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A tweet by an American racing scribe last night piqued my interest regarding the equivalent issue of field size here in the UK. @o_crunk posted the following:
Stateside, the year on year (y-o-y) decline from an average of 8.16 runners per race to an average of 7.86 equates to just shy of a 4% reduction. That sits in the context of an increase in the number of races, from 2,550 last year to 2,619 this January.
So, what of good old Blighty? How is racing and its field sizes holding up? First, the headline figures.
January 2014 accommodated 637 races at an average of 8.07 runners per race. That compares with 608 races last January at an average of 8.41 runners per race. The decline in average numbers is in line with that of our transatlantic cousins, at around 4%. But the broader picture makes for uncomfortable reading. Below is a list of the number of races, and average runners per race from 2007, 2010, 2013, and this year.
2007 - 600 races - 10.06 av runners
2010 - 525 races - 8.96 av runners
2013 - 608 races - 8.41 av runners
2014 - 637 races - 8.07 av runners
The decline in average number of runners from 10.06 in 2007 to 8.07 in 2014 is stark. It equates to a 20% drop over a seven year period, a reduction that is patently unsustainable.
Against that, we see an increase in the number of races, from 600 to 637, of 6%. The question begs to be asked, why?
Whilst the microcosm of January helps to frame the issue, there are several issues at play in parallel, and they require teasing out. In the remainder of this post, I'll look at various breakdowns of the overall data in search of underlying issues.
I'll consider turf racing in January (i.e. National Hunt) versus all weather racing; I'll look for any possible problems with the distribution by class; and I'll probe more deeply into the races by number of runners, by handicap versus non-handicap, and by going, to see what lies therein.
First, lest you think the four years in the table above were cherry-picked, here is the full y-o-y view of January racing from 2003 to the present.
You can see that in January 2003, the average number of runners per race was nigh on eleven, more than satisfactory. In 2014, the figure of 8.07 is alarming. Over more than a decade, it is reasonable to expect that any outlier years have been smoothed by the curve, and the correlation between these data looks extremely robust.
In plain English, there IS a problem here. Probably more than one.
Let's dig further and try to isolate some of the challenges British racing faces, at least in terms of the size of its fields.
First, I want to look at all weather against National Hunt. I should declare before we proceed that I am a fan of all weather racing, and I am a fan of National Hunt racing. So I have no axe to grind. Rather, I hope the numbers will speak for themselves.
All weather racing will celebrate its 25th anniversary on 30th October this year, so it was already a mature part of the sport by 2003, the earliest year in this sample. Below is a table showing the average runners per race each January from 2003 to 2014.
Note the huge decline between 2006 and 2008, when the average fell from 11.23 runner per race to 8.13 runners per race. This coincided with a massive increase in races, from 246 in 2006 to 362 in 2008.
In percentage terms, all weather racing lost 28% of its average race runners at the same time it gained 47% more fixtures.
Since 2008, the average number of runners per January all weather race has not really changed materially - 8.13 in 2008 and 8.06 in 2014. The number of races each January in that time has also remained fairly constant: after the aberration of 362 in 2008, there has never been more than 336 since then, and the average has been 317 from 2009 to 2014.
The number of runners in all weather races, in absolute terms, has remained constant over the last five January's, at around 2600. 2012 was an exception, when the number of races shrank by almost 20% due to postponements.
So what, if any, conclusions can we draw from those all weather data? Probably the clearest observation is that the volume of races has affected the average field size. Whilst that in itself is not an issue - after all, the bookmakers want more racing (or 'product' as they like to refer to it) - the average number of runners is now precariously close the golden number of eight.
Eight is the minimum number of runners in a race in which three places are paid on each way betting, and it is a minimum threshold keenly sought by the bookmaking fraternity, whose turnover drops significantly on smaller field races. Indeed, the big four bookies have voluntarily offered an additional payment for the first time this year, in a bid to bolster field sizes... and, one suspects, as a pre-emptive move against the impending point of consumption tax.
As things stand then, an average number of runners per race of 8.06 is borderline acceptable for all weather racing and, in the context of 2013's January average of 7.91 it represents a possible green shoot of recovery. Time will tell on that front.
What, then, of the field sizes in National Hunt races?
Although the most recent figures are broadly the same - average number of runners in National Hunt races in January 2014 was 8.08 compared to 8.06 for all weather races - the rate of decline, this time unchecked, is of major concern.
