"He who pays the piper calls the tune", or so the saying goes.
And in racing it's the Levy Board that makes most song requests of the BHA's race planning department. That's fair enough, given that they are a majority contributor to racing's finances - from a prize money perspective, at least - despite reducing their input by over a third since heading offshore en masse.
So, are the bookmakers getting value for money from their contribution? And is the British racing public being well served by the current arrangements? Who else contributes - and takes out of - racing's pool of money? And how can we achieve a fairer distribution of the wealth, assuming of course that you believe it is currently unfair?
At the heart of most of these questions is another one: how can racing achieve more runners per race whilst still ensuring that its paymasters - the courses and the bookmakers - get the volume of 'product' they demand?
Paul Bittar, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), believes the key is to encourage the horse population to race more often: if every horse in training ran once more per season, all of racing's competition issues disappear, Bittar contends. And, in principle at least, that sounds like an easy enough goal to achieve.
But in practice, the converse has been true, with an almost linear reduction in the average number of runners per race year on year since 2008. The idea for this post came from a perception I felt that this summer's racing - outside of the big festival meetings - had been some of the poorest, most uncompetitive, fare I can remember; a perception that was reinforced by some of the more vocal members of racing's twitterati.
There's more than likely some recency bias in that notion, but I thought I'd run the numbers anyway. I used horseracebase and the most recent BHA 'Fact Pack' - from 2011 - to pull the data together, and in the charts below I looked specifically at the period May to August, the evening racing 'season', when we seem to have wall-to-wall racing, but where the quantity of races is not matched by the quantity of runners.
Irrespective of quality, more runners generally equates to more competitive racing, and that is what everyone wants. Here is the overall breakdown of runners per race between May and August each year from 2008 to 2013:
As you can see, while there was a brief resurgence last year, that has since regressed to the previous pattern of decline. In fact, the rate of decline has been the sharpest in the period. At the same time, the number of races between May and August has risen, from 3,693 in 2008 to 4,144 this year. That's 12.22% more races, or almost an extra eighth. Such a rise is polarically at odds with the desired outcome of creating deeper fields and more competitive racing. Quod erat demonstrandum.
It divides the pool of horses more ways, especially - as we'll see in a minute - certain segments of that pool; and it also divides the available prize fund more ways. Here's how the prize money available for the race affects the number of runners:
|N) Above 100,000||1731||145||145||11.94|
[N.B. Wins is higher than races because of dead heats]
It will hardly come as a surprise that big purses attract more runners. And it's therefore logical that the smallest purses attract the smallest fields. The average number of runners per race for races paying £10,500 or less to the winner is lower than any other prize money bracket. This is in part down to prize money, but there is also another factor at play here. Let's review the number of such races, in the same table above.
Note how 15,117 races out of a total of 23,668 were worth £4,000 or less. That's 63.87% - almost two-thirds - of all races worth £4,000 or less. And it gets worse. Fully 87.24% of races - or seven out of every eight - were worth £8,000 or less.
The above table ignores the two races in Class 7 during the period in question, but it shows some very interesting class anomalies. Specifically, it seems that the programme of races in Class 3 and 4 isn't working. Those races - despite often having decent prize money - are attracting weak fields.This is an obvious area for race planners to hone in on, and see what can be done to improve the competitiveness of such events.
These are often conditions races, novice events or contests of a 'graduation' nature, which by definition have a smaller catchment of horses. The data suggests such animals are over-accommodated, and there should be more handicap races in these class brackets.
So what about the horse population, and how it overlays the class brackets. Well, for simplicity sake, let's focus only on the flat turf horses, and consider them by official rating. There were, in last week's BHA ratings, 11,471 horses with a flat turf rating. Here's how they break down:
These ratings bands are broadly aligned with class bands. 7,042 of the 11,471 rated horses are rated 70 or less, and will generally run in Class 6 races. That's 61.4% of the rated horses in the lowest grade.
Of course, many of these are so poor that their opportunities to run are limited to those races that are under-subscribed. Their presence may bump up the numbers, but it does little to increase the level of competition in such heats.
So what exactly contributes to runner numbers? Well, as you'd expect there's more to it than simply the race programme factors. The state of the course is obviously a consideration: less runners contest races on firm or heavy ground than on good, and courses like Brighton and Bath (and poor Ffos Las, which suffers with both extremes), tend to need less starting stalls than most.
As well as the going, course constitution is a factor, with tracks like Yarmouth, Fakenham and Epsom not to all trainers' or owners' tastes. And, allied to that is the state of the track maintenance. Yarmouth and Newmarket's Rowley course are alleged to have quite material ridges on them these days, and may be in need of serious remedial work, so I'm told. Then there's geographic location. Yarmouth is blessed here, being so close to Newmarket's major training base. That mitigates for some of its constitutional issues, though the quality of racehorse to be seen there in recent years has declined.
Thirsk and Redcar in Yorkshire similarly seem to benefit from their proximity to the Middleham and Malton training bases, with some of the highest average field size figures through the summer months.
