Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Horseracing's Pocket Money System

Imagine that you have 58 children. I know, you’ll either be full of horror at the thought of the chaos or immersing yourself in the parental bliss that only comes from the love of a small human; but stay with me – there is a serious analogy to be made here... 

You decide to pay them all pocket money, so you split your finances into several pots. You decide to incentivise the kids to take up activities – so you use one pot to match-fund their own contributions: the more money they put in, the more you’ll give them. The problem is, Johnny and Ian have so much money already that you can’t afford to match-fund them penny for penny, so you give them a bit less than they might have been entitled to. 

All of the kids help around the house, but Anthony generates more cash than some of the others; so you have a separate pot which pays each child a proportion of what they generate for the household. Richard and Claire prefer winter activities, but the majority of days that they can attend are cold, wet, miserable, Mondays – so you give them a few extra quid for their effort.

Simon and Charles perform at a higher level; you therefore have another pot which rewards them for playing better quality games. In the meantime, you are keen to ensure that everyone plays nice and fairly, so you keep yet another pot of money to give to the referees and adjudicators.  

All of the children think that the division of pocket money is unfair, which confirms in your mind that you’ve probably got it about right. That, in a nut-shell, is the way in which revenue from the off-course betting industry is distributed by the Horserace Betting Levy Board to racecourses. 

Most racecourse managers believe that their track deserves a greater proportion of Levy funding and I am no exception. In particular, Cartmel receives funding for just five race-days in total – even though a new racecourse could quickly build up funding for fourteen or more days. In effect, the HBLB are saying that children will only be rewarded for taking on extra activities if they are less than 10 years old. I know a few parents who wouldn’t stand for that one! 

The good news, for all racecourses (including Wetherby where Tony McCoy could score his easiest ever victory on At Fishers Cross this Saturday - and Ayr, where Plus Jamais could make an interesting first appearance in a handicap for Jim Goldie), is that the racing and betting industries have recently agreed an historic four-year deal with regard to base levy income.

In a rapidly changing world, particularly where on-line and off-shore betting is involved, this brief period of stability will permit both parties to work on a revision of the commercial mechanisms operating between horse-racing and betting. 

More fascinating still, the bookmakers have agreed to put an additional £4.5 million into a new levy-pot – now we’ve just got to decide how it will be split between the children.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Will Armageddon Spoil The Picnic?

According to the newspapers last weekend, scientists have predicted that a giant asteroid could collide with Earth on 26th August, 2032, just two days before the start of Cartmel’s August Bank Holiday weekend meeting. 

The rock, which is 1,345 feet across (about two furlongs – or the distance between the grandstand and the Cartmel scout-hut, for those with a good knowledge of local geography), could cause an explosion fifty times as forceful as the most powerful nuclear bomb. This will obviously be bad news for racegoers and could spoil a lot of picnics. I thought it only fair to warn you, as Cartmel customers are renowned for booking their tickets and accommodation very early. 

So how likely is it that the Crimean Astrophysical Observatory, located in southern Ukraine, have got this wrong? Astronomers in Italy, Spain, Britain and Russia have confirmed the presence of the rock, although the consensus is that the chances of it actually hitting us are about 63,000–1. I regularly place bets with odds of similar probability, so I’m not sure how much comfort to take from this. However, I have devised a little test. 

I suggest that you place a £1 accumulator bet on the following four horses running in Grade 1 races later this season:
  • Captain Chris  at 25/1 in the King George VI Chase at Kempton on Boxing Day – a great price about a horse who is sure to be aimed at the race and will be there or thereabouts.
  • The New One at 4/1 for the Champion Hurdle in March – skinny price, but he has already been out and advertised his championship claims this season. 
  • First Lieutenant at 14/1 for the Gold Cup, also in March – slightly disappointing on his recent seasonal debut, but will be trained with Cheltenham in mind.
  • The Knoxs at 33/1 for the Grand National in April – you might have to ask for a special ‘quote’ from your bookmaker on this one, but he was bought a few months ago by the connections of last year’s National winner and will surely be trained for the race. 
The combined odds are slightly more than the chances of being hit by the rock from outer-space, so if they all win we should start to get worried. Although if they do all win, we can have a big party and forget about Armageddon for a while – we should have at least another 131 racedays at Cartmel before the meteor strikes.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Bring On The Champions

The racing industry has invested millions of pounds in the development of Champions Day at Ascot racecourse. The fixture, which takes place on Saturday, has prize money of £3.4 million and has received a huge amount of marketing support. While the objective is to create an exciting end to the Flat racing season, the problem is that… well… it’s taking place at the END of the Flat season.  

For the second consecutive year the official going description is likely to be soft, meaning that some of the more exciting horses will be non-runners. Others have either finished for the season already or have overseas engagements in their diaries – where the climate is better suited to Flat racing at this time of year. Ascot Chief Executive, Charles Barnett, says that he is content with the October fixture slot – pointing out that an attendance of 25,000, if the weather is kind, would still be “a very good crowd”. 

There is also racing at Cheltenham on Saturday, where the prize fund is about one twentieth of the size of Ascot’s. Yet, if given TV coverage, Cheltenham’s card would probably generate a similar amount of betting interest. The crowd at Cheltenham, with relatively little marketing effort compared to that dedicated to Champions Day, will be around eighteen thousand and will consist of enthusiasts who will attend in virtually any weather, rain or shine. 

This week will see the seasonal debuts of some of the most exciting horses in training including First Lieutenant and Noble Prince at Punchestown, The New One and Rock On Ruby at Kempton and Balthazar King at Cheltenham – all of them previous Cheltenham Festival winners over jumps. The betting public will be at least as interested to see these horses as any appearing at Ascot. But of all the racing this weekend, I am most looking forward to Kelso – where Knockara Beau seeks his fifth course win at the Scottish Borders jumps track. 

