Fixtures and The Grand National

With all that has been going on in recent weeks the 2012 fixture list turmoil has almost slipped under the radar.

Put bluntly the BHA, who supposedly governs the sport, has little say in the fixture list, save for the limited number of fixtures which are funded by them and the rubber stamping of the final fixture list.

Control of the fixture list is effectively managed, if managed is the word, by the Horsemen’s Group representing owners and trainers and the Racecourse Association, the umbrella group for all the racecourses bar one.

Two groups with disparate, often conflicting, interests.

The BHA are certainly getting fed up with spokesman Paul Struthers saying, "We have urged the Horsemen's Group to develop their race planning proposals for nearly a year, with little apparent progress.

"We'll continue to encourage them and help them along the way, but it really is time for them to make progress on this and on other structural issues, rather than focusing on soundbites and PR. This will then allow us to work with them and the racecourses to find the best solution for the sport as a whole."

Meanwhile Racecourse Association chief executive Stephen Atkin said, "We are working closely with the BHA and the Horsemen's Group on the construction of next year's fixture list and we hope the work will be concluded by the middle of next month. The issues involved are complex and include both field sizes and the financial return from fixtures. "

No, the issues are actually not that complex but more of that anon.

The BHA has meanwhile announced a cap of 1,400 fixtures in 2012, which will result in a reduction in the fixture list of, wait for it, “at least 80 fixtures.”

80 fixtures – are they living in La La Land?

It is a given that the yield from the next Levy is going to show a significant reduction, something even acknowledged by the BHA, which in itself is a step in the right direction, as they grossly overvalued the yield for 2011.

In the real world sensible, responsible people live within their means. Businesses which want to survive work within their fiscal limits or they go bust, it is basic common sense.

Racing, as an entity – ignoring the disparate vested interests – seems to be adopting an ostrich mentality when it comes to living within its means.

As one who no longer has a mortgage and no debt, I am probably one of the small minority who bemoans the record low interest rates A significant portion of my income relies on returns from savings and investments.

With the low interest rates and volatile stock markets my income, like racings, has taken a massive hit in the past two years.

If I followed racings example, I would still be living my previous lifestyle, or tinkering round the edges, and would be heading down a route to inevitable bankruptcy.

What I have done is cut back drastically on non-essentials and luxuries and I am even watching the essentials – it is called living within my means.

Racing needs to do the same. The money available for the sport has drastically reduced and is reducing.

 Yet all “racing” seems to do is bemoan its lot, complaining how unfair everybody, especially those evil bookmakers, is - yet it does nothing to address the financial reality.

It really does remind me of Nero fiddling whilst Rome burned.

Until the funding model for the sport is resolved in the long term racing needs to cut its cloth to suit what is available and that means a drastic cut in the fixture list.

How big a cut? Well I would go for an absolute maximum of 1,000 fixtures in 2012. In all probably still far too many but certainly better than the tinkering seemingly being considered.

Yes it will mean job losses, it will probably lead to a reduction of the horse population.

It will mean racecourses closing down but that is a price which will have to be paid.

Other businesses and industries have had to make drastic cuts, why should racing be any different?

It will result in a leaner, meaner sport. A sport that will be in a better position to move forward, if and when a new funding model can be agreed. Although I have a worrying fear racing does not have the wherewithal to resolve the matter.  

Which courses could go?

Here are my eight to exterminate.

Top of the list must be Folkestone. A course not loved by many within the industry. It is situated on prime building land and its owners, Arena Leisure, would have no problem getting a premium, which would do their balance sheet wonders, should they decide to sell.

Brighton is another course which will not be missed in many quarters. Frequently at the mercy of appalling weather it is not very often one has an enjoyable day at the course.

Yorkshire is overly endowed with courses and could easily afford to lose a couple without a huge impact across the industry. I would suggest any two of Redcar, Catterick or Thirsk. (OK the pedants will point out Redcar is no longer is Yorkshire but it is still considered part of the Yorkshire set-up)

One of the Scottish courses could go, my preference would be Ayr, always a bleak experience.

In the “Midlands” few would lament the loss of Worcester. Whilst presuming a cut in artificial surface racing then either Wolverhampton or Southwell could go, with my preference for the latter.

Finally Bath, simply because of its inability to provide decent ground due to its lack of a watering system.

 

More changes have been announced to the Grand National fences following this years renewal and the deaths of two horses. Personally I believe the changes are more window dressing than anything else, in an attempt to appease the like of Animal Aid.

For better or worse the National is not the race it was in the past, in terms of the fences it has changed beyond all recognition in the time I have been watching it to the extent that, for me, it has moved from being a special race to a novelty contest.

To pinch a Racing For Change buzzword it has no place in the narrative of the National Hunt season, being a race over a unique distance, over unique fences with a unique number of horses competing. It is a race living on its history, it is at risk of becoming an irrelevance.

In my view the biggest problem is not the size of the fences but the speed the horses run and the number of runners in the race.

That is what needs addressing by a) ensuring the ground is on the soft side of good, b)reducing the distance to the first fence either by physically moving it, which may not be practical or by shortening the race distance and starting just after the Melling Road and c) reduce the field size to a maximum of 30 to help alleviate the jostling for position, giving horses and riders better sight of the fences.

I would also introduce additional qualification criteria in that both horses and riders can only take part in the race if they have actually "completed" a race over the National Fences.

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