BHA fluffs its lines in whip debtate
These scribblings have already commented on the call by The Times sports writer Matthew Syed for racing to ban the whip. They can be encapsulated as sensationalist and ill-informed.
Sadly, the BHA’s reaction was less than polished.
They responded to Syed’s article, saying they strongly disagreed with the assertions it made. So far so good.
The BHA’s chief regulatory officer, Brant Dunshea, then said on Racing UK’s Luck on Sunday: “the padded whip, if used in accordance with the rules appropriately and properly, is not a welfare issue for us but that doesn’t mean we don’t take on board what has been said externally, as well as listening to our stakeholders”.
But, in an earlier conversation with a BBC journalist, the BHA’s chief executive, Nick Rust, said that next month a new structure for penalties and deterrents for whip overuse was going to be announced.
Dunshea had to do some quick explaining. There was, he said “some confusion around the point [Rust] was making”. Indeed, there was an interpretation which the BBC journalist arrived at which was that the BHA had a long-term strategy in place to see the end of the use of the whip.
As there hadn’t been any consultation with racing’s stakeholders regarding this matter, more than a few feathers were ruffled, and some behind the scenes placatory dialogue took place to help smooth things over.
Whatever the BHA’s stand is, it needs to have all its ducks in a row, have everyone singing from the same hymn sheet and rein in its loose cannons, however senior they may be.
Striking the right balance
A few months ago, high-roller bookmakers Fitzdares published a list of up-and-coming 35 under-35s heading for good things in racing.
The list was somewhat ridiculed as the profiles of those included was thought not exactly inclusive – “toffs” could be an apposite description.
One name which was absent from the list but which has suddenly been propelled to one of racing’s most high-profile positions is that of Tom Kerr, 31, the new editor and director of racing content at the Racing Post.
He takes over from Bruce Millington who occupied the editor’s chair for 11 years, a tenure which saw him divide opinions, largely as he was perceived by some as not being a horse racing man, and because the Post appeared not to carry the banner for punters experiencing closed bookmaker accounts or restricted stakes.
It’s true that Millington’s background was greyhound racing, where he worked in a track’s racing office, before joining the Sporting Life where he became sports editor. What he was was a newspaper man, and that was probably deemed a key skill for running the paper.
However, as a columnist his pieces on racing invariably steered clear of the technical aspects of the sport. It can be argued that the likes of Julian Muscat ably dealt with such matters.
But the one area where it was felt his views, and the weight of the Post, were not directed was the difficulty punters experienced in being able to place a bet at the price they wanted to the stake they wanted.
It was, critics said, because the Post cosied up to bookmakers from whom it received a sizeable proportion of their revenue.
The risk of sacrificing that income by being critical of bookmakers is a commercial reality. Indeed, it’s difficult to find any high-profile racing content provider who rallies to the punters’ cause because they are, in all probability, owned by a bookmaker – Timeform and the online Sporting Life spring to mind
As James Willoughby said on Racing UK’s Luck on Sunday, those in “ivory towers” should understand the commercial realities and challenges of running a newspaper where bookmakers’ advertising spend is a key factor in sustaining the business.
It was noticeable in the past year, however, as bookmakers faced criticism from all sides, including a panel of MPs taking evidence from members of the racing industry, including Millington, that the Post seemed more confident in putting its head above the parapet to comment on the punters’ plight.
Now Tom Kerr is in charge and, whilst he’ll be fully aware of striking the right balance between offering constructive criticism and maintaining the support of bookmakers, it will be interesting to see if he pushes the cause a little bit further.
We’ve seen how bookmakers can take umbrage when they are accused of failing to meet the expectations of other components of racing’s commercial framework. Witness those bookmakers who were deemed unapproved partners of the sport for their lack of levy contribution from offshore betting. Cast adrift, they removed their race sponsorships and some, like Betfred, have not come back.
What will be significant is if Kerr continues his Friday column. Until he became editor, he expressed the personal views of a columnist. Now such views become the position of the Racing Post and the weight which that entails.
He’s already warned that racing needs to be aware of the public perception of the use of the whip. He did not advocate that it should be banned, despite an unhelpful front-page headline, ironically the work of the then editor, but he did say that racing might one day have to consider whether or not it should still be used for ‘encouragement’.
And that’s where we came in.
The first icy blast of shop closures
The news, when it came, that the Arena Racing Company was cutting its prize-money budget next year by £3m sent shockwaves through racing.
But it should not come as a surprise. The slashing of the maximum stake for FOBTs in betting shops from £100 to £2 would, the sport was warned, result in the closure of many betting shops. Arena are thought to have budgeted for 1,000 such closures.
And, when each shop closes, that not only means people lose their wages and suppliers lose their turnover. It also means that racecourses lose each shop’s contribution to their media rights income.
Arena, a company with shareholders, has made provision for just that. Others will deal with their reduced revenue to their best abilities.
The sad thing is that media rights revenue is reliant on contributions from retail outlets. That was fine when betting shops seemed to be a prevalent and increasing presence on the high street.
But as campaigns were fought to stem the opening of betting shops, and the reduction in FOBTs meant many shops would close, money coming into racing would be severely reduced.
There are two elements of naivety here. First, the reliance on income from the payment of media rights from the embattled high street and, second, not realising the consequential impact for the sport on prize-money.
Sometimes owners and trainers need to appreciate the fragility of racing’s finances. It may anger some that Arena have cut their contribution, but it is the first icy chill to be felt and it’s going to get colder.