Racing to the exit?

There is an unusual amount of negativity around racing at the moment with some even questioning its prospects of survival. Optimists will suggest that racing has survived world wars, depressions, recessions and all sorts of upheavals over the past 250 years and it will continue to do so. They are probably right but racing needs to get its house in order.

Below are ten issues and outline solutions to these problems. I will keep my thoughts on racings dreadful environmental record for another post…

1.Small field sizes– Recent stats have shown a reduction in field sizes (although they tend to be smaller in the Summer months regardless). This is more of a UK problem as the less congested Irish racing calendar sees greater demand for starting berths with balloting a regular feature of Irish racing.

Conclusion- fixable (eventually)

This needs

a)better race planning that matches race types to the abilities of the horse population.

b) Britain needs fewer races and to stop allowing the bookies to determine fixtures. The convuluted levy system has the tail wagging the dog when it comes to fixture setting.

c)Prize money and appearance money to offset travel costs could also help.

d) Breed sounder horses….. The reduced soundness of horses leads to a consistent decline on average starts per horse. Germany has a requirement that stallions were sound and never raced on medication (there is a good article on the subject at https://www.thoroughbredracing.com/articles/2147/country-where-stallions-who-have-ever-had-lasix-are-disqualified-breeding/ ) . In the UK and Ireland, breeders prioritise speed and precocity over soundness. We have a host of stallions in the UK and Ireland who do not transmit soundness yet attract three figure books of mares and breeders seem in thrall to first season sires..Racing insiders need to look in the mirror before blaming all of this issue on the fixture setters. When did you last see an advert for a stallion that referenced average runs per offspring? Breeders need to start breeding horses that are good for racing not just the sales ring….

2. UK levels of Prize Money

UK prize money is derisory and uncompetitive globally. It has been for decades. For most owners, horse racing isn’t an investment but a hobby. In terms of Government support, it is difficult to win an argument that more State supports should go to funding prize money for the relatively affluent. In Ireland the begging bowl/special pleading to Government has been more successful on the basis of the importance of the wider industry to the rural economy.

Conclusion: fixable but not readily.

There is no magic money tree to provide more funding for prizemoney- it needs to come from owners, bookmakers, media rights, racecourses or Governments-someone needs to pay more…The UK pie clearly needs to be resliced to see more directed to prizemoney from other stakeholders. No one wants to pay more and previous efforts at reform (in particular getting more from bookies under levy reform) have come up short. I wouldn’t hold my breath expecting change but an improved BHA could deliver on this front.

3. Interference Rules

The UK rules are not fit for purpose and encourage interference. There seems to be little risk of disqualification unless the margin is a head or less.

Conclusion: Easily fixed

Revised guidelines that give the benefit of the doubt to the victim of interference rather than the agressor. Disqualifications and severe penalties for dangerous riding will end this problem.

4. Whip concerns-

Animal welfare advocates view racing as cruel and the idea of using a whip on horses is abhorrent for them. Rebranding as a ‘pro-cush’ sounds daft to many horse folk, but it’s being done to placate a different audience who could do long term damage to racing. Most racing people are perhaps unaware of how some animal welfare groups portray racing on social media (see for example https://www.peta.org/issues/animals-in-entertainment/horse-racing/ ) . This is the accepted narrative for many non-racing people. Some US legislators seem open to greatly restricting racing and its worth remembering that greyhound racing (a comparatively similar industry) is now banned in 42 US states over welfare concerns.

Conclusion: Fixable-

It may seem like capitulation to the ‘enemies’ of racing but racing will have to seriously consider banning the whip or restricting its use exclusively to circumstances where a safety issue is involved for jockeys (controlling a wayward horse). From a PR point of view, the whip is ironically a big stick with which to beat racing. Racing will adapt without the whip and life will go on…

5. Declining Attendances-

Lots of tracks have shown declining attendances post Covid. Racing struggles to attract a younger audience and is still predominately a white male sport (pale, stale and male)…

Conclusion: Fixable

There have been lots of reports, marketing plans, committees, taskforces in various countries on this issue. It is a marketing issue- there is a good product (if rip off prices, poor catering, toilet facilities etc are resolved) and racing is a fascinating sport on many layers that can absorb and entertain. There is a glamour and aspirational element to racing that should be utilised and gambling is part of the attraction for many. I wrote about the poor effort at marketing the Irish Derby https://www.montjeu.com/saving-the-irish-derby/ but there are other examples of what can be done to reverse the slide such as https://www.racingpost.com/news/more-than-4000-at-downpatrick-in-midweek-so-what-are-they-doing-differently/568067 . Incidentally, I think the fact that children are no longer allowed to bet on the tote (whilst undertandable) has removed the gateway that started many peoples interest in racing…Bring back underage gambling – it never did us any harm:)

6. Reduced number of trainers– There has been an ongoing reduction in the number of licensed trainers in Ireland. There were 805 trainers in 2007 and we now have 577 (363 public licence and 214 restricted licence). This in itself may not seem like a concern but a wider spread of stables and trainers allow more people exposure and access to racing.

Conclusion: Not so easily fixed.

The desire to send horses to big name trainers means owners are eschewing the smaller trainers who can provide a real personalised service and behind the scenes access. In Ireland we have an unhealthy concentration of resources between Mullins/Elliott in the NH sphere and the O’Briens on the flat. It might be anti-competitive but regulators could look at having a maximum number of horses allowed per stable. The growing concentration of resources with a smaller pool of trainers for me is like the takeover of the retail scene by the multiples and not something to be welcomed.

