Warwick, England (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
Turf Account

Eyes on the prizes

On a dispiriting start to racing’s “Premierisation” era

This article is taken from the February 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

Each to their own, but the prospect of watching four races on a Saturday afternoon with winning prize money of £4,193.42; £4,193.42; £3,247.81 and £3,247.81 respectively — competed over by horses of the calibre you would expect to be vying for such paltry sums — is not one I would describe as thrilling. But that is exactly what viewers of ITV Racing had on offer on the first Saturday of 2024.

That’s a slightly unfair criticism, of course. ITV had not been expecting to cover Newcastle, a low-level meeting which was only added to the mix when Sandown had to be abandoned after a deluge. But it’s only slightly unfair, because the context around both meetings is revealing, and telling, about the state of racing as the sport enters a bright new dawn with a new programme and a new all-singing, all-dancing marketing strategy.

Because it wasn’t just the first Saturday of 2024; it was the first Saturday of so-called “Premierisation”. On Premier race days only two premier fixtures and one core fixture are now allowed between 2pm and 4pm, to help promote the best racing.

I often berate racing’s inability to acknowledge the huge challenges it faces, so I am the last person to knock a well-intentioned idea. It’s certainly got one thing right, understanding that racing needs to be more competitive.

Last year the average field size (flat and jumps) was just 8.17 — it was only 7.73 for jumps alone, not even enough for a normal each way bet. That’s down from over 11 at the start of the century, a decline which on its own tells pretty much the full story of the sport.

If this is the best that racing can do, it might as well pack up now

So it’s sensible that 300 jump races and 20 jump meetings have been removed and prize money improved. Saturday and midweek afternoon fixtures must now have minimum prize-money totals of £250,000 on the flat and £200,000 over jumps.

But if this is the best that racing can do, it might as well pack up now. The British Horseracing Authority boasts that on Premier days “no flat race will be worth less than £20,000 and no jump race less than £15,000”, a claim reminiscent of Austin Powers’s Dr Evil demanding “one million dollars” to save the earth. Prize money is the be all and end all of racing. And our prize money trails everywhere.

In 2020 the average British race value was £16,000 (that average is bolstered, of course, by the much larger sums for Group One races). In Ireland the average was £22,000, in France £24,000, in Japan £53,000 and in Hong Kong £155,000. Even at the top end we trail in last: the average Group One prize is just over £1 million in Hong Kong and £438,000 in Australia. In Britain it is £302,000.

Horses are either sold abroad when they show ability or — as is now almost the norm in National Hunt racing — they don’t even make it here, as they are bought to race in Ireland.

Three words explain why Ireland will dominate next month’s Cheltenham Festival: Irish prize money. This is also a reason why the number of licensed trainers in Britain has dropped to 553 from 666 in ten years.

Premierisation is a step in the right direction, but no more so than the first step I would take competing against Usain Bolt. Just as Bolt would be out of sight within the blink of an eye, so other racing jurisdictions will continue to surge ahead.

Which brings us back to Newcastle on 6 January. Trainer Nick Alexander pointed to one of the iniquities of the meeting (worth a pathetic £54,600 in total prize money) being promoted on to ITV: “That free-to-air coverage will enhance the media income for the racecourse, but how much will be shared with participants?” Talk about opening a can of worms.

Racing — a sport in freefall — has two dedicated TV channels, as well as ITV Racing’s coverage. Sometimes I think banging my head against a brick wall might be more sensible than considering the funding of racing.

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