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The Complicated Case of Racing’s Lynch Mob?

Lynch sticks his tongue out at the authorities...

Lynch sticks his tongue out at the authorities...

lynch mob

noun
a mob that kills a person for some presumed offense without legal authority

British racing's integrity division's latest public wilting has caused hand-wringing on an almost unparalleled scale, with The Guardian's Greg Wood leading the Lynch mob's pitchfork brigade in this piece.

Presented by Wood as a cut-and-dried episode of punters being had over by the authorities, a view which has gained immediate and wide-ranging public approval, is the Lynch case really as straightforward as that? And, if so, how has this decision been arrived at by an authority which, in 2014, is claiming to have its sharpest, fiercest regulatory gnashers since the demise of the despotic Jockey Club in 1993.

The management summary is, of course, that Lynch's licence application is not nearly as straightforward as has been presented, though the ultimate conclusion may be. Here are the details of a saga which has run its unsatisfactory course over the fullness of a decade, details of which first emerged on...

3rd July 2006 - Fergal Lynch, Darren Williams, Kieren Fallon, Karl Burke, Alan Berry and others are charged by City of London police in that notorious corruption trial. The licences of Williams and Lynch are revoked pending a hearing.

10th July 2006 - BHB (the forerunner to the BHA) begins making 'ex gratia' payments to Lynch/Williams.

7th December 2007 - The criminal case collapses. Paul Struthers, then PR Manager to the BHA [now Professional Jockeys' Assocation Chief Executive], says:

"The defendants have been cleared of the criminal charges against them. It is not appropriate for the Authority to comment on the proceedings or the police investigation that led to the trial. Irrespective of the outcome, this has been a sad episode for horseracing. The allegation in court that racing and punters were the victims of a conspiracy has been a cloud over the whole sport."

Struthers went on to say that racing's authorities would review all of the evidence in the trial to see if any of its own rules had been breached.

18th December 2007 - Lynch has his licence reinstated in light of the 'not guilty' verdict. He rides 35 winners from 335 rides in UK until...

23rd August 2008 - Lynch has his last rides in Brtain, at Beverley. Meanwhile, a few months previously, on...

1st May 2008 - Lynch is implicated in the disciplinary cases of trainer Paul Blockley and jockey Dean McKeown. Blockley was ultimately disqualified for two and a half years in October 2008, and is now back amongst the training ranks again, supporting his wife, Jo Hughes. McKeown was disqualified for four years. Buried away in a press release on 23rd October 2008 was point 41,

41. It is also the Panel’s conclusion that Blockley will have been the prime source of the inside information which caused the lay betting on races 4, 5 and 8, where the jockeys were Fergal Lynch (on two occasions) and Ian Mongan on one occasion. It seems that the BHA did not carry out investigations with those jockeys, and it was not therefore suggested that there was anything wrong with the riding in those races. The timelines show similar “cascades” of calls down the line from Blockley to Clive Whiting and then on to the lay betters which are so closely related in time that the Panel inferred that it was the Blockley information that inspired those bets.

Circumstantial evidence, granted, but more strongly circumstantial in the context of subsequent findings...

11 February 2009 - BHA concludes its review of the 2006/7 criminal case and finds Lynch, Williams and Burke guilty. Lynch is charged with deliberately preventing Bond City from winning a race, and also with placing bets, in breach of racing's rules. Both breaches were in collusion with Miles Rodgers, himself warned off. Fraternizing with 'warned off' individuals is a further offence in the rules of racing. Sentencing for these multiple transgressions is slated for July.

Below is the official BHA version of the investigative timeline (which doesn't include all of the elements of this article's timeline)

8 January 2003 Darren Williams first interviewed by BHA Investigating Officers
7 December 2007 Trial at the Old Bailey ends
14 December 2007 First letter to City of London Police requesting disclosure
7 February 2008 Initial disclosure from CPS
26 June 2008 Fergal Lynch interviewed by BHA Investigating Officers
1 July 2008 Darren Williams re-interviewed by BHA Investigating Officers
16 July 2008 After lengthy correspondence, first disclosure from City of London Police
30 July 2008 Final disclosure from CPS / Panorama programme, entitled “Racing’s Dirty Secrets” aired on BBC1.

