Racing in Britain is a broad church and one with a vast array of disparate parishioners.
Historically, it has only invited horsemen, bookmakers and racecourse owners up to its lectern to preach, with the great unwashed sat in cold pews from where they were obliged to listen to self-serving soliloquies, and then asked to dig deep for the collection plate.
If you'll excuse the long and laboured (and overly dramatic) analogy, by "the great unwashed" I am of course referring to the largest and, arguably at least, most important group of stakeholders in racing, its punters.
Punters, or bettors as they... we... are more formally known, have hitherto never been invited to partake of racing's biggest debates, despite being the main contributor to the funding of the sport. But all that is about to change.
With the announcement yesterday of the launch of a Horseracing Bettors Forum (HBF), people who bet on horse racing - you and me and nine million others - have a formal voice for what I think is the very first time. Under the initial stewardship of Simon Rowlands, Head of Research & Development at Timeform, eight men and women - punters all - will act as conduits for the horse racing betting public, correlating, discussing and recommending changes which can enhance racing's 'product' from a wagering perspective.
I am honoured to say that I will be one of the eight, and I take the responsibility very seriously. Representing the millions of people who have a bet on racing each year is a big challenge for the HBF, who will meet for their inaugural quarterly meeting on September 4th.
Our remit is to discuss such as the fixture list and race programme; information and data availability; and potential enhancements to the range of betting products for horse racing. More importantly, it is to make recommendations to the BHA to take forward principally through their own Racing and Betting Group.
Allowing punters to have a formal voice is a step change in the running of British racing, and cynics might say it is a measure of how bad things have become. That view is unfair in my opinion, with the new BHA chief executive, Nick Rust, an ex-Ladbrokes Retail managing director and, therefore, a man who knows the betting industry better than any of his predecessors at High Holborn, Portman Square or Newmarket's Jockey Club Rooms.
Rust recognises the need to generate additional revenues from betting on racing, and has gone on record with an intent to increase by 5% annual turnover on racing betting over the next few years. In order for that to happen, there will likely need to be some concessions made by other stakeholder groups, and not just the bookmakers.
Calls for additional information to support wagering activity could impact horsemen and racecourses, and in my opinion, the HBF will stand and fall by how much resistance proposals are met with by those established diners at the top table.
That said, I embark on this - as I'm sure my fellow Forum members do - with a completely open mind and optimism about what we can achieve. After all, any change will be positive change, and there is so much to go at.
Indeed, therein lies a potential early hurdle for the Forum, in that how the agenda is drawn up and prioritized may be a subject of significant debate.
A range of subjects which might include race distances, official going descriptions, Rule 4 manipulation, declaration of minor surgery (especially wind ops) and of mares in foal, the unchecked growth of handicaps in the race programme, the Saturday-centric big race programme, disproportionate growth of the Pattern, 24/48 hour declarations, bookmaker restrictions, sectional timing, and the starting price procedures, to name but a (good) few, will presumably mean a number of areas will necessarily be deferred.
My own view, for what it's worth, is that a utilitarian approach - that is, one which provides the greatest benefit for the greatest number of people - is sensible, though that needs to be factored against perceived (and real) resistance from impacted parties.
In any case, the mechanics are less important than the machine at this stage, and the fact that a Horseracing Betting Forum now exists is a step forward for the industry and a giant stride forwards for punters.
HBF is, as I've screamed in the headline, YOUR forum. All punters are invited to make suggestions and, as time passes, feed back on progress made. The place to do that is NOT here, but rather via either HBF's newly established twitter account - @HBFBritain - or its newly established email address - BettingForum@britishhorseracing.com
As should be clear from the range of candidate areas listed above, it will probably not be possible to consider every single suggestion, but there is a real volition to cover as much ground as we can; and, fundamentally, to try to improve the lot of punters and of the sport as a whole.
I'm excited to see what we can achieve, together.
p.s. you can read more about the HBF here: http://www.britishhorseracing.com/bha/horseracing-bettors-forum/
p.p.s. An important reminder:
IF YOU HAVE AN ISSUE WHICH YOU’D LIKE TO BE TAKEN FORWARD, THE DETAILS ON HOW TO DO THAT ARE ABOVE.
PLEASE DO NOT POST THEM TO THE COMMENTS AS I WILL NOT PUBLISH THEM – THEY ARE A MATTER FOR HBF, NOT GEEGEEZ! (Thank you for understanding 🙂 )