Elite Mares’ Scheme would provide £2,000 towards a nomination, although she is 15 now and very happy where she is.”

Merson points to the better prize-money, and lower training fees, in Ireland as the reasons why so many of the big National Hunt owners have their horses stabled across the Irish Sea, but hopes the domestic industry focuses on the positives to try and keep participants involved.

She says: “I read a tremendously uplifting article from TBA Chairman Philip Newton in the April edition of this magazine – followed by a news story on how the Irish domination of Cheltenham is damaging racing. Let’s stop pulling our sport down.

“People see the headlines and that negativity gets into the minds of breeders. We must stop setting ourselves up against the Irish. Let’s promote our success and believe in the stallions we have.”

The owners

Jonny Allison, an investment banker, describes himself as “one of those small owners that no-one has heard of but I’ve had 87 winners”.

Allison, who had the Racing Post delivered to his room whilst at boarding school, embarked on his ownership adventure in the early 2000s and after being left £3,000 in his grandmother’s will, invested in an ROA syndicate that quickly led to Cheltenham Festival success with the Nicky Henderson-trained Non So in 2006.

At present Allison has interests in about 30 horses under both codes in a mixture of eighth, quarter and half shares. He says the cost-of-living crisis hasn’t affected his ownership although success on the track, and sales of horses in training, have helped considerably with the finances.

He says: “Prize-money is critical; I pay for the horses with my salary so the more they pay for themselves the more I can have. I think it is totally wrong to expect that as a hobby it should pay its way, but you do need to stay alive financially.

“I have been very fortunate over the last three years with the prize-money won by Streets Of Gold and then two good-money sales, namely the Archie Watson syndicate where he bought Bradsell at the breeze-ups and sold him after his winning debut.

“Of course, Bradsell went on to even greater things winning the Coventry and more, but it was the right decision at the time and has funded a few free spins and then at Christmas we sold Sommelier with Marco Botti for a good profit.

“The sales have helped keep the show on the road but obviously they are quite rare – the cost vs prize-money equation is desperate here. It’s the one thing that I would change overnight if I could.

“I have had shares with trainer Dan Blacker in the US and it’s $30,000 for winning a maiden there. I find it very hard to attract new non-racing people to owning horses when they see the economics, hence why syndicates are so important – it’s a lower-cost way for people to get the ownership bug.”

Allison, who like many owners enjoys a bet, is unhappy with the level of interference and intrusion from bookmakers into his punting activities.

“Restrictions and affordability checks have been massive issues for me,” he says. “I have been restricted by almost every firm.

“I have never bet in amounts that would disturb a bookmaker and it makes me doubly angry that every month I spend more on training fees than I would make in a year on betting.

“The restrictions are far too broad – I put a screenshot on X when I was only permitted £4 each way on the National.

“If I couldn’t bet at all, my interest would wane for sure, and my ownership string would halve at least.”

Allison, who says the buzz of seeing your own horse win “is like nothing else – afterwards you are walking on air,” is committed to finding good homes for his former racehorses. He has plenty of ideas on how racing could attract more devotees.

He says: “We should exploit the crossover with other sports. Look at the football legends involved in racing – why not, with any football season ticket, have a few local entry vouchers for the nearest racecourse?

“Anyone who orders an advanced ticket for a raceday should go into a raffle for two owners’ passes for that day, to get a nice lunch and a taste of the owner experience.

“I would also reward loyalty; I’ve had to pay the annual charge for renewing my colours of £125 for about 15 years. The Authority to Act charge from the BHA is another thing which is incorrectly calculated in my view, as it penalises both shared ownership and using multiple trainers.”

Unlike Allison, Steve Packham has never been restricted, or been asked for a single piece of information, by a betting company, though he has had to turn away a procession of black-market bookies touting for business.

Best known in racing through the exploits of his talented and enigmatic jumper Goshen, the winner of 11 races and £272,000 in his career, construction firm boss Packham owns 11 horses at present, including in partnerships, which is the most he’s ever had.

For National Hunt enthusiast Packham, it’s all about prize-money in terms of ownership – and the more owners get back, the more likely they are to spend on another horse.

He says: “What everybody would like is for their horse(s) to win and cover the cost of the training. The money that you spend on purchasing them, especially in the National Hunt game, that’s gone. But if you can recoup some of the cost from the prize-money they win to cover the training cost, then happy days.

“If I’m honest, Goshen has probably covered most of the costs for the rest of the horses in the past few years, so I’ve been very lucky. But I think most people would agree the prize-money does need to improve, especially over jumps.

“When I first got involved 20 years ago you won one race per season and it covered your training costs. Now you probably need to win three, especially at the lower level. Thankfully the VAT you can claim back through the ROA/Tote owner sponsorship scheme helps a lot.

“If the prize-money was better in this country, those owners – or a good number of them – with Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott would have their horses trained here instead.”

Packham is a regular attendee at the Cheltenham Festival and noted the fall in numbers among his own group of friends this year.

“The cost-of-living crisis is affecting attendances,” he says. “I know lots of people who would normally have gone to Cheltenham that didn’t go this year. Over the course of the week, from my group, there would normally have been 15 or 20 of us at the Festival. This year there were seven.”


