Sunday, February 06, 2011

T-day tomorrow

Digging out those photographs of the pre-Christmas frozen conditions (of the Norfolk roads in the previous chapter) provided quite a shock: the bad winter really does already seem a surprisingly long time ago. I know that we're only still in the first week of February, which is very often the coldest month of the winter, but this really feels (almost) like spring; while winter already seems like a distant memory. Let's hope that this isn't a false dawn - after all, we did have a fresh dose of snow last year in March. However, what we have got now (drying conditions with temperatures in double figures during the day and not far below them even at night) really is rather pleasant. Relatively speaking. We haven't had many of the blue skies which one likes to associate with spring, although we were blessed with clear conditions on Thursday, as this photograph shows. For those unfamiliar with this stable-yard, I can assure you that to have in winter underfoot conditions here as un-wet as they appear in this photograph is very unusual. The photograph, incidentally, contains the four National Hunt winners who currently live here: Ex Con (who can be trusted to wander around the yard freely without doing anything more sinister than breaking into the feedroom) is outside the pens, which contain Alcalde (next to Ex Con) and Kadouchski, while the head of Anis Etoile (who is no longer in training) can be seen poking over a stable door above and to the left (as we look at things) of Ex Con's head. Otherwise, though, we're 'enjoying' cloudy skies, which don't look so nice as what was above us during the days in December when the pressure was high and the temperatures low, but which are doing a good job of keeping the frost away. And that rather boring ramble is my excuse for publishing a photograph of the yard, taken on a frosty morning (December 12th) just a day or two before the snow arrived, which is of no relevance to anything, but which, I think, is rather nice to look at.

Contrastingly, what is of relevance at present is the great tarriff debate. Time will tell where this leads us, and probably by the time that we reach that point we'll all be sick of hearing and reading about the subject. If we aren't already. Basically I think that the tarriffs are a good thing, even if I have some reservations about their implementation. I will probably go into these anon, but I don't have the energy for that at present (nor can I guarantee that you'll have the energy to read such a boring monologue). What I will do, though, is to make a few observations on the historical background, which I think is something which deserves a bit of coverage. So far there has been no attempt to put the current situation into context, so I'll now try to redress that omission.

Set minimum prize-money levels are are neither new nor unorthodox, despite the fact that the John McCriricks of the world are trying to give the impression that the racehorse-owning classes have suddenly been hit by an attack of greed. All racing nations (apart from, it seems, this one nowadays) around the world recognise, and have more or less always recognised, that a certain level of prize money is essential for the health of the sport. Basically, racing as we know it dates from the second half of the 19th century. Prior to that, it had been run regionally (albeit with some central control) on a fairly haphazard basis. However, the introduction of railways meant that people and animals could travel around the country relatively easily, enabling racing to become a national sport as we now recognise it. Furthermore, this also coincided with huge changes in society consequent to the industrial revolution, which saw increasing numbers of people with the time and the money to own racehorses, something which had previously been the preserve of a handful of aristocrats, who would basically compete against each other in private. Nothing better illustrates the change than the creation in 1875 of Sandown Park, the first racecourse built to be part of the changed sport and the first built as a commercial venture, with enclosures which the public could pay to enter. The sport thus entered the commerical era and thus became a sport organised for the public as well as for its participating patrons. It also created the situation where both public and patrons were essential.

This period saw a new era in which, for the first time, racing had various 'stake-holders' whose interests would not necessarily coincide. The Jockey Club seized the nettle which had thus been presented. It began to license trainers (firstly at Newmarket and subsequently nationwide) and jockeys and to set national standards. Some of these applied to racecourses. It was felt - and still is felt today by racing authorities around the world - that there had to be some recognised links between those who provided the players in the show (the horses) and those who provided the theatres (previously the racecourses had not been theatres, but had been private play-grounds run by the players more or less for the sole benefit of the players). For the sport to thrive on a large scale, it was felt that there needed to be some incentive for people to own horses: it was no good just relying on the fact that people had always done so and possibly might always do so. It was no longer enough just to rely on racing taking place effectively for side-bets, so in the 1880s (I forget the exact date and I forget the exact sum) the Jockey Club issued a rule that any race-meeting, to be officially sanctioned, had to put up a certain figure in stake money. Within a decade, roughly half of the country's racecourses closed, while the other half became part of the modern commercial sport of racing as we know it today.

Minimum prize money levels then persisted for the next 12o years or so, the levels obviously being altered (usually upwards) from time to time. I'm told that in the 1960s the minimum value of a race was 200 pounds (the winner to receive something like 136 pounds) while when I started following racing in the late-'70s I'm sure I remember something like 404 pounds being the minimum value of the lowest class of race. Throughout history, incidentally, the minimum values have always been, in real terms, significantly higher than the sums now specified in the tarriffs for low-grade races. Anyway, this situation continued into the 21st century, and it continues around the world. This latter point is well made by Racing Post editor-in-chief Alan Byrne in the current edition of Thoroughbred Owner & Breeder. In his position, Alan has no axe to grind in favour of any particular faction, the Racing Post being a paper for all involved with racing, irrespective of their standpoint; and thus he isn't speaking from a vested interest when he observes that it is a generally held axiom that for racing's future to be secure, there has to be a solid prize money base to underpin the sport: "I am not aware of any racing nation that has made significant progress without addressing the average return to owners via prize-money".