July, August, Sept Various disclosures from City of London Police
& Oct 2008
11 August 2008 Karl Burke interviewed by BHA Investigating Officers
30 September 2008 Darren Williams interviewed for the third time by BHA Investigating Officers
31 October 2008 Karl Burke re-interviewed by BHA Investigating Officers
13 November 2008 Fergal Lynch re-interviewed by BHA Investigating Officers
1 December 2008 Miles Rodgers interviewed by BHA Investigating Officers

And this is a list of the alleged bets made by Fergal Lynch via Miles Rodgers

DATE HORSE COURSE TIME SP RESULT
22.07.04 HARTSHEAD Doncaster 19:00 15/8F 4/11
22.07.04 COMMANDO SCOTT Doncaster 21:00 7/2F 1st/11
24.07.04 RAINBOW QUEEN York 16:00 10/3 3/4
30.07.04 SAROS Thirsk 15:00 12/1 3/13
30.07.04 STRANGELY BROWN (IRE) Nottingham 20:20 13/8F 1st/14
31.07.04 PONGEE Goodwood 14:00 11/8F 2/7
31.07.04 KEY SECRET Thirsk 14.35 5/1 4/10
31.07.04 PROPELLOR Huntingdon 19:20 EvensF 3/6
07.08.04 DOITNOW Ascot 16:20 3/1JF 6/10
07.08.04 BUBBLING FUN Redcar 16:50 7/4F 6/10
09.08.04 TRUE MAGIC Thirsk 19:30 7/1 1st/15
13.08.04 DIDN’T TELL MY WIFE Newbury 17:25 15/8F 1st/9
14.08.04 MAJOR’S CAST Goodwood 20:00 EvensF 1st/5
27.08.04 TOLDO Newcastle 18:25 10/3 1st/10
28.08.04 CRESKELD Redcar 18:20 4/1JF 4/12

7th July 2009 - Lynch is found in breach of rules 157, 220 (iv), 243 and 244, more familiarly known as passing inside information, stopping a horse, betting through a third party, and associating with a disqualified person. The 'disqualified person', the third party taking Lynch's bets, the person demanding the horse be stopped, and the recipient of inside information were all the same person, Miles Rodgers.

On top of the above, Lynch was considered to have lied in court (see the emboldened element in the quote below).

7. The admissions made were undoubtedly admissions of serious breaches of the Rules. Indeed, by the admission of breach of Rule 157 because he “stopped” BOND CITY at Ripon on 31 August 2004 , Lynch was admitting the most serious form of Rule 157 breach: that he deliberately rode to lose knowing that it had been layed to lose by Rodgers. This admission came after denials of any such conduct both in the Old Bailey trial and in these disciplinary proceedings. Though it was clear from the transcripts of telephone calls between Rodgers and Lynch that Lynch was put under pressure by Rodgers to stop BOND CITY, it was equally clear from their conversation shortly after the race that Lynch did what he was asked. As he said – “I’ll tell you what, I don’t really want to do that again ….It’s cost me a winner that ….”

Despite that catalogue of misdemeanours, just one of which carries a minimum starting sentence of two and a half years 'off', Lynch's excommunication was far more truncated.

A complex set of circumstances, including the delay to BHA's internal investigation while the criminal proceedings ran their course; a plea bargain deal agreed by Lynch's representatives and BHA, and sanctioned by the disciplinary panel (who had a right to veto that plea bargain); meant that Lynch was eventually hit with this penalty:

12. Accordingly the only penalty as such which is imposed on Lynch is a fine of £50,000, but it is imposed in the light of the information and undertakings contained in the plea bargain agreement between the BHA and Lynch dated 24 June 2009.

Williams, whose breach of the rules carried a minimum 18 month suspension, was suspended for just three months. (He'd also received ex gratia payments from BHA AND payments from the Injured Jockey Fund during his time off).

Trainer Karl Burke was banned for 12 months for his part in the Rodgers collusion.

