Nevin Truesdale: 'Racing Must Adapt to the World Around Us' 

Nevin Truesdale | John Grossick/The Jockey Club

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Imagine a world in which British racing's problems have been solved. There is plenty of prize-money to go round, at least 12 runners in every race, attendance figures are up, the Cheltenham Festival has returned to three days and the Derby to a Wednesday. 

Okay, let's not be completely fanciful. The four-day Festival is here to stay, as is the Saturday Derby, but if you spend an hour in a room with Jockey Club chief executive Nevin Truesdale, you may leave it feeling that some of the other items on the wish list are achievable. He's not living in dreamland. As a man with a financial background Truesdale has a grip on the checks and balances and, a compelling talker, he is refreshingly candid when it comes to admitting that changes have to be made to ensure the ongoing health of some of the key Jockey Club fixtures. He is also prepared to put his own shoulder to the wheel to address some of the threats to sport in general.

Over the last year or so, Truesdale has led the counter-attack to the disruptive behaviour and baseless claims of the pressure group Animal Rising, as well as galvanising the industry to get behind his petition to lobby government to rethink their plans for affordability checks on punters. He is a man of deeds as well as words, which is just as well considering that the 15 racecourses owned by the Jockey Club stage a significant portion of racing's crown jewels, including the Derby and Oaks, both Guineas, the Grand National and Cheltenham Festival. Beyond that, it owns training grounds in Newmarket, Lambourn and Epsom, as well as controlling the National Stud and the charity Racing Welfare.

The Jockey Club is a significantly different entity nowadays to when it was set up in 1750 by some of the major owner-breeders of the day who also had significant influence in society and government. Until 2006, it served as racing's regulator before the formation of the independent Horserace Regulatory Authority (HRA), which later merged with the British Horseracing Board (BHB) to become the British Horseracing Authority (BHA). 

The Jockey Club now operates on a corporate basis but with any gains from its commercial interests being reinvested into the sport. It remains though, to some extent, a private members' club. Some of those 187 members recently, and mostly anonymously, expressed their discontent with the paid executive through a report in the Racing Post, their concerns exacerbated by the recent fall in attendance and turnover from the Cheltenham Festival.

As far as racecourse groups go, it is in an exceptional position as one which, while seeking to modernise, must also be a keeper of the flame when it comes to preserving the racing traditions held dear by a significant portion of the sport's diehard fans. The Jockey Club is not alone in referring to “significant financial headwinds”, as it did recently when announcing a cut in prize-money across its courses for 2024. Though the total prize-money remained at a record level, with £31.1 million on offer, £750,000 had to be trimmed from the original planned outlay which had been announced in January. 

People's demands are changing. Whether we like it or not, there's a generation growing up that have a different outlook on the world.

“The whole sport needs to realise that, yes, the breeding is important, yes, what we do day-to-day on the racecourse and in yards is important, but fundamentally the commercial ecosystem depends on eyes being on it and people betting on it. The Jockey Club and the business that it's turned into has had to evolve more quickly in the last 30 years than it's ever had to,” says Truesdale, whose chief executive role was made permanent in January 2021 following the controversial departure of his predecessor, Delia Bushell, the previous August. The Northern Irishman had joined the Jockey Club in 2013 as group finance director. 

“People's demands are changing. Whether we like it or not, there's a generation growing up that have a different outlook on the world. It doesn't mean for a second that the future of horseracing is in any way compromised, but horseracing as a sport needs to adapt.

“You look at what's happened in rugby and in Formula 1. I'm a massive cricket fan and it looks very different to what it did 30, 40, even 15 years ago. T20 and then the Hundred have revolutionised cricket. I'm not saying we need a T20 version of racing, but the point I'm trying to make is that we have to adapt to the world around us.”

He continues, “But at the same time we've absolutely got to respect the traditions of this sport. I'm a proper sporting traditionalist. I'm a Test cricket man. I am not necessarily a three-day Cheltenham Festival man, but I'm definitely not a five-day man.”

