Friday, November 05, 2010

Breeders blackmailed

To continue in political vein, I think that now is the time for me to sound off about the Racing Post Yearling Bonus Scheme, which is the subject of much unrest among breeders of my acquaintance - not that you'd know it because, for reasons known only to itself, the Racing Post has got behind this rort, so will not publish negative views on the subject.

I am not a member of the TBA so can't comment on the TBA stand-point; but, as an outsider looking in, I am amazed that the TBA haven't been outspokenly critical of this form of blackmail. Basically, the scheme is that if the breeder of a yearling pays 500 pounds, it enables the purchaser of that yearling to place a 250-pound bet at odds of 39/1 that this yearling will win one of a list of specified maiden races as a two-year-old (or one of a small handful of specified three-year-old maiden races), this list comprising, I'd guess, somewhere between a quarter and a third of all the two-year-old maidens. Needless to say, this quarter, or whatever, becomes the most competitive quarter. I will leave aside the issue of the disruption that this causes to the racing programme - meaning that the specified races are full and very competitive, while the other races, particularly in the first half of the season, are unusually weak, thus costing 'racing' money by failing to achieve the 8-runner fields necessary to trigger the full picture-rights payments from the off-course betting industry: this is a whole separate issue. The option to make this 250-bet at fairly attractive odds (the chances of any individual yearling winning one of these races is, of course, long odds-against, but 39/1 is an appealing price for a speculative wager such as this) is, of course, an appealing bonus to someone who has just bought a yearling. So the major issue, from the point of view of breeders, is that a breeder with a yearling for sale faces a dilemma: at a time when costs are rising and potential returns are dwindling, he can either pay an extra 500 pounds which he can ill afford, or he can refuse to pay the 500 and find that his horse has been removed from the shopping lists of plenty of the potential buyers. If no breeders paid the 500 pounds, then that would be fine as the breeding community would be no worse off than before, because the potential buyers couldn't remove all the yearlings from their lists; but once some start to pay, then it becomes the case that one has to pay up if one isn't going to be disadvantaged. It is a rort of the worst sort and I consider it a disgrace both that the Racing Post has trumpeted it up as a good thing (it is, of course, a good gimmick for potential buyers, some of whom choose to make the 250-pound wager, but it is a terrible situation for breeders) and that the TBA, which is supposed to stand up on behalf of breeders, has not condemned it.

The scheme's apologists will, of course, say that making the option of this bet available to buyers will increase the amount of buyers and will increase the amount that these buyers might be willing to spend on their purchasers. This, of course, is true - up to a point. But I think that one would have to live in cloud-cuckoo land to maintain that the benefits are within spitting distance of their cost: I think that breeders in general pay a total of around 2 million pounds into the scheme - and the handful of extra purchasers thus recruited and the handful of extra bids thus induced can surely not add up to anything even remotely approaching an increase in overall aggregate sales of 2 million pounds.

When this scheme was first mooted, I was horrified that anyone with breeders' interests at heart could consider it a good idea. Owners like it, of course, because it gives them the option of this bet; trainers like it, of course, because owners like it; and agents especially love it, because they survive and thrive on commission on purchases so love anything which might boost sales' turn-over by any amount. Sales companies might like it in the short-term if it pushes aggregates up by a small amount, but on reflection they should surely oppose it as they act on behalf of vendors, not purchasers - and for the vendors, whose interests the sales companies should have primarily at heart, it is very bad news.