9th March 2011 - Lynch's application to ride in the UK is denied on the basis that he is 'not a fit and proper person'. The issue under contention was

“Whether this Committee can decide that Mr Lynch should not be granted a licence because he is not a suitable person regardless of any insight, contrition, rehabilitation or matters of mitigation because of the very serious and dishonest breaches of the Rules of Racing committed by him in the past?”

Seemingly in 2014, the "very serious and dishonest breaches of the Rules of Racing committed by him in the past" have been overlooked, because...

6th August 2014 - Lynch is granted a licence as an overseas jockey, who will mainly ride in other jurisdictions. Reasons for granting the licence appear to be in direct contradiction of the findings of the 2009 hearing:

“It is now 10 years since Fergal Lynch committed those offences and he has paid a price for his mistakes. While the passage of time in its own right does not impact on such a decision, the manner in which Lynch has conducted himself in that period is important. Lynch has satisfied us during the course of his application that he has successfully reformed his character and that subject to the agreed conditions, he should be allowed the opportunity to race ride in Britain once again.

“BHA has shown in recent years that those who seek to undermine the integrity of the sport will be dealt with severely through the disciplinary process. This case is a matter of assessing Lynch’s personal qualities, and recognising but not seeking to further punish previous behaviour. That assessment has led us to the conclusion that it is now fair and reasonable to permit Lynch to ride in Britain.”

**

Struthers had it right in his previous role as BHA mouthpiece, when he opined, "The allegation in court that racing and punters were the victims of a conspiracy has been a cloud over the whole sport."

But is this latest headline Lynch's fault? Or does the blame at least partially lie with the authorities?

Although Lynch rode his last horse in Britain - Colorus, who beat one of his thirteen rivals home at Beverley in August 2008 - he has been earning a living from race riding all over the world for most of the interim.

First, he travelled to the east coast of America, where his brother was training. He rode there for a year or so before local authorities learned of his indiscretions in UK and banned him in July 2009.

He was then unable to ride for around 18 months before being granted a licence in Spain in Spring 2011. Since then, Lynch has ridden in Spain, France, Germany, UAE, and Ireland, extensively.

There can be little doubt that the leniency of other racing jurisdictions with regards to Lynch's 'fit and proper' status has undermined the BHA's judgment in 2009 that he should not be granted a British licence. But that is not to say that the decision of five years ago should be reversed, with only the passage of time altering the verdict.

**

To return to the central question, is this a cut-and-dried case of punters being had over by the authorities? The answer is, ostensibly, yes. Certainly, it's an avoidable volte face on the part of the BHA, and it can be seen as the most recent in a sequence of successes by Paul Struthers, a man who should probably be assumed to continue to wield power in the corridors of his former employers.

Now the chief executive of the Professional Jockeys' Association, Struthers has managed to overturn lengthy bans imposed by both the Indian (Martin Dwyer) and Dubai (Pat Cosgrave) racing authorities. Notwithstanding the seemingly draconian sentences handed down in those cases, the international reciprocity arrangements signed up to by pretty much all racing nations have been brought under close scrutiny as a consequence of BHA's unilateralism in reversing or reducing those high profile suspensions. Whilst Struthers might consider them victories for his organization, they cannot be viewed as wins for the sport more widely.

As for the BHA, it seems to have lost some of those Australian sharks' teeth, introduced when Paul Bittar arrived. His tenure is to conclude early next year, and it is frustrating that his stewardship should have begun so promisingly, with a strong stance on the whip rules and the Grand National; but fizzled away in light of the Sungate and morphine drugs cases, and in a worrying trend to reinstate miscreant jockeys regardless of the findings of previous disciplinary panels.

Britain's racing regulators are a notoriously legacy collective, and affecting meaningful change in that context is not a straightforward task. But those who flout the rules of the game so deliberately should not be given second chances. Whether that means making scapegoats of individuals or not, the sport as a whole must do more to protect itself from those leeches - like Rodgers - who seek material gain at the expense of the general betting public.

The problems for the authorities are numerous. Firstly, there can be nothing wrong with a life ban for a jockey who deliberately stops a horse from winning. That the entry level for that breach is two and a half years is plain daft, and needs urgent review.