Knockara Beau, if he appears, will be running off the same handicap mark as when winning in November last year. He is an old favourite of mine and will be familiar to Cartmel racegoers as he also won a novice chase here a few seasons ago. And that is the thing about jump racing: we look forward to seeing the same horses appear year after year – and when they run, all interest in Flat racing evaporates. 

Incidentally, if you fancy a trip to Kelso, we shall be taking a coach there for the fixture on Saturday 9th November. We've got together with Kelso and VisitScotland to create a fantastic package which includes coach travel, admission, a hog roast roll and a drink plus other benefits for just £20. If you are interested, you must call the Cartmel racecourse office before Thursday 24th October.

I suspect that we won’t know whether Champions Day is a success or not for another ten or twenty years; it isn’t a short term project. The fixture needs to develop a following and breed anticipation in the same way that punters are inspired by the mere mention of the Cheltenham Festival. The chances of success would be improved if  the event could be staged in the Summer, or perhaps even another country – but I wish everyone involved the very best of luck.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

Looking Forward to Christmas

When the BHA finally published the 2014 fixture list this week, it contained 1,464 events including 7 at Cartmel. While it may sound pretty mundane to state that we have been allocated an almost-identical list of fixtures to last year, the process has involved a significant amount of time and effort over the last few months as bargains have been struck between BHA, the Levy Board, the Horsemen and racecourses. 

Just under 40% of the fixtures are over jumps, 40% are Flat fixtures on turf, while the remaining 20% are Flat race meetings taking place on all-weather surfaces. The most controversial development is the introduction of a new all-weather fixture worth £1 million at Lingfield Park – because it has been scheduled to take place on Good Friday, a day which has traditionally been kept clear of racing. 

The decision to race on Good Friday will be welcomed by the off-course betting industry, who will benefit significantly from increased turnover. However, I can’t help feeling that it will be a retrograde step for racing enthusiasts and some participants of the sport. For me, an enforced day off brings on withdrawal symptoms and makes me look forward to racing on Easter Saturday with renewed enthusiasm. As a child, I didn’t think Christmas Day could get any better, but now that it is the only racing-free day in the calendar, there's a new reason to look forward to it - the super-accentuated excitement of Boxing Day! 

On receiving the new fixture list, the first thing that I do is highlight the important days with a felt-tip pen. Apart from three Cartmel race-days in May (24th , 26th & 28th), two in July (19th & 21st) and two in August (23rd & 25th), there is the Cheltenham Festival (11th – 14th March) and Aintree Grand National (5th April). This year we are planning to stage lunches in the Grandstand on several of the major dates, with live action being shown on large televisions. 

The basic structure of the fixture list allows key races to slot into a familiar and reassuring pattern. For example, a couple of visitors from the West Country on Monday told me that they were “looking forward to the start of the jumps season at Chepstow this weekend”. Now… the 2013/14 jumps season started months ago at Wetherby and Ludlow, and there was jump racing at Chepstow as recently as ten days ago – so what on earth were they talking about? 

Well... for many years the first really valuable race of the jumps season was a limited handicap for 4 year old hurdlers at Chepstow. It attracted the best of the previous season’s juveniles and it was always interesting to see how they had developed over the Summer.

The race still exists, though slightly less prestigious than it once was. While Pistol looks well handicapped on his pre-festival form, I am recommending For Two, who looked a lovely prospect last year.

Friday, 4 October 2013

The Rabble and The Apocalypse

I’m not sure whether there is a collective noun for racecourse managers – an ‘embarrassment’ perhaps, although I believe that applies to pandas. Apparently you can have a ‘chattering’ of choughs or a ‘rabble’ of butterflies, either of which might be quite good substitutes. 

On Tuesday this week, the Racecourse Association hosted its Northern Area meeting at York, attended by racecourse colleagues from the north of England and Scotland. High on our agenda was the topic of prize money and, in particular, recent negotiations with the Horsemen regarding an agreement as to how much money each racecourse should contribute towards the total prize fund. ‘Horsemen’, by the way, is the collective noun for a group of the industry’s stakeholders including racehorse owners, trainers, breeders, jockeys and stable-staff. Perhaps we could call them an 'apocalypse' (an apocalypse of jockeys?) – although negotiations aren’t going so badly as to signal the end of the racing world just yet. 

While most racehorse owners never suppose that they will make a profit from their racing activities, prize money oils the wheels that make the racing industry go round. It rewards the most successful horses, filtering through to everyone involved in preparing the participants – from racehorse trainers and stable staff to jockeys and their valets (who wash the silks, scrub breeches and clean tack at racecourses all over Britain).

The total prize fund in Britain this year is estimated to be approximately £110 Million. In round terms, 40% is sourced from off-course betting through the Levy Board, 15% from entry fees paid by owners and 45% from racecourses, some of which is paid by commercial sponsors who benefit from the affiliation with racing events. 

The problem with striking a prize money agreement is that one size doesn’t fit all. At Cartmel, we have historically received less central funding from the Levy Board than other tracks and our own contribution to prize money is more than 51% of the total prize fund. In our efforts to gain improved central funding, we don’t really want to be shackled to larger direct contributions – which would have a knock on effect on general maintenance and improvement projects at the racecourse.

The success of horseracing, especially when negotiating future deals with the off-course betting industry, depends on close collaboration between all factions of the sport. For this reason, I am certain that we shall be able to add Cartmel’s name to the list of racecourses, that have signed prize money agreements, in the very near future. Talks this week have been positive. 

In the meantime, for this week’s selection we are heading to France, where I’m trusting in Novellist to write his own headlines by winning the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on Sunday.