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Do we have too much all-weather racing? It was something that began as an entertainment to ensure there was some racing in the winter when turf meetings were abandoned, but it didn’t take long for all-weather to become all year round.
Last month, although there were several days when the only racing was on the all weather, attendances were exceptionally poor, with the paying attendance at Lingfield falling to fewer than 30 on one day. And that is at a time when overall attendances at racing are holding up well.
The dire numbers of paying customers led to a call from on-course bookmaker Geoff Banks for free admission to every all-weather race meeting. Of course, Banks is thinking of the impact of a situation that isn’t too far from one to one relationship between bookie and punter, and the difficulty that creates in providing either competition or value.
Banks said, “I believe the only solution is to offer free admission to all-weather meetings. If the courses have only 30 paying customers, what difference would it really make to them if they didn’t charge admission? Unless the tracks do perform radical surgery, we’ll end up with bookmakers being paid to attend as is the case at greyhound tracks.”
It was an idea that Arena Racing Company spokesperson Kate Hills said they would consider. She said, “We already offer free entry to every Wolverhampton meeting in January, and have done for the last three years. It’s not something we’ve had to do at the other all-weather tracks, but is something we would look at in future, certainly for January.”
Now there is evidence of another problem besetting Lingfield, Kempton, Southwell and Wolverhampton. A study carried out by the Racing Post shows that in January and February the average number of runners per race has fallen from 10.6 in 2001 to exactly 8 last year, whilst the number of races on the all-weather has increased from 362 to 592. What’s more, 46% of races had 7 or fewer runners, so only offered a place payout on the first and second home, and 10.5% didn’t offer any opportunity for place betting at all, as they had no more than 4 runners. In 2001, those figures were 12% and none at all.
Responses to those figures varied, with the Racehorse Owners’ Association calling for an increase in prize money to resolve the issue. Chief executive Richard Wayman said, “Low prize-money levels exacerbate the situation and the reality is that the industry and, more particularly, the all-weather courses need to work much harder to encourage owners to run their horses at this time of year. Ultimately this will come down to the financial rewards on offer, and it’s difficult to envisage field sizes improving markedly unless prize money improves.”
That argument might have more credibility had other things all remained the same, but that clearly isn’t the case. We have already noted a 65% increase in the number of races, and Rupert Arnold, chief executive of the National Trainers’ Federation identified a second factor. He said. “There was always going to come a point where the reduction in the number of horses in training, due to both economic reasons and the foal population, would start to show in lower field sizes. The message coming through from trainers is that more owners with horses at that end of the scale do question the economics, and I think statistics show horses at the bottom end of the handicap are gradually reducing.”
So we have a situation where there are more races taking place on the all-weather, with fewer horses in training overall, and possibly a greater reduction in the numbers of low grade horses that all-weather primarily caters for. No wonder than that individual races are attracting fewer runners. What does that mean for the future of all-weather racing?
Robin Grossmith of the Rails Bookmakers’ Association was one to call for less of it, saying, “There’s just too much all-weather racing in the depths of winter, and, along with the prize-money issue, the horse population won’t stretch to it. The meetings aren’t attractive to bookmakers. You may get a race with 13 or 14 runners, but if there are two races with four or five they crab the whole afternoon or evening. Small fields and low attendances don’t worry the tracks because they still receive media rights and levy payments, and shops want it for something to bet on, but the racing is often dire.”
David Williams of Ladbrokes took a different view, defending the fare offered at Wolverhampton et al. He said, “We need to guard against opportunities to stick the boot into all-weather racing. Extra all-weather fixtures put on during the bad weather conditions went a long way to providing a vital betting product for customers which, in turn, contributed to the levy. It’s no surprise to find some of the numbers down, but given the challenges over this period they aren’t too gloomy.”
I’ve no particular issue with putting additional cards on, but given that they are after that diminishing pool of lower grade horses, that won’t solve the problem of smaller fields. And surely we have lost sight of the purpose of all-weather racing when you have a programme like that of 2 January. Then, one turf meeting, at Ayr, was scheduled, and that went ahead without any difficulty. But there were three all-weather fixtures that day.
Williams went on, “An average of eight runners is perfectly acceptable (is almost half the races having fewer runners acceptable, David?) And there were some impressive examples of how important it was to keep the show on the road, not least the mammoth Wolverhampton card in this period which saw strong fields and competitive racing.”
He’s right that on occasion all-weather racing can provide a good card that works for owners, trainers, bookmakers and spectators/punters. But it doesn’t do that often enough. One swallow doesn’t make a summer, and it doesn’t make all-weather racing viable in the volume we are now seeing in the early months of the year.