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Britain and USA Share Concerns About Future of racing

Britain and USA Share Concerns About Future of racing

A race against time is under way in the racing industry. Financial pressures, betting headaches, fewer owners and horses and the risk of one in five courses facing closure has pushed the industry into adopting radical changes.

Nick Rust, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, the industry’s governing body, is spearheading a six-point programme to increase the appeal of the sport and gain greater control over its finances.

Racing in the UK is big business, providing work for 86,000 people, contributing £3.5bn a year to the economy, attracting 5.8m spectators to more than 1,300 racing events, generating £10bn in betting income and investing almost £1bn since 2005.

But below the surface are “many of the reasons why we can’t afford to be complacent,” says Rust. In the past six years, the number of horses in training has dropped 7pc. The return for owners is down to 29p in the pound, with the result that 15pc of sole owners outside syndicates have sold out.

Rust has been told only 40pc of trainers are making any money. The squeeze on National Hunt trainers is greater still, while many breeders are said to be struggling to survive.

Rust was the surprise choice to lead the growth programme, but racing insiders feel he is proving a worthwhile investment. As the former director in charge of Ladbrokes’ retail betting business, with four horses of his own, he is poacher turned gamekeeper.

In the past six months, Rust has mobilised the industry’s seven professional bodies into three groups. They have set a series of targets: increasing the number of horses in training by 1,000 by 2020; raising spectator numbers to 7m over the same period; boosting industry funding by £120m; increasing the betting population, currently 11m, by 5pc; and showing punters they can have a stake in a horse for just £30-£40 a month.

Rust is confident, but he faces considerable hurdles and vested interests in negotiating his way through an industry attempting to come to terms with considerable change.

The surge of foreign investment from Dubai, and increasingly Qatar, has raised the quality of the racing stock as well as the profile and prestige of British racing. Yet total prize money has lagged well behind international levels. History and some of the best races on the international calendar have proved more attractive than the prize money, although this year there should be a record £130m in the pot.

The horse racing industry is undergoing radical changes.

Rust feels that the economics of racing are so sensitive that moving the date of a key meeting could be enough to push some courses into the red. In the past two years, the industry has lost two courses — Hereford and Folkestone — and gained Chelmsford, but a crowded racing calendar and falling income are pushing others closer to the edge. Rust estimates that one in five — almost 12 out of the 59 courses in Britain — are vulnerable, but feels they will survive with the help of the growth programme.

Considerable efforts are being made to widen ownership, with racing enthusiasts recruited to provide an input. Eamonn Wilmott, managing director of Horses First Racing, is a member of a group which has produced a dozen ideas to ease entry, encourage syndicates and create new investment vehicles. He says: “We’ve even looked at providing wider options for colours to encourage links with brands and clubs.”

Henry Beeby, chief executive of Goffs, Ireland’s leading bloodstock auctioneers, is using the firm’s second pre-Royal Ascot sale next month to increase the attraction for new owners. They will be offered the chance to buy horses entered for the meeting.

Rust wants to reach further down the racing line. He says: “I don’t think that racing has got its message across that if you can spend £30-£40 a month, you can have a share in a horse and enjoy the excitement and thrills behind the scenes.”

A fundamental change in the relationship with bookmakers is crucial to Rust’s new order and, as expected, is providing the first battleground. Bookmakers are opposing plans to abandon the current tax mechanism, the Horserace Betting Levy, and substitute the Horserace Betting Right.

The Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) estimates its members hand over almost £250m a year through the levy, sponsorship and media rights. But with the levy limited to retail bets the growing online business escapes, and the BHA estimates the industry is losing £25m a year at present.

George Osborne is supporting the BHA’s case.The Betting Rightwould give the BHA the right to authorise all betting in return for what the bookmakers feel will be a hefty fee.

The Chancellor provided room for the Betting Right in the pre-election Budget and the BHA is pressing him to repeat the commitment in his July Budget.

Paul Darling QC, chairman of the ABB, has welcomed the BHA’s initiative and said bookmakers would help where they could, but added: “We are very worried that the proposed racing right will simply not be legal or enforceable.”

A new forum set up to provide a link for the betting industry with the BHA strategy has held its first meeting. Rust said: “There was some straight talking but good ideas. There was a frank discussion about the timing of racing, the quality and variety of fixtures, and they challenged us to provide more ideas.”

Rust has more challenges ahead, but it seems there will be no shortage of ideas to meet them.