Rein in these attacks on British horse racing

Rein in these attacks on British horse racing

Imagine if the next time you go and buy a lottery ticket, the person behind the counter asks for your bank statements, P60 and passport. They would tell you that the National Lottery needed them to decide whether you can “afford to play”. But only after someone you have never heard of looks through your personal information. 

You would probably say that it was none of their business how you could afford to spend £10 a week on lottery tickets. Perhaps you’d even tell them now you wouldn’t bother. The charities and sports that benefit from lottery funding would lose income and you would do something else with the money. 

Luckily for you that isn’t the case. Because no one would be that stupid to impede such a flutter, which is just a bit of fun. 
Sadly, however, in the week of the Cheltenham Festival, we need to wake up to the fact that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is planning just such a ridiculous measure for people who wish to bet online on horse racing, even at some of the lowest annual levels. 

Quite rightly, the racing world is concerned. Over the many years I have been involved in the sport, I have never seen a subject that has united owners, trainers, racecourses and bookies. But this crackpot policy has. 

The Government’s own figures suggest that racing could lose close to £15 million a year, but more extensive research by the British Horseracing Authority suggest that it is more likely to be closer to £50 million. That’s the equivalent of almost £1 million a week that can’t be put towards much-needed prize money. 

I am also perplexed why a Conservative Government wishes to promote a policy so intent on telling people how to spend their own money. 

The Cheltenham Festival showcases the best of jump racing, but beneath the surface all is not well in racing. The international competition has hotted up and we are not keeping up in terms of the sums awarded in prize money or in good racing opportunities for owners and punters. 

With around £246 million distributed in 2023, France leads the field in terms of prize money, as well as breeders’ and owners’ premiums, and maintains the best ratio of keep and training expenses to prize money per runner in Europe. The average prize per race in Britain is £16,000, but in France it’s £24,000, and in Japan it’s £53,000. 

Japan and France have state monopolies on betting, so it is inevitable that there will be some differences. In the UK, given that bookmakers handle £13 billion of bets a year on horse racing, we instead have a state “levy” on bets placed by UK punters. After settling bets, bookies make about £1.2 billion. 

It isn’t a bad deal. But it isn’t enough, and not nearly enough income is flowing into prize money at less glamorous meetings than Cheltenham and Ascot. Today’s owners don’t mind spending on the sport they love, but they also want to know that, if they win or are placed, they can at least cover their costs.

Lower income matters because it affects all of racing, from the “stud farms to the finish line”. Breeders and auctioneers see more and more of our best horses and foals being exported. You might say that increased exports are a good thing and, in the short term, they might be. But what they also represent is the slow loss of those bloodlines that represent centuries of British horse racing. This means that our pool of leading horses to breed from is draining and, in the longer term, we are already seeing a drop in quality in some races accompanied by a drop in numbers.

The result is smaller fields, lower prestige and less competitiveness, which leads ultimately to lower income. The number of jump horses running with a rating of over 130 has dropped by 35 per cent since 2021. Quality matters from an integrity and animal welfare perspective as well. No one wants to see horses entered just to “make up numbers”, trailing at the back or getting hurt.

Racecourses welcome five million people a year, attending 1,400 fixtures. Racing supports over 80,000 jobs and raises £300 million for the Exchequer. Four of the top 10 best-attended sports events held annually in the UK are major horse-racing festivals. 

It is time the Government took horse racing seriously. Rein in the Gambling Commission and its interference, reform the betting levy, and help restore the UK to being the best in the world for equine sport.

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