Secondly, consistency in decision making is absolutely key, as any parent will attest. To determine in 2009 that Lynch's past history means he is not a 'fit and proper person' to ride in Britain, and then five years later decide he is, notwithstanding the constancy of the crime committed, sends a most confusing message.

Sympathy for Lynch has to be tempered by the facts that he deliberately cheated - in multiple ways - and he then lied under oath about that. Indeed, so much has been documented in the BHA notes, and that record implies a contempt of court. If we consider the links with the Blockley case as well there's a good possibility that the Rodgers incidents were not isolated.

Further, Lynch's confessed crimes were committed in 2004, and yet he rode largely unabated in UK until summer 2008, when he immediately transferred to USA and continued to ride there for a year. After a brief hiatus, Lynch was back riding in Spain - and much of the racing continent - as well as, perhaps most disappointingly, Ireland, where he's had 749 rides since 2011. It's hard for those who believe Lynch to have 'served his time' to meaningfully contest his right to ride in that context, to my eye at least.

Wood's Guardian piece is right on the money as far as this scribe is concerned: there should be little sympathy for Lynch as a man who has 'served his time', but the real issue is with the spineless and inconstant management of the situation by the authorities, aided and abetted doubtlessly by the PJA. Racing's external integrity is a thing of enormous import to the sport. Far too much so to be undermined by its own incestuous internal management structures.

Matt

****

Since this post was first published on Monday 11th August, there has been much discussion on various forums, and Paul Struthers, formerly head of PR at BHA and now Chief Executive of the Professional Jockeys' Association, has taken time to offer his view on the Fergal Lynch debate. Paul writes:

Much has been written over the last few days about the decision of the BHAto allow Fergal Lynch to ride in this country, having been prevented from doing so since 2009.  Interesting blogs have been written by Matt Bisogno (@mattbisogno) of geegeez.co.uk and John Basquill (@a_bit_dizzee) as well as the editorial by Greg Wood (@Greg_Wood_) in the Guardian.

It would be impossible to do those three pieces justice in a couple of lines, but in summary the conclusions drawn are:

1.           The integrity of racing is vitally important – any tolerance of corruption damages punter confidence and strikes a serious blow to racing.

2.            What Fergal Lynch did was so bad he should never be allowed back – it undermines claims of a zero tolerance approach to corruption.

3.            Allowing him back sets a terrible example to other (younger) jockeys.

4.            The BHAis lily livered or incompetent to allow Fergal Lynch to ride here.

No one could disagree with point one but does allowing Fergal Lynch to ride damage punter confidence or strike a serious blow to racing? Whilst the three articles mentioned clearly take the latter stance, plenty of others (both in print and on social media) take an alternate view.  One can only take a personal view and I don't believe it does.

As for the other three points, I’d simply make the following observations and comments:

1.       I don’t accept that the decision to allow him to ride in Britain (note the decision isn’t yet to licence him here) goes against a zero tolerance attitude to corruption. They have zero tolerance of drink driving in many Scandinavian countries, but you don’t get banned for life if caught.  Likewise with drugs in athletics – there’s zero tolerance but that doesn’t automatically mean a lifetime ban. My understanding of zero tolerance is enforcing set penalties for a certain type of behaviour to try and eradicate and disincentivise that behaviour. I therefore don’t believe this decision alters the fact that racing has a zero tolerance approach in this regard.

2.       It is easy to ignore certain realities when constructing an argument, particularly when they don’t suit your argument. I believe it is therefore remiss to say that allowing Fergal Lynch back to ride is a terrible example to youngsters and the wrong message to send, whilst at the same time totally neglecting to mention or consider that the current penalties in place are far removed to the penalty regime of the middle of the last decade.

The last two bans for corruption offences – Andrew Heffernan and Eddie Ahern - were 15 and 10 years respectively. With the case of Fergal Lynch having arguably set a precedent of around 5 years of rehabilitation to demonstrate that you are no longer a threat to the integrity of the sport (as they are, in effect, 20 and 15 year bans on being a jockey. I notice this still doesn’t satisfy those calling for life bans, but in effect that’s exactly what those bans are for the two jockeys involved. Ignoring that ignores the current reality.