7. Staffing Issues

Most trainers are lamenting the lack of competent staff, particularly work riders

Conclusion: fixable but not easily

There is no magic wand to suddenly find hundreds of capable and committed stable staff and riders. Accommodation issues compound the problem. Staff shortages are not unique to racing but are now apparent in most service industries. Trainers have improved staff conditions and there is a notable upturn in the wages available but it hasnt solved the problem. Staff can point to anti-social hours and weekend work, the physically demanding nature of the work and the general lack of career progression opportunities which are areas that can be worked on. Stable design and process changes could improve efficiencies as basic stable mucking out and feeding regimes are still labour intensive and little changed in centuries. In the short term bringing in overseas workers seems the only solution and this needs a political will to issue lots of working visas for stable staff. That should be interesting with the current anti-immigration hysteria so prevalent in UK politics..

8. Regulatory/ Structural Issues

In Ireland we still have the private gentlemans club that was the Turf Club (rebranded as the IHRB) running many aspects of Irish racing. It takes large chunks of State funding but is not subject to Freedom of Information legislation and is largely unaccountable. It should be absorbed into the HRI as a first step towards transparency and accountability. I don’t know enough about the BHA to comment on its performance but I’m assuming it is not as bad as Twitter users state but open to improvement on a number of fronts. Racing needs competent leadership in the HRI and BHA and I haven’t seen anything inspiring in either jurisdiction in recent years.

9. Welfare Issues

Images of mistreated/emaciated former racehorses are obviously hugely damaging to the industry. A proper system for rehoming horses needs to be put in place.

Conclusion: fixable but not easily

Animal welfare standards in racing are in general exceptionally high. Animal cruelty cases are rare and not condoned by anyone in the industry. Blanket Veterinary restrictions on racehorses being sent to abbatoirs cause problems with horse disposal. We need to look at how to deal with horses no longer suited to racing or breeding . There have been excellent initiatives involving the retraining/ rehoming of horses and these need to be properly supported. As an occasional syndicate member, I always hope that former horses end up in good homes but it would be preferable if there were a proper industry scheme guaranteeing a proper home for any ex-racehorses. This can be funded by a levy on owners/breeders or perhaps voluntarily supported by one of the super rich people who inhabit the sport. If 3,000 horses were supported each year at a keep cost of c. €5,000 each that would be €15 million per annum which should be fundable by the industry given the importance of this issue in emotional and welfare terms.

10. Drugs/Doping

The biggest single issue threatening the integrity of the sport. The media may have moved on after Jim Bolger’s comments shone a spotlight on the issue but it is still unresolved and corroding the sport. The circling of the wagons and the lack of support given to Jim by his fellow trainers and industry figures was dispiriting. Nothing to see here- please move on seemed to be the wish of many old and young farts in the industry. Doping is not a new phenomenon nor is it unique to horse-racing. Athletics, baseball, tennis and especially cycling seem to be unable to rid themselves of drug cheating. US racing has an even bigger problem as its training regime rely on the use of a range of medications regardless of medical need eg Lasix. The evidence revealed in the Servis and Navarro cases showed the ease with which designer and undetectable drugs were available . Why does anyone believe in Irish (or UK) horse racing exceptionalism? There are the same incentives to cheat as elsewhere, the drugs can be relatively obtained and in many cases they cannot be detected. Why wouldn’t a trainer use them? Why wouldn’t a breeder or consignor give hormones to a yearling to ensure a better price at the sales ring? In both cases you would be very unlucky to be caught and you can usually escape meaningful penalties by blaming inadvertent use/ a mix up of medications or getting your vet to take the rap.

Conclusion: Not fixable but can be improved

Over the past decades we have had eGH (equine growth hormone) EPO, cobalt, milkshakes, micro dosing and God knows what else.The cheaters are usually ahead of the regulators and testers. By the time testing is in place for something, the cheaters will have moved on or developed masking techniques. Our regulators are stuck in a misguided belief that by simply doing more tests, they are doing their job. In truth they will most likely just get more negative results as the testing regime is limited in what it can reveal. An alternative approach is needed, based as much on human psychology as pharmacology.

Catching people requires better information and targetting. Unscrupulous vets and some alternative practitioners (such as John Warwick) seem central to some of the cases that have been uncovered.

A) Cutting out this element of the supply chain would be a huge win.

B) Target trainers who utilise these vets.

c) Target trainers who have sudden changes in strike rate or abnormal strike rates.

d) Look for protocols with the veterinary regulators that would see vets struck off for the inappropriate supply of medications.

e) Look for patterns of horses going for long lay offs.

f) Introduce a focus on non race day testing.

All of these changes should help but I fear they won’t be enough.

If you are serious about stopping it, you need better information. Its difficult to see the Gardai in Ireland or UK police (who haven’t a good record in racing investigations) devoting resources to surveillance or indeed having the powers that allowed the FBI to catch Servis et al.

g) Racing needs to put in place financial incentives to counteract the incentives to cheat. A large bounty (€50k+) for each conviction should incentivize some to blow the whistle on what they may know or have witnessed. The culture of omerta might start to crumble. It would be the best few million that the sport could spend. As Mark Twain said ‘two people can keep a secret if one of them is dead’ and there are nearly always other actors involved.

h) The different forms of doping need different approaches. Doping to lose (nobbling) is relatively rare although in Ireland we are still waiting on CCTV in stable areas ?

Therapeutic use of medication and pain killers is often legitimate and necessary but sometimes abused. Our testing regime only seems good at catching people who made a mistake over the correct withdrawal period for medication.

i) Where our regime falls short is in detecting performance enhancing drugs that are only detectable for a very short window but which leaves long term benefits to the horse in terms of muscle mass or endurance. You can’t test every horse on every day so information is key to dealing with this problem…

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