With the jumps season in the rear-view mirror, the Derby, arguably the most famous Flat race in the world, is now looming on the horizon. This time last year Truesdale headed to the High Court on the Jockey Club's behalf in order to gain an injunction to stop protestors disrupting the Derby as they had when forcing a 15-minute delay of the Grand National at Aintree. Animal Rising now appears to have sunk, but the Derby, along with the major jumping festivals, is not without its detractors and, again according to the Racing Post, the Derby Festival could be in for a bit of a reshuffle in the coming years. Truesdale has been a willing 'talking head' on the sport's behalf. 

“I'm absolutely passionate about getting the really good stuff about racing and our big messages, especially on welfare, across,” he says. 

“[On Grand National day] I spoke to BBC Radio 4, GB News, Sky News, Talk TV – none of them were supporters. We have this platform on those big events to get the message across about the importance and the size of racing as an industry, what it contributes, and the brilliant days out it offers, and at the heart of it all, the fact that this sport is open and welcoming to everyone, because I genuinely believe it is.

“When I bring friends racing for the first time, it's very different to what they expect. All of this is about perception, and I actually think all the business with Animal Rising this time last year, gave us even more of a platform to accentuate that.

“People are absolutely entitled to their views on the sport, and there'll be 20-odd per cent of people whose minds will never change, but there is a big chunk of persuadable public in the middle, who definitely want to engage, who definitely have interest, who want to find out more, but who want reassurance, especially on welfare.”

Truesdale points to the cost-of-living crisis as a factor in the decline of attendances, and how rising costs have also affected the Jockey's Club's business. Add to this unwelcome scenario the spectre of affordability checks and a perfect storm is swirling around British racing at a time when progress on prize-money levels, at the higher levels at least, is being attempted through the advent of 'Premier' racing and other initiatives.  

“Some of our online betting revenues, at the end of 2023, were down 20 per cent from 2022, and that's on better field sizes as well. As field sizes have increased, you'd expect engagement interest and, therefore, online betting. There's a clear statistical relationship between the two, so you'd expect, all things being equal, online betting revenues to go up. We all know what's happening, with some punters being caught in affordability measures going off into the unregulated market,” he says. 

“It's having quite a significant impact, and what that really means is that, as effectively a consumer leisure business, we are having to be very discerning about what we spend and our operating model. And that's where the customer experience becomes really important because if people have got less money to spend, they're making choices about what they spend it on, so we've got to be totally focused on that.”

 

The Jockey Club's courses include Newmarket, Epsom and Cheltenham

 

The launch of Premier racing, for which racecourses have to ensure at least £20,000 for Flat races run within that window, has caused some disquiet among some of the smaller, independent tracks and the Jockey Club is not immune to those concerns either. Indeed, with its reduction of prize-money in April came the handing back of five Premier fixtures. Along with some big-name courses, the Jockey Club also owns smaller tracks such as Huntingdon, Market Rasen and Exeter, which enjoy loyal local support.

“We assess performance of every individual fixture and obviously, therefore, every individual racecourse,” Truesdale explains. “It's not a secret that Cheltenham and Aintree together are very significant commercial drivers for us. But every racecourse has to stand on its own two feet in terms of its underlying financial performance, if not its capital requirements. We absolutely have to be growing the top end and investing in that, and I'm very much a fan of making sure that that's properly accentuated, but we've also got to be thinking about the day-to-day grassroots as well. Because we all know that a significant chunk of people who come racing, not to the big festivals, but day-to-day, come within a 25-mile radius.

“So we've got to keep investing in the racing, and by that, I don't just mean prize-money, which is a big part of that, but I'm also thinking about ground, safety measures, owner experience, jockey experience. Without the core product, you have nothing.”

The core product, many would argue, begins with the breeders, who are key not just to the racing fixtures but to the continuation of the National Stud. 

“We are well placed to understand that whole ecosystem and, therefore, understand the importance of prize-money, which is why, even with the change we've made [recently], we're still at record levels,” he says. 

“But that is ultimately dependent on our commercial success or otherwise. British breeding depends on having the best stallions in this country, and the best stallions are only going to be in this country if we're rewarding owners on the track. We totally get that. That's why we have to ensure that we're investing enough in the top end of our programme. As an industry, we're at times guilty of spreading the jam a bit too thinly.

“That will inevitably have already involved some pretty painful decisions, and we're no different when it comes to where we're investing, and not just at the National Stud, but in our whole business.”