3.       Having agreed a 12 month ban and £50k fine, and given Fergal Lynch’s clean record since and his acts of (genuine and sincere, in my view) contrition and remorse, I doubt the BHA had any legal basis to keep preventing him for riding. Regardless of the perceived leniency of the original penalty (a view I subscribed to at the time and still do) the BHA simply can’t correct any perceived error of the original penalty - especially a penalty imposed as part of a plea bargain deal and therefore a penalty that carried a BHA seal of approval - by continuing to prevent him from riding here. I don’t know for a fact as I wasn’t party to Fergal’s case nor the BHA’s position, but I’d be confident that if they’d have refused again it could have been challenged in court and BHA would have lost, a scenario that wouldn’t be especially appealing to the BHA.

4.           As for the reasons for the original decision, my comments to the Guardian at the time, and in interview with Nick Luck on RUK and Alastair Down on C4, were as close as I ever got to saying “this is a poor decision and one I’m very uncomfortable about defending” whilst at the BHA. It is a decision that many still scratch their heads about but ultimately that was the penalty agreed. Those in situ now, on the receiving end of the brickbats, had nothing to do with the original penalty as they weren’t there.

5.            I was searching the internet for more eloquent quotes about second chances than I could generate myself, and came across the following, which I thought was quite apt: 

“I am tired of people saying that poor character is the only reason people do wrong things. Actually, circumstances cause people to act a certain way. It's from those circumstances that a person's attitude is affected followed by weakening of character. Not the reverse. If we had no faults of our own, we should not take so much pleasure in noticing those in others and judging their lives as either black or white, good or bad. We all live our lives in shades of grey.” ― Shannon L.Alder

I, like most people, have done things in the past I wished I hadn’t. But people change. Circumstances change. I accept that whilst some believe that and think those who’ve done wrong deserve second chances, others are of the view a leopard will never change its spots and don’t subscribe to the second chance theory. I’ve always been of a liberal persuasion so naturally lean towards the former and, given the full set of circumstances, I believe it is right that Fergal has been given a second chance. Others vehemently disagree with that, an opinion they’re perfectly entitled to and one which I understand, even if I disagree with it.

6.            Finally, both myself personally and the PJA endorse the BHA’s current penalty regime for the most serious corruption offences. I don’t believe any suggestion that because they’re not officially life bans they’re not tough enough or send out the wrong message stands up to scrutiny. We also agree that a licence is a privilege and not a right, and that it should not be automatic that a licence is issue when time is served (although in the new era of penalties would question if a 5 year wait is entirely justifiable), as long as that decision making process is not simply used to extend a punishment. Just because at times we have a job to support jockeys facing such charges - and make no apologies for doing so - it doesn’t mean we’re not vigorous or genuine in our support of a “zero tolerance” approach to corruption.

- Paul Struthers, 14th August 2014

 

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Answers to the ‘too much racing’ conundrum

Paul Bittar wants to see horses run more often.

Paul Bittar wants to see horses run more often.

"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:

 

Breakdown Runners Wins Races Runners/Race
2008 37862 3698 3693 10.25
2009 38292 3859 3848 9.95
2010 37954 4023 4016 9.45
2011 36950 4034 4024 9.18
2012 36894 3951 3943 9.36
2013 36534 4155 4144 8.82

 

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:

 

Prize Money Runners Wins Races Runners/Race
A) 0-4,000 142977 15157 15117 9.46
B) 4,001-8,000 49165 5535 5530 8.89
C) 8,001-10,500 7276 779 776 9.38
D) 10,501-13,000 5187 493 493 10.52
E) 13,001-17,000 2455 244 243 10.10
F) 17,001-21,000 2935 296 296 9.92
G) 21,001-25,000 2699 280 277 9.74
H) 25,001-30,000 1871 163 163 11.48
I) 30,001-35,000 2485 198 198 12.55
J) 35,001-40,000 1096 101 101 10.85
K) 40,001-50,000 1270 93 93 13.66
L) 50,001-75,000 2356 158 158 14.91
M) 75,001-100,000 983 78 78 12.60
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.

