Racing fans, at least within their social media microcosm, tend to get aerated about all sorts of passing flotsam and jetsam. Often, there is little substance at the heart of the vexation; but not always.
This week, racing twitter has been raging about the fact that the longed-for clash at Punchestown between the Champion Hurdler, Honeysuckle, and Supreme Novices' Hurdle demolition job, Constitution Hill, will not come to pass. The reality, we're given to understand, is that it was never more than an accidental ejaculation from the understandably excited owner of the latter, Michael Buckley. He was, it seems, about ten months premature.
Seen by many as a 'swerve', it may be considered perfectly reasonable at the end of the season that one horse - or the owner or trainer of said horse - should call time on the campaign. However, that sharp quill of Kevin Blake's outlined here the wider issue of the ease with which top class (or even those relatively close to top class) animals can legitimately avoid each other through the season, and even at the spring festival finales, particularly in Britain.
The other debate, if one can call it that, has been about the prospect of a fifth day at the Cheltenham Festival. There's no market on Betfair for this but, if there was, 'Yes' for a fifth day by 2025 would surely be 1.01 in spite of most racing fans being staunchly opposed to the proposal.
That got me thinking about the National Hunt Pattern, and jump racing field sizes in general and, ultimately, a good bit more besides. Here's where I got to with it all...
How are field sizes generally in UK National Hunt racing?
In 2009, the first year in our Query Tool database, there were 34043 runners with 3375 winners (including dead heats). That gives an average National Hunt field size in 2009 of 10.09. Here are the annual figures from then until the end of 2021, the last full year of data:
The wins column likely includes some dead heats, but we don't need to split atoms with this dataset to get the gist. What stands out for me is that the number of runs (second column in the above table, blue bars in the below chart), 2020 / Covid aside, have been remarkably consistent at around 31,500 to 33,000. That's plus or minus 5% in the main. But the number of races has risen significantly in that time meaning that field sizes (right hand column in the table, orange line in the chart) have declined notably:
What is the National Hunt Pattern?
What the National Hunt Pattern is not is part of the European Pattern Committee (EPC), whose function is to determine the most important races across the continent, allocate a grading system to them, ensure their ongoing quality for the allocated grade, and manage the race programme to avoid clashes as far as is possible. The EPC works under the umbrella of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA), but leads the way globally in this area. More details of their work can be found here. In essence, the EPC serves the primary purpose of helping to ensure the ongoing quality of the breed through an appropriately hierarchical race programme.
The Jump Pattern Committee (JPC) "aims to assist the provision of a co-ordinated programme of quality races in each age, sex and distance category" for British jump racing. Fair enough, on the face of it at least. But the JPC is a largely autonomous UK-only entity and, as such, does not come under sufficient scrutiny to ensure its race programme is fit for purpose.
The Jumps Pattern comprises Grade 1, Grade 2, and Grade 3, with all Grade 3 contests being handicaps. There are also Listed races which are on the periphery of the Pattern. The composition of the Jumps Pattern is described thus:
The Committee aims to achieve a balance of Grade 1, Grade 2 and non-handicap Listed races within the Pattern and Listed race structure, so that there are more Grade 2 races than Grade 1, and that the total number of Grade 2 and non-handicap Listed races should be at least double the total number of Grade 1 races
There are challenges within the relationship between the volume of lesser Pattern non-handicaps (G2 and Listed) and the volume of Grade 1 races. These challenges are exacerbated by the expansion of flagship meetings like the Cheltenham Festival from three to four (and soon to five?) days: for every additional Grade 1 there may need to be two lesser Pattern races added. As we will see, this is hard to legitimise against the wider context of a dwindling horse population, particularly in jump racing.
How are Pattern Race field sizes in UK National Hunt racing?
Having set the scene with the macro field size vista, let's now call in on Pattern races in particular. For the purpose of this analysis, I'll include Listed races.
