What A Carry On?

The “Carry On ……..” films are something of an acquired taste and were based on a standard formula where there wass incompetence, misunderstanding and innuendo.

The saga of the 2011 fixture list certainly fulfils the first two of the above criteria.

According to the latest pronouncement from the BHA it looks like being late September before the 2011 fixture list is published – which will not be good news for printers of racing diaries and calendars.

The delay in publishing the new fixture list, normally published in July, is the result in a catastrophic drop in the Levy.

By all accounts those in the industry were expecting a levy yield of £150m, whereas the actual yield will be around the £70m mark.

Talking to individuals closely involved in the negotiations, those in the BHA were so certain of there being a £150m yield they had no “plan B”.  Indeed it was actually put to a senior director of the BHA that the yield was not going to be as expected and when asked what the alternative would be, the somewhat worrying response was along the lines “the Levy will yield £150m, we do not need a contingency plan.”

If this assertion is true, and I have no reason to doubt either the reliability or integrity of my source, then it does not auger well for the future of the sport when the “leaders” adopt such an arrogant stance. 

The press release detailing the delay in announcing the fixture list had one very telling paragraph in particular.

“…………. meeting of the British Horseracing Authority Board and the subsequent meeting of the Levy Board, together with detailed
dialogue with the Racecourse Association and Horsemen's Group.”

Therein lies the problem, there are too many diverse, vested and often contradictory interests involved in the running of the sport.

More fundamentally the Levy is an unfair and anachronistic means of funding the sport.  

Why should horse racing alone benefit from a bookmakers levy?

Why shouldn’t soccer, rugby, tennis, golf benefit from a levy as well? Indeed should the BBC not get a Levy payment on the Strictly Come Dancing betting turnover?

When the Levy was introduced almost 50 years ago bookmakers bet almost exclusively on horse racing and the Levy model had some credence.

Now, however, the environment is completely different and horse racing is just one of many sports vying for the punters pound.

Love them or hate them and I have to confess I am no fan of bookmakers, they are canny operators. Most have moved offshore to maximise returns and decrease their Levy liabilities and who can blame them for that. Most are shareholder owned businesses and they have a legal obligation to ensure maximum returns for investors.

To “protect” the Levy they made voluntary payments from the offshore betting and, culpably, racings leaders rolled over without a fight.

If offshoring was not enough to fatally damage the Levy then the introduction of the betting exchanges really threw everything into disarray.

Bookmakers complained because, overnight, their monopoly on laying had disappeared. No longer did they have exclusive access to and were able to utilise insider knowledge to make a killing.

Of course the bookmakers cried foul, saying individuals can benefit from inside knowledge, not known to the public at large.

That complaint is, of course, somewhat disingenuous as bookmakers have for years made use of information not generally available to the general public. Whether the information comes from schmoozing connections or, more sinisterly,  overlooking defaulted accounts in return for information.

But of course the real objection the bookmakers have to the exchanges is it has hit their bottom line and profit.

For all their faults bookmakers are run by accountants who know exactly what they are doing.
Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the BHA.

It only needs a quick read through the CV’s of the BHA board of Directors to realise how weak it is and what little grasp of running a multi-million pound business there is.

Far too many of the Executive are racing insiders with no experience of running a major business. With all due respect to the individuals concerned how can a former trainer, formster and TV pundit, Clerk Of the Course and Cop as well as other lifelong racing insiders effectively control a multi-million pound enterprise?

Even those bought in from outside the industry do little to inspire confidence with only Paul Roy boasting any credible experience and that is only in merchant banking.

Even the Finance Director’s only previous experience was effectively as a departmental head of finance within the BBC – not the perfect financial model for horseracing.

With such a weak management structure it is little wonder the wiz kids n the bookmaking fraternity are able to run rings around the BHA.

Of course the lack of significant “real world” business expertise amongst the BHA executive is only part of their problem.

More significant are the other vested interests pulling in different directions. From the Racecourse Association (RCA) representing the racecourses, through to the Horseman’s Group representing trainers and the Racehorse Owners Association (ROA) representing owners. All of whom have differing and often contradictory agendas.

With such a fragmented industry, full of self interested bodies, it is actually a wonder racing has actually survived as long as it has.

Now it is approaching decision time.

The focus on next years fixture list centres around the 250 BHA funded meetings, of which 150 are in doubt.

The 16 fixtures allocated to Ffos Las, as a new course are safe, which is a relief as without them the course would not have been sustainable and it may well have followed that great white elephant Great Leighs although, unlike Great Leighs, Ffos Las is a course which deserves to succeed.     

The main reduction will be at weekends with funding for four Saturday and two Sunday meetings each weekend. I agree with the four meetings on a Saturday but would prefer to see three meetings on a Sunday at the cost of having a blank midweek day, say having Mondays (apart from Bank Holidays) as blank days.

Of the surviving BHA funded meetings even some of these are in doubt as most of the meetings are the all-weather twilight meetings and these will only be allowed if the courses can guarantee an average prize fund of £3,000 a race, a sum significantly more than is on offer now. Better still, bearing in mind these meetings are run for the benefit of the bookmakers, perhaps the bookmakers should fully fund them. 

In my view a reduction of 150 meetings in 2011is nowhere near enough. This equates to an approximate 10% reduction in fixtures against a drop in predicted revenue of around 50% ….. even a a grasp of basic schoolboy mathematics (or as I believe it is called now – numeracy) will tell you the figures will not add up.

There needs to be a greater drop in the number of fixtures and if that means racecourses having to close or the number of horses in training and the number of trainers operating being reduced then so be it.

Sure there will be posturing saying the industry could not survive such cuts, that is a parochial view. Is it not better to have a smaller more efficient industry than no industry at all, which is what will happen if drastic action is not taken.

In all other industries and walks of life drastic cuts are having to be made, racing should not be an exception. Yet one is left with the strong impression racings rulers think the problems can be addressed with the application of a sticking plaster rather than drastic surgery.

Perhaps it would be a good thing if racing as we currently know it failed. It would be painful but it would also give the opportunity for a new, leaner, better managed sport to emerge.

Personally I would like to see the sport run on the Hong Kong model, where all aspects of the sport are run and controlled centrally. There would be a Tote monopoly with all profits being returned to the sport. Broadcast rights would be managed more efficiently and professionally.

It is absolutely absurd and a damning inditement on the ability of the sports management that the sport actually ends up paying a broadcaster to cover the sport.      

In the short term the 2011 fixture list should be cut to a maximum of 1,000 fixtures.   

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