From a financial risk point of view, [buying a stallion] is the biggest decision that the stud makes. That's the one that, if it goes wrong, it can affect the whole business.

The National Stud currently stands five stallions, the star name, with his own plaque on the adjacent roundabout, being Stradivarius (Ire), whose first foals have been arriving this season. Alongside him are Time Test (GB), Rajasinghe (Ire), Lope Y Fernandez (Ire), and new recruit Mutasaabeq (GB).

“We're not scared to be in a position where we're just standing them, as we are for Stradivarius, and Bjorn [Nielsen] has been incredibly generous and helpful with his bonus scheme, and Phil Cunningham the same in supporting Rajasinghe, whose strike-rate is fantastic,” says Truesdale. 

“Time Test has got two big years ahead of him with his two biggest crops to run and he has probably been the template for how it can work at a level.”

Bought from his breeder Juddmonte Farms, Time Test has also shuttled to New Zealand and the National Stud has already recouped its outlay on him.

“You've got to be out within the first three years,” Truesdale says. “From a financial risk point of view, [buying a stallion] is the biggest decision that the stud makes. That's the one that, if it goes wrong, it can affect the whole business. So we've got to be very discerning in our selection and get it right, and we've then got to get the right ownership model and spread the risk.”

Lope Y Fernandez, who will have his first runners in 2025, is a good example of this practice as he is owned in partnership by the National Stud with Coolmore and Whitsbury Manor Stud.

He adds, “We don't don't need to be bringing in a new stallion every year, but we have assembled probably the best roster that we've had certainly in my time here. And credit to Anna [Kerr] and Joe [Bradley] and Teddy [Grimthorpe] and the whole team for that, because it's not an easy market to play in.”

While the National Stud is to some extent multi-faceted as a commercial stud farm, place of learning and tourist destination, Truesdale says that yet more could be done to exploit the hidden gems of racing.

“Yes, by all means, come to a race day but if you do that, you're only scratching the surface,” he says. “Go to a gallops morning, go to a yard, go to an open day, or National Racehorse Week. 

“I think, as a sport, we've got far more scope for behind-the-scenes insights, the brilliant spectacle of a morning when the horse is training. You can't go to Liverpool's training ground to watch them train, but you can come to watch horses on the gallops and you can go into studs and yards, within reason.”

Adopting the unofficial role of racing's Mr Brightside following the recent exit of Rod Street from Great British Racing, Truesdale cites 100 days of annual terrestrial TV coverage and the fact that racing remains the country's second-biggest spectator sport as reasons to be cheerful.

“Lots of other sports would kill for that,” he says. “Our job is to get people onto racecourses more often and that means we've got to be more nimble and more flexible in pricing, especially when people are struggling to pay their energy bills. We offered staged payments for the first time this year on Cheltenham tickets, and  at Aintree, too.”

He admits, however, that there have been some “really tough conversations” in regard to funding, particularly through the changes incurred by the launch of Premier and Core fixtures from January 1.

“I do think after the two-year trial it's going to need a reasonably significant re-evaluation. There'll be bits of it that work and bits of it that don't work,” he says.

“We had an aspiration to try and get Premier fixtures at every racecourse, so we've had to make some difficult decisions there. Ultimately, that comes back to prize-money, and is driven by our commercial performance. It's no secret that our commercial performance at Cheltenham was not what we wanted it to be. It wasn't a catastrophe, by any means, but we invest in prize-money at the margin, so when the margin comes back a little bit, then we're looking at our entire cost space and the prize-money [cut] is actually just a small part of what we've done more widely. It's the last place I want to go, but you have to be pragmatic about these things and you have to run the business sustainably. Ultimately, that's my job.”

With a background working for major firms such as Ernst & Young and British Gas, Truesdale asserts that the Jockey Club has the “best quality of people I've ever worked with, anywhere”. 

He adds, “I look at the passion and commitment of the people we've got at the Jockey Club now. It's fantastic. It doesn't mean that we don't need to change and evolve in how we operate but, fundamentally, it's the people I work with that keep me going. Despite all of the challenges, if you can't enjoy it, genuinely, you should be somewhere else. And I do really enjoy it.”

 

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