We again see a consistency of runners, in fact a slight increase up to around 2018. But those runners have had to be shared amongst a much larger number of Class 1 (Grade 1,2,3, Listed) races. In 2009/10, the two-year average number of such races was 151 (and a half). In 2019/21, the years around Covid2020, the average number of Class 1 National Hunt races in the UK was 208 (and a half). That's inflation, over the course of a single decade, of a staggering 37%.
Predictably, field sizes have shrunk, from north of 11.5 in 2009-2011 to south of 10 since 2017.
But it gets worse.
When we remove the Grade 3 handicaps from the picture, what is left is deeply concerning.
Although the Pattern inflation is less stark - 'only' a 26.5% rise between 2009 and 2021 - the average field size has dropped from a high of 10.57 in 2010 (and a three-year average of 10.23 between 2009 and 2011) to 7.67 last year, and a three-year average of 7.84.
As a reminder, in 2009 the average UK jump race field size overall was 10.09 and last year it was 8.6. The proliferation of Class 1 additions has seen field sizes in those races plummet in relation to all NH races in Britain, and the trendlines are disconcerting, to say the least.
Why does field size matter?
Why should we even care about declining field sizes anyway? The main reason is that there appears to be a fairly reliable correlation between the number of runners in a race and its competitiveness; and, further, to public interest and engagement, best measured by betting turnover. More betting turnover normally equals more money to the levy, which gets ploughed back into the sport for things like prize money, administration, and equine and human welfare projects. It's a pretty virtuous cycle, if you ignore the fact that some punters have to lose in order to keep the cycle rotating.
The magic number in field size terms, from a betting turnover perspective, tends to be eight. That is the number of runners at which a race pays three places for each way bets, a factor that is, I understand, a strong driver for bet placement.
What are the underlying problems?
There are broad issues and a more narrow one in play here. The broader issues are economic and equine; specifically, how affordable it is to keep a jumps horse in training in a recession; and how breeding, allied to modern training practices, is perhaps not allowing horses to stand as many races as was historically the case.
The narrow issue is probably the one upon which to focus. It must be apparent to absolutely everyone, regardless of agenda, that there is too much racing. There are too many fixtures with too many races at each fixture for the horse population to service.
These are the total number of races run in UK National Hunt, by year, since 2009, as per the excellent BHA data resource here.
And here are the percentages of races with fewer than six runners (i.e. five or fewer) over the same time frame:
There is strong correlation between the overall number of races in a given year, and the percentage of small field races in that year. Which, again, ought to surprise absolutely nobody. These charts are included as merely another representation of the "too much of a good thing is a bad thing" mantra espoused by anyone who cares about the sport.
Looking only at Class 1 races, the same issue is clearly at play; but also, many of these races have benefited from the ratings inflation of the past decade, and may no longer satisfy the quality criteria outlined at the end of this Jumps Pattern document. Of course, there is likely to be a revision to the quality tariff to accommodate this season's downward re-engineering of official marks.
A (way too) simple solution
So how do we arrest the decline and put the sport back on the front foot, in terms of competitive racing at least?
Let's recast the landscape. What if we had the 2009 fixture list and the 2021 volume of runners? And let's imagine this might happen by 2025: some chance, but we're in the realms of hypothesis so here goes...
In this far from outlandish projection we've got about 450, or roughly 12%, fewer races. That's 64 or so fewer fixtures, assuming seven-race cards. Little more than one a week.
And the payoff for that brave stance is a field size average of nearly ten, which is close to optimal from both bookmaker/betting turnover and human interest perspectives.
To counter the "it wouldn't work" brigade, there is a precedent for culling a chunk of races and achieving a satisfactory outcome: in 2019, France Galop reduced the number of races by 20% with virtually no impact on betting turnover. Indeed, British bookmakers, having historically driven the clamour for 'more product', are now on the side of 'less is more'.
Moreover, there is a precedent in Britain, too. In 2014, the BHA garnered agreement for the removal of around 100 chase races which were under-subscribed. However, from the press release which accompanied the announcement it was clear how reluctant certain signatories - notably the Racecourse Association - were to the arrangement.
