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19th June 2024 3:11 pm

“A difference of opinion is what makes horse racing and missionaries."

Racing’s Garden needs some professional work doing.

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The Lambourn garden has just become an issue. Last week, we removed dead wood, cleared undergrowth, and installed a new boundary dog-proof fence, which has resulted in our having unfettered views of things we don’t want to see. The laws of unintentional consequences have just bitten us.

We can see from the original planting that this was a difficulty faced some thirty years ago by some other wannabe Percy Thrower (Don and Titchmarsh were probably starting up). We know this because along some 15′ of boundary line – are Wild Privet, Cotoneaster, Climbing Hydrangea, Star Magnolia and Japanese Laurel –  none of it in a straight line and all probably selected originally for hedging and filling gaps. This resulted in an organic fight for the same limited water, space, and light. Our problem now is whether we should cut and burn and start again. Or do we try to train it all and get the professional hedger in to see if we can weave some of it together? OR do we add to the chaos and start the territorial fight again by planting more hedging varieties? When you know what you’re doing, these are easy answers, but I suspect at the heart of this is the need to see and understand the big picture and be prepared to be ruthless.

Much the same could be said of racing.

We all know that the industry is in trouble. But those of us who love the sport are ideally unsuited to recognise the depth of the problem because none of us have gotten in there with the mulcher and groundhog robo-cutter to see what we have. And even if we could, not all of us would know what then needs to be done for the best. I have mentioned in these posts that years ago, after a spell as a Lingfield director, I became convinced and declared publicly that we had too much racing, too many poor racehorses and too many racecourses. I was howled down by the likes of Mssrs Crichton-Miller, Deal and Saville (perhaps the first time they ever agreed on anything), and they promptly, over the next ten years, added Ffos Las, Chelmsford and Sunday Racing. When the JC tried to sell off Kempton for housing, Nicky Henderson and others were vocal in their angst and anger. Recently, the JC applied for planning permission for two more 30-box yards in Lambourn with no Lads’ accommodation, and when I questioned this, I was told we needed start-up yards for new trainers  – the same week that Ms Dobbin handed in her licence on a 40-box yard, because she cannot make it pay. Google the words “Racehorse Trainer quits” and tell me the problem of too many trainers doesn’t exist. So why build more yards?

The answer might be that the Jockey Club’s finances are suffering and that assets need to be worked harder.

Then, I became very conflicted. Despite believing we have too many trainers training too few good horses to run on too many racecourses, I became very exercised by the BHA’s recent manoeuvring on their new plans, which have the whiff of Machiavelli. Firstly, we had the long slow-burn of Premierisation. It is hard to conceive of a more pointless exercise with no substantial investment and minimal marketing. But it did establish a few critical points for future manoeuvres. Firstly, there is a food chain of racecourses – Large independents such as Ascot, Chester, and Goodwood, but not Ludlow and Kelso, for example. There are top meetings, like the Guineas, Derby, Oaks, Cheltenham, Goodwood, Royal, and King George, but not necessarily the Lingfield Derby Trial or all the days of the Aintree National meeting or all of the Cheltenham Open and certainly not Yarmouth, Warwick or Ripon races. Secondly, the BHA had shown the “non-premier” courses that an agreement could be reached if they were prepared to give a little in return for potentially a lot.

This was when they released, last Saturday week, Part Two of the premierisation plan, which effectively proposes the creation of an all-encompassing media and data package to be sold to a single entity. Let’s call it the Prime Package. The report, prepared by PWC, mentioned that a Sovereign Wealth Fund would be the potential owner interested in this new Prime Package. (SWF tends to be the modern shorthand for Saudi or Qatar). The reality is more likely that they mean Netflix, Amazon, Apple, and Sky. Also, please bear in mind that no report commissioned from PWC took just a couple of weeks – this must have been in the making for at least six months, and the Prime Package was always the intended destination.

So now, or so it is proposed, the racing industry, Racecourses and Bookmakers, and their Civil Servant, the BHA, will try to convince Owners, Trainers, and others that this brave new world will deliver the riches the industry needs. Firstly, some Premier Panjandrums at some racecourses have to be convinced to give up all their rights for the greater good. Hmm.

Historical evidence seems to suggest that it may not fly. Meanwhile, let’s suppose it does, and then the Prime package gets to the starting stalls. Now this is where the trouble could really start – or not. Chopping out all the deadwood and creating lots of space for manoeuvrability along a straight line inevitably invokes the laws of unintended consequences, as my garden will show for the next couple of years. History tells us that whenever you get a Prime Package of bundled assets, on which someone made some money from fees, commissions, or performance-related enhancements, someone creates Sub-Prime packages – and these yet-be-created roll-ups of Chelmsford and Yarmouth and Perth and Ffos Las subprime packages will be too tempting to resist for the smaller racecourses  – but to do that they will have to break out of the existing infrastructure. And then what?

One other thing. Once the Prime Package is established, it can never be unravelled, and if it turns out to be crap, it will be dropped – but never sold on or indeed unravelled – which means all the rights and benefits will be controlled away from the racing. If, on the other hand, it turns out to be brilliant, no one will ever see the actual industry-wide benefit because it will have been salted away by the people making this contract up in the first place who can only see today’s P&L forecast.

If you think me mad, please explain how golf benefits from LIV—no, I know about the players on the top dollar—but what about the sponsorship values on the PGA tour, which are suffering? What about the impact of so many golfing tournaments on media rights? Explain how so much wall-to-wall-to-screen global cricket has benefitted from having year-round T20 matches: The Blast—Big Bash—Pakistan Super League—Bangladesh Premier League—Indian Premier League—Caribbean—and on and on and on—the impact on players and on the five-day game. And not a hint of corruption…

Entire sporting foundations, cultures, and traditions are being eroded, partly by sportswashing emanating from bad actors with cash and partly by global media needs to fill our screens to supply a global betting product. This will NOT attract more racegoers—that is not what a Prime Package does. It is only meant to enrich the people who own the package, and certainly not the asset-holders within the package.

I suppose we can hold out hope that the principal owners with a stake in the Prime Package are, at least on the surface, dedicated to maintaining the sport—as in The Crown Estates, Jockey Club, and Goodwood. But why not consider some other options first?

Why not open negotiations on separation from the BHA licencing system? As I have said many times before, if Cartmel can profit from crowds, sponsorships, and non-race day activities, why are they getting a Levy Board payment? Is there a way that they can be freed from the one system but still receive payments from the industry-owned broadcast and media rights groups? Perhaps they would simply get an annual lump sum from betting turnover. Perhaps they run their own Tote system? I have no idea what one might do, but keeping the smaller racecourses on-side is vital if the entire industry isn’t to become a filler on Amazon Prime.

 

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