Plumpton Goes Premier as BHA Experiment Makes Unconvincing Start

Plumpton's owner Peter Savill has the majority of his horses trained in Ireland and France | Racingfotos


Anfield or Old Trafford it isn't, but that didn't stop Premierisation coming to Plumpton, a National Hunt track at the foot of the South Downs more easily associated with farmers, pensioners and Brighton sharps on country forays than marketing resets.

The second track to stage a Premier fixture in a two-year trial of 170 meetings each season, dear old Plumpton didn't need labels to tell you how good it is. In the most valuable race since racing began here in 1888, a 5lb claimer called Joe Anderson found himself hanging from his horse's neck after a bad mistake, rode a circuit with no irons, finally hooked his feet back in and then thundered up the hill to win the new £75,000 stayers' hurdle on Transmission.  It was a miracle ride. The Plumpton crowd fell in love with Anderson, who could make a living in rodeos.

Premierisation is on a debut tour of British racing, picking out sellable, mass market meetings and adorning them with prize-money, banners and high hopes for the sport's future. Racing is playing catch-up here. There is a Premier League of darts, an Indian Premier League in cricket and Premierships scattered across professional sport.

The use of a tag to bestow mystique on sporting events reflects trends in society, where seductive designations appeal to our social climbing. Premier accounts. Flex-Plus savings. Platinum clubs. And special-entry levels in short-term airport car parks that enable you to skip a whole flight of stairs to get to departures.

It's the cachet, you see. The message it sends about you. And in case anyone thought racing would simply swallow these trends by Premierising only Cheltenham, Ascot and Newmarket, Plumpton became the first 'gaff track' to be invited behind the velvet rope, with a card that featured an 86% increase in prize-money for Sussex National raceday, from £105,000 last year to £195,000.

Give them better runners and a prize-money injection and the crowd swells, the excitement grows, and the nectar-like local Harvey's Ale runs out even quicker than usual in the racecourse bars.

As a Plumpton regular for 40 years, I motored down Sussex lanes half proud for the course and half in trepidation that Premierisation might compromise its character. Much as non-league football is a haven from the money mania of the Premier League, so Plumpton trades on its picturesque setting and authenticity. On Monday afternoons, mostly, a familiar cast of characters greet winners with murmurs of approval or resignation.

This is National Hunt racing's heartland, and nobody ever expected to see it reclassified as 'Premier' sport, which is meant not as an insult but a compliment. The undemonstrative but hardcore Plumpton crowd knows what it wants on a cold January Monday, and none of it corresponds to what you might call glamour.

But they know their horses. Give them better runners and a prize-money injection and the crowd swells, the excitement grows, and the nectar-like local Harvey's Ale runs out even quicker than usual in the racecourse bars. Plumpton's management are skilled at looking after the regulars while also trying to entice the uninitiated. Premierisation is largely about focusing attention on the top end while rebranding the rest as the sport's 'core' (in football, they call that the second-tier 'Championship.')

Sundays are considered ripe for plunder, which is why Plumpton was followed by a scrubbed-up evening card at Wolverhampton, with £160,000 spread across eight races. Of the 1,468 fixtures in 2024, 170 are Premier. The launch could charitably be called low-key. Cheltenham kicked it off on New Year's Day without plastering itself in logos. At Plumpton the tannoy announcements made frequent reference to the course's first Premier event but it felt like any other Sussex National day. Unlike newcomers, aficionados don't need to be told what they're watching.

From the directors' box a thoroughly enjoyable day was observed by Plumpton's joint-owner, Peter Savill, who also happens to be one of the prime movers behind Premierisation. And here's an irony. Savill, who has held secret talks with major players to improve the Premierisation concept, told the Nick Luck podcast recently that all his horses are now trained in France and Ireland. Why, Luck asked. “Prize-money,” Savill replied.

At Plumpton, Savill's son Tom told me they have an interest in a horse trained by Charlie Johnston. Otherwise, Savill snr has voted with his feet while also doubling back with a mission to rescue British racing from its broken business model.

 A £90million funding boost over five years is an ambitious target, if labelling and higher prize-money are not backed up by better marketing and improved racecourse facilities. An overlooked part of racing's great survival debate is that the experience offered by many racecourses has not changed in 30 years. In other sports, what you might call infrastructure investment is far more conspicuous. Dated catering, too few toilets and a lack of comfortable places to sit are unlikely to appeal to a generation not inclined to tolerate a 1980s ambience.

Was Plumpton's jump into the big time a success? You bet it was. But I doubt whether many attended just because someone called it a 'Premier' meeting. They went because Plumpton has charm and always draws a big Sussex National day crowd. 

Maybe Joe Anderson's ride on Transmission was an allegory for racing. You can be hanging on for dear life but recover and still come through to win. Dressing up 170 meetings a year may set off a rebirth. In its very earliest days, though, it seems to lack conviction. The theory will need supporting evidence.


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