And there is one further, more recent, piece of evidence upon which to call. In 2020, as the world became infected, British racing was, alongside football, the first professional sport to return to action. It did so with an innovative plan that addressed the situational needs of both maintaining a right to operate during a pandemic, and tailoring a programme to the horse and stakeholder populations. We had a normal Royal Ascot, in terms of timing at least, with the 1000/2000 Guineas shortly before and the Derby/Oaks shortly after.
This fixture list was formulated by the BHA and featured fewer fixtures, with more races per fixture; and a focus on moving some of the top end prize money to the lower tiers of the class spectrum in order to keep owners/trainers in the sport. These changes, which - granted - were satisfying pent up demand from a six-week hiatus, produced better field sizes and stronger betting turnover when it was needed most. [It also led to the decision to permit jockeys to ride only at one meeting per day, which has been retained and which has led to both an increase in jockey wellbeing and a greater spread of opportunity in the riding ranks].
Less was more, post-Covid. Less was more in France. Less was more when the chase programme was re-imagined.
In the Class 1 space, there are far too many races. As can be seen in the tables below, where comparisons are again difficult due to the recent Covid interruption, the three years 2009-2011 (green table) had a total of 290 Class 1 non-handicaps (give or take dead heats), which was just about the same number as in the two-year period of 2019 and 2021 (blue table). How did we get here?!
The ongoing (though now largely complete) reconfiguration of the shape of the handicap ledger should be used as benchmarking against which to downgrade and/or delete 12-15 races from the current Pattern. After all, ratings inflation is quite likely an accidental but key factor in why we have aggregated such a bloated Pattern in the first place.
An alternative, which has been touted by that man Kevin Blake amongst others, is to convert all UK Grade 2 races into handicaps to complement the existing Grade 3 arrangements. This would have the general effect of rendering such contests more competitive both in terms of field size and win chance (i.e. fewer odds on shots). It's a bold shout but we are in desperate times and, as such, desperate measures are called for.
Why this won't happen
There are lots of good, eminently sensible reasons why changes similar to those mooted above, and elsewhere by others, ought to be implemented for the health of the sport going forwards. Unfortunately, there are two reasons such beneficial amendments will not occur.
The first is funding: racecourse funding comes, in large part though to varying degrees, from 'media rights' payments. These are amounts of money paid for the live pictures (by bookmakers, mainly) for the right to consume/broadcast that content. The image below, taken from a DCMS-sponsored analysis of the funding of horseracing, infers as much.
The problem is that this part of the racecourse business funding model amounts to a 'more races equal more money' situation, not entirely unreasonably perhaps. But, as we're seeing increasingly in football, the expansion of the programme - be it the never-ending Champions League, a preposterous 48-team World Cup in 2026, or myriad low grade seven furlong handicaps at Wolverhampton - leads to a dilution of the product and a commensurate dampening of interest in the mind of the customer.
The funding model needs to focus more on incentivised payments for a broader contribution to racing's ongoing wellbeing. To that end, with a little topological thinking, less can be more without impacting racecourse payments negatively. Indeed, such a move may lead to a positive impact on media rights payments.
However, racecourses do not only generate revenue from media rights. Some actually wash their faces at the turnstiles, too! As a consequence, any proposed reduction in fixtures or number of races is likely to be perceived as a threat to on-site profits for all that there must surely be a way to condense predominantly from those fixtures that could not exist without media rights funding.
Further, the legacy nature of the allocation of fixtures means that racecourses assert a right of ownership over a subset of historical fixtures that exist outside of the BHA's core list. If these fixtures exist outside of the core - which one can assume means outside of what the BHA considers healthy for the sport - why do they still receive Levy Board funding as well as media rights payments? After all, the Levy Board are working towards "the improvement of horseracing" according to their mission statement. Funding a surfeit of races/fixtures which are unilaterally staged by the racecourses is sustaining the over-supply - and therefore diminishing field sizes - and must be counter-productive to engagement with the sport. If tracks want to claim ownership of these fixtures, they should not expect Levy funding to support them. The Levy is funding all (bar one) fixtures in 2022, but should take a much stronger stance on fixture funding in 2023 and beyond.