Anyway, in recent weeks I have gone from being a disapproving but disinterested by-stander to this scheme to being one of its victims - thus my speaking my mind now seems a good idea. One can no longer say that this is none of my business; and, of course, we complain most about issues which hit us in the pocket! As you might have worked out from the occasional previous chapter, I keep a broodmare in France, Minnie's Mystery. I'd love to keep all her foals, but financially I have to sell some. This year it struck me that her Gold Away yearling colt ought to be saleable, so I made plans to sell him. Annoyingly, I took my eye off the ball, the result being that he did not find himself in a sale in France. Therefore, back to England he came and headed to Doncaster October Yearling Sale (in November). Chris Murray and Nicky Howarth took him to the sale for me, presenting him there in absolutely first-class condition. I think that he (pictured) is a lovely colt, but as he is significantly off-set in his near-fore knee, he was clearly not going to fetch a huge sum, notwithstanding the fact that that one imperfection will not necessarily have any adverse affect on his racing career. While financially it behoved me to sell him, I thought that I couldn't let him go for too small a sum. I thus decided that I would find it unbearable to sell him for less than 4,000 pounds. Selling him at slightly above that figure would, mind you, scarcely be bearable, but just about bearable all the same. The result? He was bought by Ian McInness for 4,500 pounds, which I can't say was a good result, but at least came with the consolation of my knowing both that he had fetched more than his covering fee (which all too many yearlings, including the very nice Barathea filly down below, do not) and that he is joining the stable of a first-class trainer, which is the main thing bearing in mind that I still own the mare and thus have a vested interest in seeing this colt race successfully (over and above the massive pride which I will feel if he does well, irrespective of who trains him - and he is at least as likely to do well under Ian McInness' care as he would do anywhere else).

Anyway, in advance of the sale I faced the terrible dilemma faced by all vendors: should I pay the 500 pounds? My principles say that this scheme is the spawn of the devil and therefore I should have nothing to do with it - but pragmatism suggested that I ought to cough up to increase the chances of my not being disadvantaged against other vendors. And that is the key point. As I see it, the scheme has a totally negative effect, in that it does not advantage vendors who join, rather disadvantaging those who do not join. (And, it should be borne in mind, it doesn't even have a totally advantageous effect on purchasers, who as a result find themselves the following summer in the invidious position of having to decide whether to run in a weak maiden race which they might be able to win, but in the process lose their bet, or run in a maiden race which is much harder to win, but which still gives them a chance of winning their bet - and, believe me, having been in that position this year, it is not a comfortable position to be in). Anyway, I am ashamed to say that I paid the 500 pounds, ie about 12% of the sale price. Was it worthwhile? I don't know. I suspect that Ian McInness and his patrons would have gone to the sale and bought one inexpensive yearling anyway, whether the scheme was in existence or not. If the scheme didn't exist, they would still have bought this yearling for 4,500 pounds. With it existing, though, it might well have been the case that, had this yearling not been paid up for the scheme, they might have bought instead one who was. I don't know - and I'm not going to ask, because if I was told that the bonus wasn't a factor (and that is probably the case) then I'd know that my 500 pounds was thrown away completely pointlessly! Anyway, so what is the upshot? I've sold the yearling massively below cost of production, but that's fine: that's my choice. I have no complains whatsoever on that score. What does, though, stick in my throat is that I've been effectively blackmailed into losing 500 pounds more than I otherwise would have done. I'm not a member of the TBA - as my mare lives in France, I don't feel that I am a constituent of the British TBA, and I only found myself selling at a British sale because of unexpected circumstances. However, if I were a TBA member, I would be asking some searching questions about why the TBA has not done what it can to end this rort, bearing in mind that my tale is not merely a one-off, but will be one which has been echoed by probably hundreds of small breeders around the country. And don't be fooled by the fact that these views are never publicized in the Racing Post - conversations I have had with numerous breeders have suggested that my opinions are widely shared, and I know of at least one breeder who has written an impassioned tirade to the 'Letters to the editor' column of the Racing Post, only for the epistle inevitably never to be seen again - while one finds in the paper repeated cheer-leading on the scheme's behalf by a handful of agents who have a vested interest in its continuation, as if the fact that the scheme suits them is in some way an implication that it is a good thing too for the people who are blackmailed into funding it.

And, to reiterate, I am aware that I am only now making my views plain now that I have become a victim of the scheme/scam, but I should emphasise that these are not views which I have formed only since becoming caught up in its web: they are views which I formed straightaway I knew the details of the scheme last year, at which point I had no vested interest (in fact, I arguably did have a vested interest in its favour as, being a trainer, I had nothing to lose from the scheme and only things to gain - but even so, even with my not being a potential victim of the scheme at the time, it still struck me immediately as just plain wrong).

And I hope that Larry Stratton has got to the end of this chapter, because it will do him good to receive a reminder that he is not just a lone voice crying in the wilderness!

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