Ralph Beckett: Paying the consequences [H&H VIP]

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  • Occasionally I am asked which racecourse I would choose to take someone who had never been racing before. My answer will always be Goodwood. The place has a fantastic atmosphere, is well laid out, and has views that are without equal.

    It is said that you cannot see another house from the grandstand, and invariably the racing is of good quality, even on an ordinary weekday. It is a place that combines tradition with a relaxed attitude to its many customers and is very well patronised as a result.

    All of which makes its decision to drop the 170-year-old race title, the Stewards Cup, in favour of a one-year deal with sponsors 32Red.com all the more bizarre. This decision raised precisely £5,000 in prize-money and managed to enrage so many factions that the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) has moved to ensure that no such thing ever happens again to any of the historic race titles, handicaps or otherwise.

    What I find so extraordinary is that neither Goodwood nor 32Red.com thought anything of it, and carried on regardless.

    Having said that, nothing courses do these days surprises me. The reality is that despite seeing themselves as such, they aren’t actually stakeholders in the way that football clubs are to football.

    They are venues, pure and simple; they provide a field for the owner to run the “product” (horses) around, with facilities attached. The punter provides prize-money through the Levy that is taken from the bookmakers and racecourses top it up with just over a third of what they receive in media rights.

    One might ask if they aren’t stakeholders, how did the tracks get hold of all the media rights money? The answer is that for 200 years racecourses were kept out of the way racing was run and financed and the sport was better off for it.

    However 10 years ago, thanks to the major bookmakers calling in the Office of Fair Trading to investigate a deal BHA chairman Peter Savill had put together to replace the Levy, the unforeseen consequence was that racecourses were given more autonomy. At the same time they went behind the BHA’s back and did a deal with the bookmakers over media rights.

    The combined result means the sport has been paying for it ever since. Our prize-money is still a bad joke and will remain so for a while yet, partly because of the power the racecourses hold.

    Strong sales figures

    It is only as a result of having the best bloodstock in the world, because of the investment and foresight of breeding operations such as Coolmore and Darley to produce the best stallions, that we have the strongest of all resale markets.

    This holds the whole sport together. Last month’s Tattersalls July Sale is a case in point. Anything in the sale rated around or above an ordinary mark of 70 made upwards of £15,000.

    It was without doubt the strongest horses in training sale I have ever attended. Horses that could have been bought out of selling and claiming races for £6,000 during the previous month were making twice as much and more to go to race in the Middle East.

    Anything that is owned by the smaller owner and performs at a higher level is subject to offers almost every week. If they are miler/sprinter colts and geldings, the Far East snaps them up. Stayers go jumping or to Australia (there have been none bred in Australasia recently) as Melbourne Cup hopefuls, and breeding stock goes worldwide.

    All of which begs the question “what are you complaining about?”

    Not much, is the answer — it’s a great business.

    Ralph’s column was first published in Horse & Hound magazine (7 August, 2014)