The stud manager

Few people know the bloodstock business better than Chris Richardson, who has been part of the fabric at Cheveley Park Stud since 1987.

Undoubtedly one of British racing’s blue-chip outfits, Cheveley Park is synonymous with producing and campaigning high-class performers, its famous red, white and blue (cap) silks carried by outstanding individuals such as recent star Inspiral, winner of six Group/Grade 1s, with its current policy being to sell the colts and race the fillies.

As the Newmarket operation’s Managing Director, Richardson has overseen a significant restructure of Cheveley Park’s broodmare band in response to economic conditions and buyer behaviour in the sales ring.

He says: “We had 165 broodmares, all owned by the Thompson family, which was a huge investment. We’ve reduced over the last five years and now have 85 mares, so effectively halving our numbers.

“We took the view that it was necessary to restructure the business and concentrate on quality rather than quantity.

“The policy is still to offer our colts at auction but rather than having to sell 40 or 50, we’re selling 20.”

The Cheveley stallion roster, once led by the mighty Pivotal, a homebred Group 1 winner who subsequently became a multiple champion sire, features two names in Twilight Son, a grandson of Pivotal, and Ulysses, with Unfortunately standing at Springfield House Stud in Ireland.

“It’s a shame that we’ve gone from standing nine stallions to two. We’re always looking for a new stallion but there are a limited number available and it’s hugely competitive.

“With regard to the number of coverings, we’re probably 60% down on two years ago. That’s market forces – breeders have plenty of choice.

“Our game-plan with sires was always sprinting and we were successful in that field. However, we wanted to offer breeders the opportunity to use a stallion that stayed further, which is why we acquired Ulysses. He hasn’t had a headline horse yet although he’s made an excellent start.”

Richardson understands the pressure that small breeders are under – “there are only so many times you can send a mare to a stallion and see the progeny not sell or make what it should” – but feels there are reasons to be optimistic, pointing to various self-help initiatives.

He says: “I think there are many positives, including the TBA’s wonderful Great British Bonus for fillies. Winning a £20,000 bonus can help an owner keep the show on the road. It’s a fantastic initiative that has been embraced by the industry.

“The European Breeders’ Fund is putting in more than £2 million in 2024 and is a vital contributor to prize-money. The World Pool is another exciting development.

“I am an optimist. We must stay united as an industry and involve all the different bodies, including the auction houses. All the pieces of the puzzle need to come together so we see the complete picture.”

On a practical level, Richardson feels that assisting breeders regarding nomination costs and reviewing the number of mares going to certain stallions would be beneficial.

“Some sort of subsidy for mare owners, whether through an industry-led sponsorship arrangement or otherwise, would help,” Richardson says.

“I also feel there could be some limitation on the number of mares going to certain popular stallions, which would allow the broodmare population to be spread around the other sires that are available.”

He adds: “We are in a bit of a downturn where things are tough, yet we have probably the best product in the world and are great producers of top-class horses.

“Everything is cyclical. So long as we remain united and conscious of the problems, we can work together and get the projections pointing upwards again.”


The trainer

Ilka Gansera-Leveque has been training in Britain since 2012, based at St Wendred’s Stable in Newmarket.

Gansera-Leveque, who runs her operation with husband Stéphane, started out as an apprentice jockey in her native Germany, later moving to the US where she gained experience with renowned horseman Monty Roberts.

A qualified vet, Gansera-Leveque has done well with the horses she has received – at the time of writing her strike-rate was 22% in 2024 – though she is keen to push on to the next level if she can boost the size of her string, which currently stands at 15.

She says: “You need critical mass and that’s something I haven’t yet achieved. It’s a numbers game at the end of the day. But you can only play the cards you’re dealt.

“Racing is so fast-paced and there’s so much on. It’s always on to the next race, even when you’re watching on TV. I haven’t caught the attention of people yet, but I think we’ve done well with what we’ve got.

“I don’t have any rich backer. I’m self-made and I think I appeal to those types of owners. Often people who get into horseracing have an advisor and the advisor has their own agenda. I can sit here and beat myself up about it, but tomorrow is another day and the horses we have need to be trained.

“You need people to support you with horses and have a budget for the sales. I’ve shown time and time again it can be done without buying a sale-topper. Training racehorses is my life. It’s not my job – it’s my vocation.”

Again, prize-money pops up as the major issue for Gansera-Leveque. The trainer feels that improved purses would not only help attract more people into ownership, but retain the owners currently involved.

“If the prize-money was better in Britain that would help everybody and attract new owners into the sport,” she says “I don’t think there’s any point in coming up with pie-in-the-sky ideas. If a regular racehorse could pay its way you would have more owners in the game.

“It’s not about getting rich by your horse(s), but if it could cover its expenses, you would keep people in the sport that we are losing right now. Owners complain about the state of prize-money on a regular basis.”

Gansera-Leveque adds: “I would love to train Group 1 winners like everybody does. I won’t say I want 100 horses – but 50 or 60 would be great.”