Flat Racing: The End is Nigh (Gosden Speaks Out)

There is much wailing and gnashing of teeth in Newmarket, dear reader, regarding the future of flat racing. It's a subject that is quite rightly getting a lot of press coverage at the moment, as a result of the previously discussed 'Racing For Change' initiative, which has been devised to bring racing into the 21st century.

Many of the suggestions are preposterous, some of them eminently sensible, and of course there's a further subset that are neither one nor t'other.

Everyone's got an opinion on the subject, which must be a good thing, and now some of the heavy hitters are getting involved as well. In this month's Owner & Breeder magazine (the lengths I go to in order to research these pieces!), no lesser statesman of the summer game than John Gosden has been proffering his qualified and surprisingly frank views.

Gosden is scathing in his summary of the status quo, referring to racing as "a semi-private club irrelevant to modern society". Now, whilst I wouldn't necessarily disagree with that, it should be considered in the historical context, where it was a fully private club irrelevant to the society of its time!

Mr G casts an envious eye towards flat racing's stouter, more down-to-earth brother, jumps racing, and remarks on how the natural build-up to Cheltenham and the encore of Aintree create a real sense of anticipation, theatre and drama, and logical start and end points for the season.

Flat racing has always had the premature Classics in May and June that, combined with the big Summer Festivals, mean there is no beginning or end. Instead, there's a series of zeniths and nadirs that do little to create a sense of anticipation or of conclusion.

Jumps racing offers 'closure': definitive statements of the best horse in each class are presented race by race through four days in the Cotswolds and three in Liverpool.

In the States, the Breeders Cup has now become the end of season championship and, outside of the Triple Crown, it is rightly recognised as a seasonal decider for honours. In what is now a truly global sport, the US has stolen a march on Britain and it may be churlish to try to establish a rival meeting (especially when we already have the Arc meeting in early October and the Champions meeting at Newmarket in late October).

Jumps racing is a much more insular affair, with the best of Britain and Ireland being bolstered by numerous Gallic acquisitions.  There is no competition from US, and little from France. The British and Irish jump racing calendars have been - in the main - harmoniously integrated to ensure that runners from both sides of the Irish sea can compete at the major events in both countries. Whether by accident or design, this leaves jump racing in rude health.

Getting back to Johnny G, he suggests that flat racing might have a three tier racing calendar, with the big meetings and courses constituting the top tier (naturally enough), and the next level also being funded by the Levy Board to provide decent quality racing. However, somewhat radically, Gosden then advocates the third tier being funded outside of the Levy system, and being paid for by arrangements between the courses themselves and the betting industry.

In essence, Gosden is suggesting that the lowest grade fare should 'go to the dogs', as is the case where bookies fund the greyhound racing at many tracks to provide their staple BAGS fare. Although this is likely to meet with disdain in many quarters, in my opinion its a sensible solution to the growing fixture list (over 1,500 flat fixtures next season against just 1,200 a decade ago) and the shrinking prize pot (£62.5 million this year, £57 million next year).

More racing and less money is clearly an unsustainable imbalance, and Gosden is right that it's time for courses to 'pay their way'. That is, if they're not contributing sufficient to the Levy to justify the prize funds they require, they should have to fend for themselves in the harsh commercial reality of an over-supplied under-demanded product.

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Simply, some tracks should close. Other tracks should have their fixtures cut, and still more should have their funding reduced. There's too much racing and not enough quality, and Gosden believes we need to address that.

In a damning 'balls out' assessment, the Newmarket handler pulled no punches, going on to say, "[Flat racing] will soon be a dead duck", and "It is in terminal decline now. I think it is that bad."

It becomes very apparent that Gosden is an anti-establishment voice, and he seems almost resigned to the death knells for the flat game. Having said, "We have got one year to eighteen months to restructure the fixture list; three years will be way too late", he was then asked, "Is this message understood by racing's leadership?".

The reply, quick and frank, was, "No. I don't think they get it. I find them too detached".

It is a truly brilliant interview from a man who is rightly acknowledged as one of the leaders - both in thought and in deed - in his field, and if the administrators don't take heed of Gosden's (and his peers') concerns, the summer game may well soon be a goner. I tend to agree.

What do you reckon? Leave a comment below...

