Behind closed doors – the private Newmarket meeting with Priti Patel
Mike Deasy on who was and who was not at the private meeting between Home Secretary Priti Patel and Newmarket’s elite
There’s a lot to pick over from the “private” visit by home secretary Priti Patel to Newmarket nearly three weeks ago where she met with a number of top trainers.
The visit, first reported in The Guardian, was organised by former BHA chairman Steve Harman, featured brunch at chez Gosden, with William Haggas one of the trainers present, where conversation centred on the parlous state of racing’s finances and what could be done to improve the sport’s income.
The facilitator of the meeting, Steve Harman, has had a low profile since he left the BHA after its board investigated accusations he had a conflict of interest over his contact with Alex Frost, the chief executive of the Alizeti consortium, which since has relaunched the Tote, at the Cheltenham Festival in March 2018. Harman denied there was any conflict.
He facilitated what few others are in a position to achieve, least of all anyone from the BHA who are reportedly miffed by the meeting.
Whilst it was a private meeting, husband and son accompanied Patel (pictured), it still raised eyebrows as it’s the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport with which racing liaises.
The home secretary denies any wrongdoing
Soon after a spokesperson for the home secretary said: “In August Priti and her family, including her young son, visited family friends who train horses in Newmarket. The home secretary denies any wrongdoing.”
A spokesman for a frustrated BHA insisted it was active in this area, stating that its chair, Annamarie Phelps, and chief executive, Nick Rust, had met last week with the sports minister, Nigel Huddleston, to discuss racing’s recovery, and that the topic of income from betting had been raised.
The discussions the BHA has been having with the DCMS have centred on the Levy, a tax paid by bookmakers on the profit they make from horse racing bets, which generated almost £100m in the 12 months to April 2020.
The BHA have been lobbying for the levy to be extended to bets placed in Britain on overseas racing which they say would add £30m annually.
But some see this as not going far enough, and want the levy based on turnover rather than profit which has the potential to add another £60m in annual income. And that was the persuasive argument they put to Patel.
Following the meeting some of those who had met with Patel took part in a group phone call, with the intention of setting out a strategy for achieving change to the way racing is funded.
Subsequently, the group was expanded to include senior racecourse executives, including Martin Cruddace of Arena Racing Company, and elements of the leadership of the BHA.
The Guardian quoted Cruddace as saying: “I was super impressed with how quickly they moved. I think within a few days, they’d formed an inclusive group, had a conversation, started to frame how racing could get levy development back on track. I’ve been more positive about this than anything I’ve been reading about racing for a long time.”
“The case for levy reform has been strengthened by Covid and the implications of Brexit,” he added. “The recovery plan for racing, published last month, commits to make the case to government for immediate reform. It’s vital that the British racing industry has a level playing-field with other racing nations in Europe.”
In the latest development, a spokesman for the apparently usurped DCMS said: “We made significant reforms to the Horserace Betting Levy in 2017 by fixing the rate at ten per cent, and extending the scope to include offshore online bookmakers for the first time.
“The government remains committed to ensuring the levy is administered efficiently so that it can best support the racing industry and we will be working with the Levy Board to achieve this.”
Those involved will be pleased with the progress they appear to have made
Those involved will be pleased with the progress they appear to have made but whether or not it achieves the envisaged goal remains to be seen.
The DCMS will still be responsible for any changes to the levy and a quantum leap from payments based on profit to turnover doesn’t seem likely in the short term.
Adding bets placed in Britain on overseas racing is a more likely step forward albeit that profits can be managed by, for example, using racing as a loss-leader by bookmakers, and apportioning overheads to reduce margins. And turnover of betting exchanges may not be easy to pin down although commission charges might be a basis for calculation.
But what the meeting demonstrates is frustration at how things have been dealt with by the BHA. There are those who want more done and want it done more speedily, so they took matters into their own hands.
What we have is another faction within racing’s stakeholders.
Bring it on
It’s a cracking weekend of racing coming up, especially the Irish Champions Weekend where we particularly like the name of one race – Paddy Power ‘Is It 2021 Yet?’ Stakes
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