Whereas all weather racing experienced a rapid decline in line with an increase in the number of races between 2006 and 2008, and has subsequently 'flat lined' largely, National Hunt racing figures were fairly stable between 2003 and 2009, but have dropped dramatically since then.
The average between 2003 and 2009 was 10.76 runners per NH race in January. Between 2010 and 2014, the average has plummeted to 9.08. Moreover, the best January in the last five years saw an average of 10.02 runners per NH race. That compares with the worst year in the previous seven of 10.12.
The average of 8.08, if taken at face value, is a massive drop from last January's 9.01 average and a devastating slump from 2011's 10.02 average.
I write "if taken at face value" because it is worth asking whether there are circumstantial elements in play which have impacted the figures here. The most obvious culprit is the weather. So, did January 2014 have more races run on heavy ground, and is that a material factor in the figures?
Ignoring the all weather National Hunt races in the sample, which tend to be very well subscribed, the figures for the period 2003 - 2014 (January each year only) aligns with what we'd expect: good to soft is optimal jumping ground, and heavy is the least favoured of winter ground.
It is then reasonable to say that heavy ground is a material factor in field size, especially after as wet a January as we have experienced this year. To level the playing field, below are the average number of runners in January National Hunt races staged on heavy ground since 2003.
For the first time, it becomes difficult to immediately spot a correlation between ground and field size. However, the downward slope of the graph since 2009 maps to the same southbound trend for average runners per race as a whole.
And the average for heavy ground races in January 2014 of 7.71 is not so different to the 8.08 for all races in that month.
Let us now look at the distribution of races by number of runners. That is, for instance, how many two- to four-runner races were there? Here are the data for January 2014, covering both all weather and National Hunt.
Most races were between five and ten runners, with 38% having five to seven horses, and 34% eight to ten horses. Just 19.47% of races could boast eleven or more runners, and 53 of the 637 races run in January suffered an embarrassment of runners less than the each way place quorum for two places.
The distribution comparison between all weather and National Hunt was surprisingly similar. Looking at the 2014 figures in comparison with the 2013 figures, it is most noteworthy that races comprising eleven-plus fields made up nearly a quarter of January 2013 events (23.68%), whereas in 2014 they were less than a fifth (19.47%).
And, whereas 56.41% of races run in January 2013 had eight or more runners (and therefore three each way places to shoot at), that was down to 53.69% last month.
Another area worthy of investigation is that of the rise and rise of handicap races. Are they good for the sport? Are they good for the funding of the sport? Whilst those two questions almost certainly have different answers, it is indisputable that handicaps have a healthier impact on field size than non-handicaps, taken as a whole.
For the period 2003-2014, and solely for 2014, the January totals were as follows:
The disparity, in terms of average number of runners, for the whole period is just over 2%. That is, there were just over 2% more runners per handicap race than per non-handicap race between 2003 and 2014 (January's only).
Last month, the disparity was an eye-watering near 15%. Whilst it is reckless to make definitive statements based on a single month's data, it would certainly appear that the race planning department's tinkering with various segments of the non-handicap programme has been unsuccessful. And, moreover, any pandering to trainers who bemoan the lack of 'penalty kick' opportunities should be avoided at all costs.
In fairness to race planning, they have made changes aimed at enhancing the programme for fillies and mares, and at increasing the competitiveness of novice events. Their remit is a far broader one than solely field size, but that latter consideration is a crucial one to the successful funding of the sport.
Talking of funding, it is my opinion that the lop-sided distribution of prize money is one of the remaining taboos at the top table of racing politics. Simply put, too much of the available prize fund goes to too few of the owners. Put another way, racing has its own 18th century distribution of wealth model.
It is lamentable that the sport actually allows so many of the good horses to dodge and swerve each other whilst still picking up fat pots en route to the Festival gravy train. It doesn't serve punters; it doesn't serve bookmakers; it doesn't serve the reputation of the sport; and it doesn't serve the vast majority of owners or trainers.
There are too many pattern races. Look at the average number of runners by class, 2003-2014:
Let's break that down by Class 1 to 3, and Class 4 to 7.
Class 1 to 3 - 12,552 runners - 1,365 races - 9.2 average runners per race
Class 4 to 7 - 56,326 runners - 5,786 races - 9.73 average runners per race
The average number of runners in Class 1 races is the lowest of all class levels. Why then should they receive such a disproportionate volume of prize money?