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On the other side of the pond, and as mentioned in Monday's post, despite drawing an Arc weekend punting blank on the blog, I drew strength from another man's greater misfortune. That man, Christophe Lemaire, missed no fewer than EIGHT winners at the Arc weekend meeting, after fracturing his collar-bone in an egg and spoon race on Friday.

Three of those races were Group 1's and, in a disarming display of both humility and sangfroid (another nice French word), he said, "You must put everything into perspective and I came back home with just a sling and my injury wasn't serious.

"It was a great shame, but it could have even been worse. You must always be ready for hard blows like that as it is part of the job and when it happens, you must keep you head up."

With more than a little tongue in cheek, Lemaire quipped, "It could have been worse, it could have been nine!"

Good work, Christophe - you're now one of my favourites!

********

After the weigty topic at the top, let's lighten the load with some levity - yes, it's Thursday Fun time. Today, it's the turn of George and Mildred, and I have to say I'd forgotten how funny this is. I'm going to be bidding for the DVD's on eBay!

Remember, leave a comment below if you've any thoughts on the state of flat racing, and what can be done to improve the situation...

Matt

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11 replies
  1. David Wilkinson says:

    Matt,

    I agree with JG, and with your earlier comments on the subject. Make Sunday a bigger day and scrap poor quality Monday and Tuesday racing. Fewer tracks and fewer races means better prize money, which brings out quality horses. Simples.

  2. Liam says:

    More flat races, but less prize money? Absolutely ridiculous. Soon the low class racing will be comprised of horses that compete for the Dog Food Stakes and the Glue Pot Handicap.

    I recall another article in the Racing Post recently where it was pointed out that racing in Britain receives far less funding as a % of turnover than anywhere else. I can’t recall the exact figures, but the US and France were 5 – 10% of turnover, while GB was about 1%. This is compounded by bookies basing themselves overseas (in legal terms) so they don’t have to pay the levy – a classic case of wanting to have their cake and eat it too.

    Bookies don’t want to play ball, maybe it’s time to move to a more radical funding option: let betting exchanges operate as on course bookies. Course punters can take the current prices or exchange SP, and can choose to back or lay (note: seperate booths for backing and laying will probably be necessary to avoid freaking people out with the laying option). At time of placing the bet, 5% will be deducted from the price you accept, and this 5% will go to funding the industry directly. Will still be far better off than the ridiculous terms offered by either a tote or the current on course bookies (1/6th places, anyone?).

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Agreed Liam, the on course place odds are nothing short of scandalous.

      Regarding France and US, it’s important to note that both operate tote monopolies, meaning there is significant ring-fenced revenue. In UK, with both bookmakers and exchanges, not nearly enough of their profit / income is recycled back into the racing pot. Their greed is part of the malaise, but getting them (and their shareholders) to support higher Levy contributions is brings to mind the words, ‘turkey’, ‘Christmas’, and some sort of ballot…

      Matt

  3. Ciff Farr says:

    I am 71,have gambled on horses since I was 14. Now I restrict myself to Saturday televised races only. Too many sub standard meetings during the week for me.

  4. Jon D says:

    Hi Matt,

    I like Gosden, but what he says is tosh. Where is the evidence that any racecourses face closure? None. In fact we have a new racecourse this year, Ffoslas, and Great Leighs, opened last year (wasn’t it?) rather prematurely, will re-open next year.

    I love the Flat racing season as it is. There is a perfect narrative, from the excitement of the Brokclesby Stakes opening sprint, through flourishing early Spring cards with highlights like the Dante and the Lingfield Derby trial on way to the first 3-y-o classics, followed by the wonderful pinnacle of the Derby, with momentum maintained through the incredible summer meetings like Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood. Then we are on into late summer and Autumn with terrific meetings like the Ebor at York, Ayr Bronze, Silver and Gold cups, and the marvellous staying classic the St Leger.

    To me, there seems no end to the racing goodies on show, and it’s all marvellous stuff. I like evening racing, especially on a miserable winter’s night when there’s feck all to do – warms the cockles of yer heart, it does. I don’t care how low the grade of racing is, I love it.

