By Emma Berry
Emotions continue to run high in an escalating row over prize-money cuts primarily by Britain's largest racecourse group Arena Racing Company (ARC).
In a bid to halt a proposed boycott of all ARC-run meetings from March 6-8, the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) announced at 11am on Thursday—just one hour ahead of the deadline for race entries for March 6—that a temporary agreement had been reached between industry leaders which would see prize-money restored to 2018 levels from that date.
From ARC's perspective, this will involve the reassignment of £235,000 from elsewhere in its programme. This reallocation to lower-grade races currently falling below the level required to earn extra Levy funding means that, during this temporary arrangement, those events will now have access to this pool. In announcing in December that it would cut its prize-money budget by around £3 million for 2019, ARC had effectively denied itself access to an extra £4.5 million which would have been available through this scheme.
A statement released by ARC on Thursday read, “At a BHA Board meeting last night, ARC Chief Executive Martin Cruddace and Ann Duffield (representing the NTF) agreed that ARC would fully unlock all relevant races for a period of one month while all parties continue to work towards a resolution of this issue.
“In a deal brokered by BHA, it was made clear that ARC would adjust its future race programme to fund this period of unlocking, which represents circa £235,000. This will unlock circa £364,000 in Levy funding, which has been budgeted to support these races. To be clear, ARC's position remains that we are anxious that the £4.5 million for these races is allocated as soon as possible and that agreement is reached.”
Two meetings are scheduled to be staged at ARC tracks on March 6—an all-weather Flat meeting at Lingfield and a jumps card at Fontwell. The entry deadline for both was extended by an hour to 1pm on Thursday and while Fontwell attracted a total of 82 entries with at least 11 horses per race, Lingfield received just 39 entries across six races, with four in single figures being reoffered for entry until 11am today (Friday).
In announcing the agreement reached at Wednesday night's meeting, BHA Chief Executive Nick Rust said that he was pleased to see “commitment from all to work together on this which has to be in the long-term interests of the sport”, while the Racehorse Owners Association (ROA) Chief Executive Charlie Liverton stated his delight at “constructive discussions” with the Racecourse Association and BHA.
However, Thursday's announcement was met with some scepticism by a number of owners and trainers who remain frustrated at ARC's stance on prize-money.
Mick Appleby, the leading trainer on the all-weather this winter, is in favour of boycotting certain meetings. He told TDN on Thursday, “I'm 100% behind it. We have to stand firm. I've spoken to my owners and they are all in agreement that the prize-money for some races is shocking. Of course I want to have runners but this is affecting all of us. I've been training for eight years and I've never taken a wage. I live on my percentage money so if that's going down so is my income, as well as the pool money for all the staff.”
He added, “If we don't make a stand other tracks will follow suit and it will only get worse. As it stands, even if you win a Class 6 race, half your prize-money is gone paying your expenses to get to the races.”
Trainer Stuart Williams, another to be enjoying a particularly good winter on the all-weather, shares Appleby's opinion. He said, “My owners are of the same view as me—it's wrong of ARC to have withdrawn its contribution which would have triggered the extra money. And to then say it will cream the money off the top of somewhere else to make up for it isn't helping the situation at all, it's taking the value down in other parts.”
The National Trainers Federation (NTF) held its AGM in London on Thursday, after which it released a statement which read, “The National Trainers Federation is clarifying its position following the statements issued by the British Horseracing Authority and Arena Racing Company this morning. Trainers have informed the NTF that they do not support the terms of the agreement reached last night to restore prize-money levels. In their opinion, funding for Class 4, 5 and 6 races should not be sourced from other parts of the race programme. We have been told that trainers and owners will continue to make their own choices with regard to upcoming ARC fixtures.”
David Haddrell, who has a horse in training with Julia Feilden, is one of a number of owners aiming to avoid ARC tracks where possible. He said, “We're running at Chelmsford next week. Our horse could have gone to Lingfield or Newcastle but we will go where there is decent prize-money instead. With the news today, at least we can see that ARC is prepared to do something but their under-investment in some racecourses is absolutely shocking. There needs to be a bigger debate in this country about prize-money. There is an imbalance in the programme.”
ARC has already felt the brunt of action by trainers and owners when two races on last Saturday's Winter Derby card at Lingfield collectively received just one declared runner.
While the country's second-largest racecourse group Jockey Club Racecourses has pledged to maintain its prize-money levels for 2019, the projected mass closure of bookmaker shops in the wake of the cut in FOBT stakes to £2 from £100, which comes into force in April, seems likely to continue to hit prize-money levels in Britain. On Thursday, the Racing Post reported that the independently owned Pontefract racecourse will reduce its purses by 11% in 2019. However, that reduction is likely to come in at Class 3 level and above, with the track pledging that all of its races will meet minimum values for prize-money, thus unlocking the extra Levy funding.
Staging races with paltry prize-money levels is not restricted to ARC tracks, however. Jumps trainer Jo Davis highlighted on her website blog that a hurdle race in which she has a horse entered at Fontwell during the planned boycott on March 6 is worth £6,200 to the winner while an equivalent race on Friday at Newbury, an independent track, is worth just £4,500.