If you are a fan of horse racing whose heart sinks when the sport sets off on one of its regular civil wars, the front page of Monday’s Racing Post was not an ideal way to start the week. What promises to be the latest outbreak of internal squabbling over money and influence, however, does at least come with a novel twist.
Under the headline “Radical new plan for racing structure revealed”, the trade paper reports that the two sides in the sport’s eternal struggle over prize money – the Horsemen’s Group (THG) and the racecourses – are plotting to unite against the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) in the middle. Their aim is to weaken the BHA’s role in the three-cornered Tripartite Agreement, which determines how major decisions are taken.
We are two paragraphs in and already the acronym count is rising. But this being racing, of course, that is just the start. In the HG trench, the battalions include the Racehorse Owners Association (ROA), National Trainers’ Federation (NTF), Professional Jockeys’ Association (PJA), Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association (TBA) and National Association of Racing Staff (NARS). In the other, there are the track owners, including Jockey Club Racecourses (JCR), Arena Racing Company (ARC), the big independents like Ascot, Goodwood and York, and the small independents who just try to keep going from one season to the next.
And somewhere in the middle is the BHA, whose board includes several independent directors who are not nominated by, or beholden to, any of the factions involved.
For the last 18 months or so, as the pandemic wiped hundreds of millions of pounds from racing’s balance sheet and tracks had no certainty on when full crowds might return or whether ticket sales would ever recover to pre-Covid levels, an uneasy truce has prevailed.
But now the crowds are back, and in significant numbers too – and the first response from both sides is apparently to train their sights on the BHA. Their plan, which the Authority’s Board is likely to see for the first time on Tuesday, envisages a future for the BHA only as a regulator and little or nothing more. THG and the tracks would instead take a more dominant role in commercial decisions, on prize money for instance.
The catalyst for this attempt at a both-sides-against-the-middle putsch appears to be the recent breakdown of talks between ARC and THG over prize money at ARC tracks, which mostly operate a quantity-over-quality business model which provides constant (and very valuable) turnover for the betting industry. An extra £5m in prize money was apparently on offer, but the deal fell at the final hurdle when the NTF and PJA withdrew support, due to concerns, among other things, on how a proposal for nine-race cards throughout the winter might work in practice.
Under the proposed new power structure, the £5m contract would presumably have been pushed through, despite the objections of two important stakeholder groups. But the simple fact that THG could not get all of its various constituent parts to support the deal is clear evidence that the situation is nowhere near as straightforward as some of the major players would have you believe.
From top to bottom, everyone in racing wants the sport to prosper. But some at least on the Horsemen’s side will always demand more prize money, and forever insist that they are being short-changed, regardless of the fact that no one is ever forced to own a racehorse. And some of the time, they probably are, because tracks, for their part, have a clear interest in staging the show as prudently as possible, not least if, as is the case with ARC, they have shareholders to answer to.
There is the Jockey Club’s role to consider here too, as it has a size 11 in both camps. On the one hand, its members include many of the most powerful owners in the game. On the other, it also owns – via JCR – many of the most important tracks, including Cheltenham, Aintree and Epsom.
And even within all the individual interest groups, there will be big differences in the needs and interests of individuals according to the level at which they operate.
The interests of a 10-horse trainer at the bottom of the pyramid, for instance, are likely to be far more closely aligned with those of a jockey or owner at the same level, than they are to those of a trainer with a 200-horse string in Newmarket. For them, a more equitable distribution of the prize money we already have may well be more significant than a big boost that will largely go to those who are already at the top of the pile.
Such is the complex web of both complementary and competing interests to which the BHA is expected to bring some measure of order (so that the rest of us can get on with the racing).
It is not perfect, of course, and could easily feel like a brake on progress to some, but the lights on our rickety 250-year-old machine are still on and the wheels continue to turn. The tail end of the most difficult 18-month period that any of us can remember may not be the best time to start fiddling about under the bonnet.