 

Race Class Runners Wins Races Runners/Race
Class 1 10117 1092 1088 9.30
Class 2 14987 1217 1217 12.31
Class 3 18064 2024 2020 8.94
Class 4 57125 6484 6471 8.83
Class 5 78653 8383 8360 9.41
Class 6 45513 4518 4510 10.09

 

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:

 

110+ 153
101-100 372
91-100 655
81-90 1234
71-80 2015
0-70 7042

 

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.

Matt

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.

 

Godolphin tests show seven more positive results

Encke - St Leger winner tested positive

Encke - St Leger winner tested positive

The intensive testing regime carried out by the British Horseracing Authority on all Godolphin horses trained in Newmarket has resulted in mixed results for the organisation. Read more

Drugs cheat Al Zarooni warned off for eight years

Mahmood Al  Zarooni in the spotlight

Mahmood Al Zarooni in the spotlight

The British Horseracing Authority has acted with commendable speed in dealing with Mahmood Al Zarooni in warning him off for eight years after he was found to have administered anabolic steroids to 11 horses in his Moulton Paddock stables. Read more

Gay Marriage approved for racing

gay marriageIs the British Horseracing Authority out of touch and insensitive? That was the claim of racehorse owner Michael Kerr-Dineen yesterday, after racing’s controllers had carried out a 48-hour about turn on his application to name one of his unraced two year old fillies. Read more

Prize money agreement another success for Bittar

The British Horseracing Authority has announced an increase of 12% in prize money that will come into effect from 1 January 2013. Read more

Levy agreement opens up prospect of record prize money

There was good news for racing with the prospect of record levels of prize money next year. This was the outcome of the Levy deal for 2013/14, which was announced yesterday. Read more

Bittar predicts leaner industry with fewer racecourses

If you want to join the 63 club of people who have visited all the racecourses in Britain you need to get it on with it. That was the message from Paul Bittar, Chief Executive of the British Horseracing Authority at last week’s Leaders in Racing Conference at Chelsea Football Club. Read more

BHA review puts 42 jobs at risk

Changes ahead in BHA weighing room activity

42 people working for the British Horseracing Authority in its Raceday Services teams have received letters telling them they are at immediate risk of redundancy. Read more

Racing industry “better informed” on 2013 fixture list

The Racecourse Association declared itself pleased with the work of the Fixture Planning Group, which was one of the early innovations of British Horseracing Authority chief executive Paul Bittar. The news that the group had completed the bulk of its work and would publish the 2013 fixture list by the end of September represented “a considerable improvement on the last two years” according to the RA.

Nigel Roddis, from the Racing Enterprises strand of Racing For Change has chaired the group, with representation from the Levy Board and the Horsemen’s Group as well as the Racecourse Association. Their list is still subject to approval from the BHA board, but their meeting on 17 September should not throw up any objections.

There should be a similar level of meetings as this year, when 1,456 are scheduled, although of course the names of Folkestone and Hereford will both be missing. The team working on a rescue package for Hereford have only until the end of December to put in their application for 2014, with the same timescale applying to the consortium aiming to revitalise Great Leighs.

Bittar declared himself happy with the work of the group so far. He said, “The proof will be how it plays out over the next couple of months, but I think it is much better informed of the process and the issues on the way through. One of the key things is that we are keen to have a fixture list driven by consumer demand from bookmakers, racecourses and media groups. Our goal is to produce a fixture list that reflects the level of demand out there and I think how we meet that demand might require us to be a bit more innovative in terms of some of our racing and handicapping policies to encourage horses to run more often.”

The earlier publication of the fixture list will be a relief to many of the organisations such as the Injured Jockeys' Fund who include the information in their annual calendars and diaries. They won’t face the same pressure as last year, when it took until 15 November to settle the schedule, meaning some were forced into the extra costs of double print runs and distributions.

Trainers to boycott Worcester race in prize money protest

Worcester racecourse has moved its novice hurdle race to the end of tonight’s card. Why? Well, the race is likely to be a walkover, despite having 12 horses declared. In an unusual display of solidarity several trainers have said they will withdraw their horses in protest against the low level of prize money on offer for the race. Read more