BHA Proposal Seeks Balanced Race Programme

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Strings riding out in Newmarket | Emma Berry

“There's too much racing.” That is the familiar cry heard from most people connected to British horseracing. With that in mind, a potential reduction to next year's fixture list should be met with approval. Though that has been the case in many quarters, a leaked British Horseracing Authority (BHA) proposal on this topic has also ruffled a few feathers.

The Racing Post reported on Monday that the BHA, in consultation with its fixtures and funding group comprised by racing's stakeholders, is working on a proposal to reduce the 2023 fixture list by around 300 races. To put that in context, a total of 10,354 races were run in Britain in 2021.

It is hardly surprising that such measures are being considered given the notably small field sizes of late, with an average just fractionally above eight runners per race run for the first four months of 2022. Indeed, last season a number of 2-year-old races were cut from the programme in response to a smaller number of juveniles in training than had been anticipated.

Representative bodies for trainers and jockeys–the National Trainers Federation  and Professional Jockeys Association respectively–have reported that their members are largely in favour of the proposed reduction, while the Racehorse Owners Association chief executive Charlie Liverton is reserving judgement until the analysis of the fixtures and funding group has been completed.

The proposal, which is by no means set in stone at this stage, has also found favour with Nevin Truesdale, chief executive of the Jockey Club, which owns 15 racecourses, including Newmarket, Cheltenham and Sandown. But his comment to the Racing Post that “anyone with the best long-term interests of our sport at heart can see that some form of action needs to be taken” provoked a heated exchange of views with his opposite number at Arena Racing Company (ARC), Martin Cruddace, who countered that the BHA proposal could cost the sport up to £4 million in lost revenue.

“The changes would come in at the start of 2023 but the fixture process for next year starts soon. We have a few more weeks to come to a final decision,” said the BHA's chief operating officer Richard Wayman

“We want a race programme that is better matched to the horse population. There are times of the year when the programme doesn't service the population very well. So this proposal identifies the times of the year when there are particular issues. For example, we are not going to start messing about with the autumn when there are loads of horses to run on the Flat. This is a targeted approach, and what would happen is that the number of programmed races would be reduced during a particular period. It isn't every fixture–it would only be at meetings where the prize-money is £100,000 or less–and the racecourse, in consultation with the BHA, would decide which race to drop, say from a seven-race card to make it a six-race card. The suggestion that this is targeting the lower-grade races is erroneous. It could actually be the Class 3 race on a particular card that is struggling to attract runners.”

Wayman was also keen to stress the potential flexibility the proposal would give the race planners.

He added, “What has got slightly lost in the coverage is that alongside the removal of races at particular times of the year, we are proposing to introduce a more liberal divisions policy, so that if the demand is there we will divide more races. We're trying to be responsible with the race programme by cutting it back where there's too much racing, but at the same time recognising that we can respond when there is large demand for certain types of races.”

While on the surface the prospect of fewer races suggests fewer opportunities for jockeys, the bigger problem–for racecourses, punters and riders–is that which is presented by the current small field sizes.

The PJA's interim chief executive Dale Gibson explained, “This is a hot topic in the weighing-room at the moment. The overall opinion is that the riders support the proposal. We did see some trimming last summer of some 70-odd 2-year-old races.

“Personally, I fear for field sizes during those pinch points in the summer if we had a very dry spell when there are so many meetings. Especially if you are travelling a long way to a meeting  and owners and trainers have to look at the whole economics of it–rising fuel costs and staff costs.”

He added, “The riders feel we have to do something now for next year, and it will not just be a case of cutting Class 5 or 6 races, there has to be a balance. The problem of small field sizes is high on the PJA agenda.”

There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of a depletion of British-trained horses in the rating band of 70 to 100, with demand from overseas buyers being high, both through public auctions and private sales. Wayman says that is backed up by the BHA's figures.

“There has been a drop,” he confirms. “We know the horse population, and what it is by rating, and you can see that there has been a reduction in that middle- to upper-tier horse. The bottom is generally pretty robust at the moment, and so is the very top, but that upper-middle tier is where you see the reduction. That issue has been exacerbated by the fact that we've been putting on more races for that group of horses in the last year or two. The Racing League and the Sunday Series are really focused on those Class 3 to 4 handicaps, but the hope in doing that is that owners will be encouraged to keep hold of that level of horse.”

Owner and breeder Colin Bryce is not convinced that the proposed reduction in race numbers will have a significant impact on racing's longer-term health.

“It's such a difficult issue because there are so many different interest groups that have different reasons for wanting or not wanting more racing,” he said. “My view is that changing race numbers is a reaction–it's not a solution to anything. For me, it returns to the whole problem of there not being enough prize-money, so there are not enough owners. Too many horses bred at lower levels are not finding owners, so breeders are not making any money. The whole system is flawed, and it all goes back to the lack of prize-money, and there's a lack of horses because of that.”

He continued, “So the reaction to that, not the solution, is to reduce the number of races. And there's probably a logical argument for that. But the breeding industry and certain elements of the Racecourse Association would probably have a different view. Cutting 300 races is just a minor, micro reaction to the issue of how racing needs to develop, and unfortunately given the governance structure of racing it is difficult to get to a point when you can implement some of these strategies.”

While the BHA's proposal hints at a more reactive approach to race programming, trainer Stuart Williams feels this could go further still.

“You have the races that we need for the programme that supports the breed–the stakes races–and they are where they are,” he said. “All the other races are dependent on what horses are available at the time, and it wouldn't be that difficult for [trainers] every month to go down a list and say which horses are available for the next three months and which are going to be off for a while. Then the BHA has a dynamic programme that they can fit around those horses.

“But the racecourses seem to go off on their own deciding that a certain race would be good to put on, not caring that there's a similar race nearby three days later. No wonder people don't turn up, or pick and choose the ones they want to run in.”

He added, “The two people who put by far the most into racing are the owners–and you can couple those with the breeders–and then the punters, and I think we are doing a pretty poor job on the whole of looking after both of their interests at the moment.”

With the fixture process for the 2023 racing programme close to commencing, Wayman indicated that consultation regarding the proposed reduction in races is ongoing and that a decision will be reached in June.

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