Unfortunately, the current century has seen racing's administrators abdicate the responsibility for setting the guidelines. A few years ago, the BHA (or BHB as it was probably called then) decided to scrap its minimum prize money levels - and from that day onwards, the current impasse became inevitable. I don't know why the BHA/B took this viewpoint, but I suspect it was simply laziness, taking the easy way out. It remains feasible for the BHA to set levels if it were to chose to do so. No restriction of trade issues apply because the BHA wouldn't be saying that a racecourse couldn't hold race-meetings if it didn't meet the required standard; it would merely be saying that those race-meetings wouldn't not be run under its auspices. There are already umpteen costly hoops through which racecourses have to jump to be licensed to hold meetings (just as there are umpteen costly hoops through which trainers have to jump to be licensed to run horses at such meetings) so this would merely be one further addition to the list. There is, of course, the fear that one could get break-away courses (especially now that there are racecourse groups) who would negotiate with the bookmakers and form a breakaway league, and the Jockey Club (and its successors) have always been fearful of losing their monopoly. However, in practice, this is a groundless fear. To attract the owners and trainers necessarily to stage a break-away league, the racecourses would obviously need to be putting up good prize money - and if they were doing that anyway and thus fulfilling the statutory requirements in this respect, why would they have broken away? Furthermore, who would run a horse at one of the breakaway tracks, bearing in mind that any horse who ran at an unlicensed meeting would become permanently ineligible to run at official meetings anywhere in the world, and no trainer who ran a horse at one of these meetings would be permitted to run any horse at any official fixture anywhere in the world? A break-away league just wouldn't get off the ground, just in the same way that the programme of unlicensed meetings which has long existed in a parallel to the Jockey Club-recognised meetings (these 'flapping' meetings take place mainly in Wales and southern Scotland) have never posed any significant threat to official racing and have never looked likely to usurp official racing from its position of dominance.

Anyway, for whatever reason, the BHA (unnecessarily, in my opinion) washed its hands of responsibility for setting the standards in this area a few years ago. Since then, prize money has inevitably been going down and down. It was thus inevitable that a time would come when a significant number of the participants would say, 'Enough is enough', because otherwise one could be sure that the prize money levels would continue to fall, as racecourses saw that they could fill their races come what may, and that as this country, unlike virtually every other country in the world, lacked a leadership prepared to take responsibility for providing the guidelines. It seems that the time has now come. Whether this is the right time, and whether the levels demanded are the right levels, remains to be seen, but that is the background behind the new tarriff levels. The stand-off starts (under National Hunt rules) tomorrow, so time (and probably only a fairly small amount of time) will tell what happens next. We'll see.

On a happier note, I would like to salute a few recent winners. The two winners I was happiest to cheer home yesterday were Firm Order at Sandown (because he was - very well - ridden by William Kennedy) and Diplomatic at Lingfield (because he is trained by Michael Squance). Diplomatic has featured in this blog previously because I was at Lingfield in the snow on 22nd December when he made his debut (as a five-year-old). He's very well bred (by Cape Cross ex Embassy) but he's had no end of problems, so one has to salute the patience and skill of Michael (pictured here leading the horse out towards the track before that debut) to get his charge to break his duck on his third start as a February six-year-old. It is inevitable that what we read about are the more popular trainer winning big races with good horses (who are, by and large, relatively easy to train) but it is worth remembering that the majority of good training achievements take place at the minor meetings with low-grade horses. A similar thought crossed my mind when I watched the racing from Cheltenham last weekend. I don't expect ever to see many better winning rides than the one given to The Giant Bolster by Rodi Greene. Had A P McCoy been the jockey and had he done exactly the same thing, the TV pundits would have fallen over themselves in their haste to tell us that that the for ride of the season, and that no other jockey would have won on the horse. As it was, the main thrust of what we are told was that Rodi Greene is a failed farrier. That's the way life works, though: the cult of the celebrity has gripped racing, just as it has gripped the rest of society. I can, though, do a little bit to redress the balance by highlighting from time to time the achievements of some of the unsung heroes. Such as Rodi Greene and Michael Squance.


Alan Taylor said...

Hi John, the fact that trainers are now more reliant on syndicates should be a strong message that owners are not able to continue to afford racehorse ownership with present prize money. John Mcrirrick is wrong to say ownership is a hobby. Even millionaires run commercial operations and must show a profit.
After your relatively successful season for your owners,the figures for owners and trainers do not make good reading. If a trainer has 20 horses in training the running costs at £15,000 a horse are £300,000.Given that your target races are sometimes worth less than £2,000 to the winner. Even a successfull season of 20 winners may yield only £40,000. Who pays the £260,000 shortfall. Owners are not mugs and trainers need to pay increases in wages, feed,petrol,etc. I have seen lots of racecards recently with total win prize money for the meeting of £10,000. The racing authorities should hang their heads in shame that they have allowed this situation to develop and worsen.

racingfan said...

I have always felt rodi greene was an under rated jockey, it seems that if your fashionable you get the rides, it is a shame that their are lots of jockeys not getting the rides their talent deserves, F Norton, R Havlin and W Kennedy to name but a few,

I expect S De Sousa to have a big season ahead and I have been very impressed by Luke Morris on the all weather this season,

Anyway keep up the excellent blog and the good form of the horses,