Where then does all that tabling and charting leave us?
The implication may be that the sub-dom relationship between BHA's race planning department (doubtless imposed upon them by the 'thought leaders' there) and the bookmaking industry is in danger of splitting its seams, and that further - perhaps - the bookmakers don't actually know how to ask for what they want. The endless demand for 'product' can be argued to have led to smaller fields, which in turn are responsible for reduced bookmaker handle (or turnover).
This January microcosm needs to be set in the full-year context of course, a wider vista which does little to ease concerns. I've written previously about the funding issue, and a snippet from that piece might be instructive here.
...consider that the 2010 pattern’s 142 races (Listed class or better) accounted for £20,483,170 from a total prize money allocation of £67,572,859, to be spread across 6,309 races.
That’s the top 2.25% of races receiving 30.3% of prize money… at an average of £15,275 per runner.
Compare this with the rest of racing’s pyramid, which stretched 69.7% of the prize fund across 97.75% of the races… at an average of just £791 per runner.
The tapering of prize money as one descends racing's class structure is over-zealous, and anachronistic. It dates to before the vastly expanded race programme of recent years, without reasonably considering the needs of stakeholders at the bottom rungs.
There is a perception that the BHA don't want to engage with Class 5 and below, even while recognising the fundamental importance of that volume end of their business.
Low grade racing has become the dog to be kicked, and the root of all racing evils - see the recent Curley gamble backlash - but if the BHA keep sweeping their trash under the carpet, some of it is bound to stink after a while.
Solutions to the field size conundrum need to be both qualitative and quantitative. It is too easy to blithely opine that there is too much racing, and far too much low grade racing. That fails to acknowledge the saprophytic (borderline parasitic?) relationship between the sport and its 'benefactors', the bookmakers; and swingeing cuts at the bottom tier would be akin to treating a verruca by amputating below the knee.
However, it is also true that there probably is too much racing. Certainly, it seems there are too many pattern races, and that is an area that should be addressed. Central funding for races which fail to meet an agreed quota of runners should be cut. This then brings the racecourses into the equation, giving them greater accountability for the success of their flagship events.
Why should the same pot be handed out year after year when field sizes - and thus the spectacle of the contests - dwindle?
The bookmaking fraternity for their part need to understand that their demand for volume of races has a direct impact on field size and, when that drops below 'the dead eight', on turnover.
Perhaps (read, almost certainly) they'd be better off asking for less fixtures and more field size guarantees.
And, as I've written, racecourses need to be more accountable for field size, or risk losing their funding. Fakenham, Ffos Las, Perth, Bangor, Hamilton, Brighton and Yarmouth all have a long-term average of less than eight runners per race. That should not be acceptable to anyone.
How can field sizes be improved? Better track maintenance is a start: while Ffos Las and Perth suffer from geographical issues (why build a course so far from the madding crowds?), Brighton and Yarmouth - and Ffos Las for that matter - are blighted with extremes of going.
Better incentivised prize money is another part-solution. At least one race per meeting should have an 'expenses paid' concession to owners, up to a fixed fee. This would make the costs of travelling - a cost which is often more than third place prize money - more palatable, and encourage owners to consider races they previously would not have.
In greyhound racing - and, like it or not, we are not that very far from there with horse racing in 2014 - owners receive appearance money every time their animal runs. In horse racing, owners pay entry fees. That doesn't seem right, and it's something else that racecourses can do to play their part in both the funding of the sport, and the enhancement of their own spectacles.
Field size and funding are intrinsically linked and, whilst this piece has deliberately ignored macro-economic factors such as recession and increased competition for potential owners' disposable income, those factors do not alter the urgency with which racing needs to tends its own field size wounds.
Given the excellent early successes Paul Bittar enjoyed at the head of the British Horseracing Association, it is disappointing that so little progress has been made in an area that Bittar himself made a top priority in July 2012. The evidence in light of those comments suggests that a different tack is needed, and one in which both racecourses and bookmakers bring more to the table.
Blaming external factors may be convenient - heck, it may even be valid, at least to some degree - but it doesn't help to solve the problem. Merely explaining why things are bad is no use. It's time for racing, led by the BHA, to take action. Drastic action.