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Where next for racing?

I’ve just been e-mailed by someone pointing out that, on this first day of Wimbledon, dad’s return to the broadcasting airwaves (covering Venus Williams’ match on Centre Court) has him trending on Twitter. You’d think a bit of news like that would give me scope to write about something more exciting than usual, but sadly, you’d think wrong. I’m afraid I had already set off on a path as a result of spending a post-Ascot Sunday immersed in the press.

There’s an interesting article in this week’s Time magazine by Fareed Zakaria that starts with the George Will belief that conservatism is rooted in reality, unlike theories of the left such as Marxism and socialism, which are predicated on an imagined, and hoped for, society. It states that “from Aristotle to Edmund Burke, the greatest conservative thinkers have said that to change societies, one must understand them, accept them as they are, and help them evolve”.

The article goes on to argue that this is now the premise of the US democrats, while its Republicans, in contrast, have begun to live in (or at least aim for) a fictional world. Whether or not you agree with the political inferences drawn, I suspect you would find it hard, as I did, not to read it alongside the letters page of Sunday’s Racing Post without coming to the conclusion that the Will premise is one which fits racing rather well.

Two pieces of correspondence jumped off the page: the first asking the simple question, “is prize money high enough?”, and the second arguing for a judicial review of the government’s right to sell the Tote.

There will be plenty in racing who sympathise with both letters (indeed, a letter in support of the latter appears today), which would be great if it helped us move forward. Sadly, sympathising will only serve to blind people to the fact that both yearn for a world which, to quote Zakaria, ‘espouses ideas drawn from abstract principles with little regard to the realities of [racing’s] present’.

The first, for example, says that “this year, like most years, we heard the levy would decline, but within a fortnight Ladbrokes and Hills announced very good annual profits”.

I understand the issue with offshore betting reducing the levy. (Indeed, if you go back to the cuts, you’ll find I was, with colleagues, talking about it publicly for about four years before it became a BHA mantra, telling them they really ought to be focusing on it rather than getting distracted by other irrelevances.) I also understand how voluntary payments are seen to lack certainty, although it was good to see Betfair announce that it will pay its full offshore allocation into racing entirely as if it were onshore. But aside from the offshore issue, the fact that appears to continue to elude so many is that racing is just not as important, any more, as it was. Ladbrokes and Hills no longer do 80% of their business on horseracing, like they did in the 1990s. Their ‘very good annual profits’ are not driven by racing any more, and anyone who thinks they are needs to start looking at the numbers before wading into the debate with comments dependent on their being so.

I wonder if the people who fail to realise the impact of racing’s declining strength laugh or rail at Britain’s continuing to act on the global stage as if it were a Great Power with an Empire. As far as I can make out, there is no basic difference between the two positions. To argue that ‘bookmakers keep saying that betting on racing is in decline, then one of them buys the Tote’ is not to demonstrate that the first statement is untrue by virtue of the second. Betting on racing is in decline, and it has been for many years; and the evidence that this fact is well-known (and tacitly acknowledged) among Racing’s leaders can be found in the long-held belief of most of them that the bookie who did buy the Tote was only interested in the shop part of the sale (by implication, for football betting and FOBT purposes), and not in the pool.

The second letter, meanwhile, echoes the view of many in racing in lamenting the 1960 failure to maintain a Tote monopoly, which – while I’m at it with dubious historical parallels – seems to me tantamount to blaming any current foreign policy failures in the Middle East on ‘Winston’s folly’ of creating the wrong boundaries in the first place. Anyone who genuinely tried to argue, today, that we ought to go back to the time they were first drawn and change them, as if that simple ruse presents any kind of solution to a problem far more complicated than having a simple ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ would, I suspect, be laughed out of the debate; and yet in racing, such things seem to happen all the time.

It simply shouldn’t be considered a tenable position to quibble about things, however unfair they seem to some, that are already fact. If we were going to challenge the government’s right to sell the Tote on the basis that it never paid a penny into it and therefore shouldn’t get a penny out – a perfectly fair argument which I understand – then it had to happen before the thing was sold, not after. And if people are unhappy with racing’s leadership for having failed to do that, then fine: make them accountable and throw them out. Don’t try to re-write the laws when it’s too late. It’s not as if, as the newspapers keep reminding us, we didn’t have 14 years’ notice of the sale.

So, that failure having been achieved (as my old Latin master used to say), surely the starting point of any discussion on racing’s future needs to be based on the George Will principle: we are where we are. No amount of angst is going to change that, not least because those who are making money out of being where we are (and whatever you’re talking about, wherever the situation, there will always be someone in that category), are going to resist changing back to the status quo ante.

Personally, I believe that France’s days in the sun as regards prize money are going to get an almighty shock in the coming years: the cosy situation that they had in a non-internet world will come under real pressure now that borders are easily crossed, and it won’t surprise me if the future sees them eyeing us with as much envy as we currently eye them. Unfortunately, that’s just a theory, and it is probably too far hence to be of relevance to many of those currently unhappy with their lot. But whether it one day proves true or not neither makes it worth arguing about, nor changes these indisputable facts: we aren’t France; we don’t have their system; and whatever lies ahead is not going to be shaped effectively by fervent wishes to the contrary in relation to either.

Whatever you think about the rights and wrongs of why we’re here, how we got here, and what it all means, today’s key players have diverse interests (even within racing), and the people who now have the best cards are not the same people who, once upon a time, held them all. That means not only that the future will have to be based on partnerships (where the past was based on authority), but, more importantly, that many people will have to swallow their pride and accept that the rules, for right or wrong, have been changed.

That same Latin master used to tell me that life isn’t fair, you can’t always be in charge, and you play the cards you are dealt. The people who realise that quickly, soon get back in the game. The ones who sulk about it and wish it were something else, end up never playing again.



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2 Responses

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  1. Steeplechasing says

    I think the reason the RP tucks most of its letters away in the Sunday edition these days, is to minimise embarrassment for the authors. The number of ‘racing’ people sporting blinkers would dismay anyone with an ounce of commercial sense and a grain of objectivity.

    Racing had 90 years to make a success of the Tote. Mr Done will doubtless do better by addressing deductions – they key to the Tote’s non-competitiveness.

    As to the broader question ‘Where Now For Racing?’ – The Old Curiosity Shoppe is where it’s bound unless the Horsemen are swiftly unseated and replaced with someone who has vision and determination. The BHA don’t have the heart or the spine for it – ceding fixture control is like handing over your nuclear capability when the enemy’s at the gate.

    I could write a bloody book about it if I thought it would do any good.


  2. bigdipper says

    One estimate of the amount the Hong Kong Jockey Club miss out on is 90 million USD, more than half of their handle on horseracing. People in HK most likely bet far more than that illegally. According to FIFA, the total wagered worldwide through unlicensed illegal books comes to some 140 million USD a year.

    The way to reclaim this money is to offer a market-efficient price; and the optimal mechanism to do this are exchanges. In fact, one way that Betfair could have gone in early 00s was to have become a service operator for monopolies, rather than the wholesale or ‘back end’ of the traditional bookmaking market into which they evolved.

    Of course the monopolies would never have stood it at the time and people like you (indeed, chiefly you) did an enormous amount in clawing out any regulatory foothold Betfair were able to gain.

    But I can’t help thinking the company would be in a better position now as HK and other jurisidictions’ licensed operator than as just another middle-sized book.

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