On the flip side, courses such as Ffos Las (again) are pretty remote and struggle to get decent fields, despite putting up some pretty good prize money. Today's meeting at the track has just 44 declared runners across seven races, at a miserly average of 6.29. Such courses are unattractive to owners as well.
Obviously, all courses will have some local owners, but some courses have more than others. This is one of the reasons that Ascot seems to be a lot more popular than, say, Newmarket these days. And then there's prize money itself. Clearly, better prize money attracts bigger fields. The biggest field at Hamilton today by a margin is for a £15,000 handicap. That's not always the case, but if the race conditions are framed well - as in this series finale - then a big field is almost assured. It's my view that all courses should hold such series events, as they build interest, continuity and decent competitive fields.
The Levy is not the only contributor to the prize fund, not by a long chalk. In fact, in 2011, the Levy Board's contribution was just a third, compared with just over half the year before.
The shortfall was made up by owners' entry fees (16.4%), sponsorship (19.9%), and the racecourse executives themselves (28.2%). It is right and proper in my opinion that racecourses contribute significantly to the prize pool, as they - alongside the bookmakers - are the main beneficiary of the 'product' they host. As well as gate receipts, they also receive sponsorship, food and beverage sales, conference and other non-racing revenue, and the increasingly lucrative media rights payments.
In this context, it is certainly time that some privately owned racecourse starting contributing more and taking less from the central fund. Unless they are providing specific 'product' to serve bookmakers' quiet times, like Monday racing for instance, or all weather racing in the winter, there should be a ceiling to the percentage of their total fund which can be received from the levy.
Owners seem to be the single hardest hit entity in racing's food chain. Owners’ gross expenditure in 2011 was £389m, whilst receiving an income of just £85m through prize money and sponsorship (down from £92m in 2008). That means the average owner got back 21.85% of what they put in. Now, whilst I am an owner, and whilst I certainly don't do it as an investment, I do feel it's unreasonable to expect racing's core patrons to write off more than 78p of every pound they spend.
So here's a proposal for race funding:
The top tier 'self-liquidating' tracks, like Ascot and Cheltenham, should be obliged to cover a majority of prize money through their various business means: on course revenue, media rights and sponsorship, and so on. Levy contribution should be capped at 20% of total prize money. Hats off to Ascot, which contributes more than most, and had a levy input of only 18.4% in 2011. By contrast, Goodwood had a levy input of 36%. That is, quite simply, way too high.
The second tier tracks should receive a greater share of the levy, but on a 'performance' basis. That is, the more runners they attract per race, the greater their share of the fund. It is very hard to argue with the logic of this, given that both bookmakers and the BHA agree that British racing 'product' is enhanced by greater competition.
Greater competition comes primarily from more runners per race and, as we've seen above, more runners per race happens when prize money is higher. The real crux is that there needs to be far greater accountability by tracks to run at or close to an operating profit. All businesses should be viable, and racecourses are no exception. The implication of this is, most likely, a 'rationalization' of the number of courses we currently have.
Whilst some sections of our community immediately get defensive at such a suggestion (generally those involved with courses operating as pseudo-charities), we've seen time and again (see our 'Lost Racecourses' section) how the market forces of supply and demand have been the undoing of some tracks. Setting all emotion aside, that's just the way it must be, as Folkestone and Hereford have most recently shown (not too dearly missed by the vast majority, I'll wager).
The flip side is a course like Aintree, which looked doomed to extinction at one point but has now become one of the premier tracks in the country (albeit receiving 28% levy funding in 2011), and has just announced its first million pound Grand National - so much for the detractors of that race! With racecourses becoming increasingly savvy about how to generate revenues (concerts and conferences), they are far better placed to fund their own piece of the sport.
And, with the imminent return - tails between their legs like paroled embezzlers - of the offshore bookmaking fraternity, racing should soon be enjoying a markedly bigger prize fund, despite the rise of other sports betting, and gambling in general, competing for the racing pound. More of the funding needs to trickle further down the class scale to reduce the staggering top-heavy nature of prize money.
Moreover, the programme in the interim bands - Class 3 and 4 - needs revision to encourage a greater number of horses to compete for what are generally very fair (relative to Class 5 and 6) purses. The minimum thresholds for prize money advocated by the Horseman's Group is a good idea in my view, and that 'tariff' should be index linked.
And, finally, those racecourses which do best in attracting decent field sizes should be rewarded by being able to offer better prize money, in what would become a virtuous circle.
Clearly, this is a thorny thicket of a subject, and there may be reasonable objections to some - perhaps many - of the suggestions above. But the matter deserves wider debate from racing's stakeholders - not just the BHA and the bookies - as the central tenet of 'more racing' emanating from BHA HQ may be fundamentally flawed.
p.s. So that's what I think. How would you solve the quality / quantity balance issue, whilst still generally satisfying the BHA, bookies and racecourses? Leave a comment and join the debate.