    Fact is, despite the recession, racecourses in general have very good attendances, and not so long ago they were record attendances. Yes, trainers may not find it so easy to get owners, but with the explosion of syndicates they can surely see the way forward to get masses of people involved.

    The ‘death of flat racing’ has been forecast umpteen times ever since I first got seriously involved as a punter back in 1972, and all I can say is that the game looks far, far healthier now than it did then. If racing could survive the 3 Day Week in 1973, it can surely survive this recession, which we are being slowly floated out of on a sea of subsidy.

    No, if it ain’t broke, don’t try and fix our wonderful traditional racing calendar, Mr Gosden. Methinks he doth protest too much.

    Regards,

    Jon D

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Hi Jon

      That’s a nice piece, and I definitely agree about the summer festivals. I think the point JG is trying to get to is that a lot of the meetings are subsidised by the Levy, despite not actually putting anything back.

      Although I didn’t mention it in my article, he also refers to such as Arena Leisure selling picture rights to SIS for over £100m, and questions whether they’ll plough any of that back to racing, or whether they’ll still expect the levy to provide them with prize money funds.

      He must have a point that if a group of courses (note, for Arena Leisure, you could also refer to Northern Racing, the chair of whom is also the chair of the ‘Racing for Change’ initiative – conflict of interest?!) can generate so much cash for themselves, why should they then be supported by the Levy if they’re not using at least a reasonable chunk of their TV money to bolster prize funds and attract better horses?

      You’re certainly right that racing has survived its fair share of death knells. Personally, I was surprised by the vehemence of Gosden’s protestations.

      We shall see…

      Matt

      • Matt Bisogno says:

        I (like to) think that the readers of this blog are some of the savviest and most experienced out in cyber-land, and the regular calls for less racing must surely be heard and addressed.

        As for being savaged for your views Mel, we’re an ecumenical church here, and your comments about pounds, furlongs and guineas are relevant enough. Interesting to note in France that everything was in kilos, metres and euros…

        In fact, translating race distances is very easy – there’s 200 metres in a furlong, so five furlongs is equal to a kilometre; a mile is 1,600 metres; and a mile and a half is 2,400 metres. Take the number of furlongs and multiply to 200. Easy!

        (I might add, though, that the pounds to kilos – multiply by 2.2 pretty much – is a good bit tougher to get my head round, mainly because we don’t just refer to pounds but rather stones and pounds. So first we must decipher that – say, 8-07 is 119 pounds (8 x 14, +7), then convert to kilos by dividing by 2.2, equals 54.1. Phew! I’m sure we’d get used to it within weeks if it ever came to pass).

        Matt

  5. Mel says:

    Your piece reminds me of something I wrote on another forum about two years ago.
    I wrote that it was time to get rid of the 1920s and get modern. Why still use furlongs, pounds and guineas!!!!!
    I got savaged, even the forum adminstrator had a go.
    The Brits. are so conservative nothing will ever change unless it is forced on them.

  6. Roger says:

    Just my opinion but I think that there is far too much racing, and it has put me off betting. A lot of the time I just can’t be bothered to trawl through all the meetings. It is driving me away from the sport, and after being into racing for fourty odd years I now prefer to bet on the football.
    Rog.

  7. Rob Pacitto says:

    I basically agree with Jon D. Owner and Breeder should interview him next month, they might sell a few copies.

    John Gosden makes some half decent points but his ideas for restructuring are very easily made when you are sitting on top of a two mile (3200m) high pile of cash, provided by Sheikhs, Kings and Lords, who can’t even spell recession, nevermind be affected by one. I mean, good luck to him and all that, but I’m not sure he is very well positioned to have an objective view.

    As for his view that racing is a semi-private club irrelevant to modern society…which of these popular sports isn’t?

    – Premier League Football
    – ATP/WTA Tennis Tours
    – PGA/European Tour Golf
    – International Cricket
    – Formula 1

    Answer – none!

    Finally, his praise of the Cheltenham festival as a great showpiece to the season misses the point…it sucks the life out of everything around it…flat racing has at least 15 top class festivals which complement each other, whilst jump racing struggles along all year waiting for the big one.

    Finally (again) if flat racing is dying, then so is jump racing, on account of the fact that male jump horses have no wedding tackle…so if flat racing goes, so does the jumps.

    Do I win a fiver?

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