Take for example the Sodexo Clarence House Steeplechase at Ascot on Saturday, in which Sprinter Sacre bids to make a successful return following more than a year on the side-lines. The total prize fund of £125,000 includes a sixth prize of £1,662, a seventh prize of £825, plus a further £425 for the eighth placed horse. Except Sprinter Sacre is due to face just four other runners, meaning that Ascot can put £2,912 back in the bank.
Sprinter Sacre is a god among horses. Referred to by his trainer as the “black aeroplane” earlier in his career, flying is what he does. The ease with which he moves has a fluidity which makes lesser animals look as though they have been glued to the floor.
If Sprinter Sacre is just 90% as good as he was, the rest will be competing only for second place. But having acknowledged this, if you had a horse – even one that wasn’t as good as Dodging Bullets, Twinlight, Somersby and Grey Gold (who are all wonderful animals and worthy of the £26,500 second prize) – wouldn’t you be happy to have lunch at Ascot and watch your horse canter round for £1,662? I know I would.
Incidentally, if one of the above horses fails to complete, the fifth place prize money will not be returned to the racecourse; it will be distributed between the first four finishers - so there is no malodorous incentive for Clerks of the Courses to increase the height of the fences.
In fact the opposite is true: racecourses are specifically incentivised through the payment of broadcast media rights to ensure that their races are as competitive as possible. To this end, Anthea Morshead (Clerk of the Course at Cartmel) and I will be attending the races at Wetherby next week - with a view to meeting owners and trainers to discuss our draft race programme for the Summer.
While we can’t pretend to compete with the prize funds distributed at the Queen’s racecourse, Cartmel's prize money is set to increase by nearly a quarter this year, to more than £405,000. Admittedly, we do have an extra day’s racing, but even so - the average value of each race will be increasing by 8.5% to £7,200. This compares well with other British racecourses, where prize funds are also increasing: by 6.2% to an estimated £130 million in 2015.
At the same time the financial climate has impacted on the number of horses in training. There were actually 3.5% less British runners in 2014 compared to the previous year, despite there being more races staged. The obvious conclusion is that races are less competitive at the moment. Not only should it be easier to pick winners (Hohoho), like this week’s selection Benbens in the Peter Marsh Chase at Haydock, but there has also never been a better time to buy a racehorse... And run it at Cartmel!