Is Horse Racing Going To The Dogs?
Where is the horse racing industry headed? With a number of issues at hand, today on the blog Stephen raises his concerns and looks at some solutions.
The announcement in August of the first ever million pound Crabbies Grand National at Aintree was welcome news for all followers of this great sport, but the publicity gained can only paper over the ever-growing problems that continue to be largely ignored by racing's hierarchy.
Put simply horse racing is following the lead set by greyhound tracks. It is now controlled by the whims of the big bookmakers, bullied into providing more low grade racing for virtually non existent prize money, played out in front of dwindling midweek audiences and steadily losing its share of the competitive betting marketplace.
Soon we will get 12 race cards with 6 runner races, betting shows of 140pc from the three "controlled" on-course puppet layers, in front of empty grandstands.
This summer has seen a plethora of small field, uncompetitive races that are generally a huge turn off for the betting public, with no each way betting and a distinctly unappealing assortment of low grade handicaps, claimers and sellers.
Furthermore the ridiculous summer jumps programme has finally had its merits exposed, with the fast ground seeing tiny fields in general regardless of the value of the races.
Here we offer 5 ideas to stop racings rapid slide into a BAGS style format...
#1 - A two month break in July and August from jumping
A proper pause will harm some tracks who get big holiday crowds in, but overall the sport will benefit from a proper gap between the seasons, avoiding firm ground issues and doing away with largely low grade, pointless racing for two months completely.
#2 - A cull of 1000 low level races from the calendar
In 2008 there were 3693 races with an average number of runners of 10.25. In 2013 there were 4144 races with an average number of runners of 8.82. (source geegeez.co.uk)
These two stats are completely damning and show how the big bookmakers demands for more and more racing are hurting the sport. If this trend continues we will be down to seven runner races on average very soon. Now who would be in favour of that?
Lets cull the maximum number of races down to 3500 and ensure that prize money levels increase across the board. Field sizes will again rise and racing itself will become more competitive.
#3 - Encourage self sufficiency of the racetracks themselves and end the levy model altogether
The "market" has already seen off Hereford and Folkestone in recent years, and it must be allowed to close other tracks that offer nothing for either customers or the wider racing public. Unless a track can come close to making money on its own merits, it has to go.
The spectre of racing taking place in front of empty grandstands, (see Kempton's evening all-weather fixtures for a weekly example of this) is surely not in the interests of anyone. If big bookmakers "require" these fixtures to encourage players into their arcades in the evenings, then let them pay for it completely and 100%. Why should owners of horses subsidise the profits of huge companies making their principal profits from non-levy paying sports or FOBTS?
#4 - The restructuring of the pattern and re-establishment of midweek racing
Racing, at the will of the bookmakers, is now compressed into a two hour (televised) period on a Saturday afternoon, with a plethora of valuable prizes run at 5 minute intervals in a frenzy. The rest of the week has withered on the vine, with Sunday's in particular left to rot in a dire state, with small fields of bad horses racing for pennies.
Quality racing need to be spread more evenly, boosting crowds midweek and giving the genuine follower of the sport a chance to keep up with the form.
Festivals need to be actively encouraged, with tracks staging 3,4 or 5 day fixtures on a regular basis. Everyone is a winner on this score, with costs kept down travel wise, the local area boosted and a decent pattern re-established. In Ireland, Galway and Punchestown lead the way in this regard, while in the UK the emerging Perth and Brighton festivals show what can be achieved.
#5 - Huge prize money boost to the all-weather to encourage competitiveness/encourage interest
The current "winter" all weather programme has largely directly replaced the corrupt "banded" idea that was rapidly done away with after it provided a dirge of low grade non-events. Unless a proper structure is reintroduced, including minimum prize money levels as advised by the Horsemans Group, then it will continue to die. It simply cannot make sense for any trainer operating in the real world (i.e not subsidised by the backing of the Arab elite), to run horses racing for prize money less than £1500 in 2013.
Big cash increases are needed and a rise in handicaps at a higher grade to encourage a better standard of runner on the sand. Otherwise more punters will drift away as the fog of poor racing envelops the sport. This betting shop fodder has to end, before racing does become an imitation of BAGS racing and the decline continues.
Follow Stephen on Twitter: @Stephenh61