A further problem with the historical fixtures is that they seem impervious to performance metrics. That is, regardless of whether they are failing to produce requisite runner numbers their place in the calendar is assured; meanwhile, other tracks - which have fewer or no 'historical fixtures' - offer excellent prize money (that typically leads to satisfactory field sizes), but cannot claim the same fixture allocation as those maintaining a sort of birth right on the fixture list.
The second, closely related, is politics. Racecourses are by a mile the most powerful organism in the industry's food chain. If they don't want to do something, they don't do it. And it will take an extremely skilled practitioner indeed to persuade them of the leap of faith required to pivot towards the model suggested up above.
They argue that it is not the volume of fixtures but, rather, the number of times each horse runs in a year that is the problem: if the horses just run half a race more on average, we're all good. Sounds logical enough, doesn't it? Until you realise that one of these factors (annual runs per horse) has been virtually constant for a long time. Because bill-paying owners want horses to run as frequently as is prudent these averages are almost impossible to change - successive chief executives at BHA have tried; so if horses cannot run more often, and if we cannot get more horses in training (see second chart below), the only controllable component is the volume of races.
[Image credit: statista.com]
It is not only the tracks, however, in the political pyramid of racing that would likely wail and gnash teeth at any proposal to reduce the Pattern. Plenty of horsepersons - trainers and owners, mainly - would seek to maintain or even extend the current status quo: for many of these men and women, any Graded race is a good one to win, regardless of how hollow the verdict, or the implications for the sport.
What we need
In the end, this gets to be about the political hierarchy of British racing, and how it is fundamentally - and perhaps irreparably - fractured. Since 2015, there has been a structure in place called the Members' Agreement, widely known as the tripartite agreement, which defines how decision-making can happen. In a nutshell, who needs to approve what.
It was widely heralded as a new united frontier for the sport; in reality, sadly, it has been no such thing. Indeed, we are now at the point where racecourses and some parts of the Horsemen's Group, primarily the Racehorse Owners' Association (ROA), seek greater power and autonomy from the BHA, racing's regulator. They want to say yes to more money without a bother for the implications on the race programme, or anything downstream of that, such as the breed or public sympathies. Charlie Parker, President of the ROA, and who therefore purports to represent owners but has never sought our opinion on, well, anything, was strongly critical of the money being turned down in this leader late last year.
To be clear, the 'more money' offer was based on 'more races'. True, that was for all-weather racing, an area not referenced in this article, but once the genie is out of the bottle...
In January of this year, incoming chief executive of the National Trainers' Federation, Paul Johnson, stated his organisation's commitment to increasing prize money in the sport via means other than more races, noting that the scourge of small fields was a major challenge. Johnson was formerly Head of Racing at the BHA, responsible amongst other things for race planning, and therefore knows better than almost anyone the difficulties of producing a balanced programme despite persistent requests for more races.
To Charlie Parker, and others at ROA, however, the checks and balances introduced by the tripartite agreement are now, just six years later, suffocating. They want to own the decision-making process in spite of demonstrating their absence of pastoral care for the sport. The likes of Jockey Club Racecourses, whose 'About Us' page loudly trumpets, "The mission of The Jockey Club is to act for the long term good of British racing in everything we do" is currently fighting off outcry relating to selling rights of heritage races to Playtech who will use them in fixed odds games of chance - at a time when they, like all others in the industry, should be distancing themselves from such games for the short term good of British racing; and also dealing with the firestorm emerging from their fait accompli to add a fifth day to the Cheltenham Festival. More product, less quality, less interest. Plenty of seven and a half quid Guinness sold, though, so, yeah...
These entities and their money-grubbing, even in the face of charters that expressly reject such behaviour, are precisely why we don't just continue to need a committee - that includes the BHA - to make decisions, but why the golden vote should sit with the regulator.
Much is wrong with the balance of power in racing and it very much suits certain stakeholders for the sector's issues to be laid at the feet of the BHA. But the myopic machinations of others sitting around that table could derail the whole industry within ten years and, were that to happen, the first to go would undoubtedly be jump racing.