Some things in racing just don’t make sense. Such as the fixture list, which shed just 23 of the 1,503 meetings run last year. Even allowing for new income streams available to racecourses, the decision to press ahead with such a bloated list seems reckless in the face of cuts to the prize-money budget.
Some respite on that front may arrive when the government resolves the disputed 50th levy scheme. Even then, however, purses collected by owners are bound to fall at a time when so many are banging the prize-money drum. A reduction in fixtures was surely warranted, and with it, the opportunity to stop spreading the jam ever more thinly.
However, there is a more compelling reason beyond prize-money to reduce fixtures. It concerns the size of the annual foal crop, which is in sharp decline. If there was merit in expanding fixtures in tandem with a rising horse population, there is none at all in maintaining fixtures with fewer horses to go round.
This year, some 2,500 fewer horses will go into training to contest a near-identical number of races that were run last year. It gets worse. Come next year, the number of horses available to go into training will fall by a further 3,300. And projections for 2013 suggest the intake will fall by a further 1,000. These are big numbers with big implications.
In the last two years the combined foal crops of Britain and Ireland have declined by 33% as breeders took unprofitable mares out of circulation. Put another way, one in three horses that made up the numbers in 2010 will simply not exist to compete in 2012. Yet fixtures will almost certainly remain constant.
This has serious implications for field sizes, which, by rough association, will regress by 33% next year. In consequence, there will be several more races with fewer than the eight runners required for each-way betting down to third place. Racing should be more concerned by such deterrents to punters than any extra levy that may or may not be generated by a sixth Saturday fixture on the all-weather.
This raises another concern, as bookmakers scale down their media rights payments when field sizes do not allow for full each-way betting. By maintaining the existing fixture list, racecourses are walking blindfold into what could well become a nasty financial trap.
An aggravated decline in the combined revenue streams of levy and media rights seems inevitable as racing struggles to maintain its dwindling share of the sports betting cake.
Should such a shortfall arise, bookmakers will doubtless suggest a remedy. That’s because field sizes can be addressed at a stroke. Simply programme more all-weather handicaps to cater for all those 40-something rated horses that keep getting eliminated and the problem will disappear overnight. The travesty is that racing may have little option but to oblige.
Frankel’s not the best? I must be dreaming!
The World Thoroughbred Rankings are never without controversy but few were as contrary as those delivered by the international handicapping panel in mid-January. It seems inconceivable that Frankel is not champion two-year-old by a country mile – not least because Dream Ahead, who was rated his equal, finished seven lengths behind the Abdullah flyer in the Dewhurst.
The rankings have been published long enough for us to recognise the difficulties facing handicappers. They simply can’t ignore Dream Ahead’s nine-length Middle Park dismissal of Strong Suit, himself a visually striking winner of the Coventry Stakes. Yet to put him on a par with Frankel brazenly ignores what happened in the Dewhurst.
Yet handicappers are loath to increase ratings for horses that win with ease beyond the official margins. So it was that Zarkava’s stunning Arc victory in 2008, by two lengths after a slow start and a rough passage, was deemed inferior to New Approach’s six-length romp in that year’s Champion Stakes, when his opponents hadn’t mustered a Group 1 triumph worthy of the bracket.
To some degree the handicappers deserve sympathy, although owners and trainers may beg to differ. That same, stringent adherence to winning distances, rather than the ease of victory, is certainly not how handicappers routinely operate in Britain.
To win a handicap by two lengths with ease is to ensure a far heftier hike in the weights than is merited by the bare bones. Indeed, to win like that is to kiss goodbye to winning handicap opportunities for many months.