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Backing horses

Britain should value a homegrown success story

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

In Britain, like much of the rest of the world, football reigns supreme. But what is our second sport? Cricket? Rugby? Darts?

In fact the answer, based on the crowds turning up to watch, is horse racing. Around six million people attend the races every year. Among them are people from across the social classes and 40 per cent are women — a healthier gender (or is that sex?) divide than in many sports.

Horse racing is a British sporting success story

Horse racing is a British sporting success story. Four of the top ten races in the world are held here, more than any other country. Although prize money is generally lower here than elsewhere, British races attract the best horses. And Britain has some of the finest trainers as well as horses — including modern legends such as Frankel and Enable.

Like all sports, racing is a business, and it brings huge economic benefits. The industry is estimated to generate £4.1 billion in direct, indirect and associated expenditure every year. Around 100,000 people are employed at racecourses, training yards, breeding operations and the betting industry. 

And the benefits are mostly felt in rural and semi-rural communities. In Newmarket — in West Suffolk where I am standing to be the next Member of Parliament — racing brings more than 7,000 jobs and generates hundreds of millions a year for the local economy.

As so often with Britain, part of the draw — especially for international racing fans — is the history and tradition. Racing in this country dates backs more than three centuries, and thoroughbred racing was first created here.

The association with royalty only adds to the prestige. Charles I raced horses at Newmarket in the seventeenth century. Queen Anne founded Ascot racecourse in the early eighteenth century. Horses belonging to Elizabeth II won every classic except the Epsom Derby. And this year the King attended all five days at Royal Ascot, where he saw Desert Hero, bred by his mother, win the King George V Stakes. Later he went to Doncaster for the St Leger, where his horse finished third.

And yet this success story is strangely neglected. To those who do not know the industry, it can appear something of a caricature, with horses selling for millions, breeders paying hundreds of thousands for a particular stallion to cover a mare, and aristocrats and royals prominent in their patronage of the sport. But the reality of racing is that its future is more precarious.

Many breeders and trainers operate on tight margins, and any conversation with them turns quickly to prize money. A horse that wins a top tier British race increases its future breeding value, but the immediate return is limited compared to Australia, Ireland and France, where racing benefits from government support, and Japan and the United States, where there is simply more money in the sport. 

The prize fund for the Dubai Turf, for example, is £4.5 million, and the All-Star Mile in Australia, £2.7 million. The Queen Anne Stakes at Ascot — a like for like comparison — offers only £600,000. Owner expenditure far outstrips the total prize money up for grabs in British racing.

This is down to how the industry is funded. In Japan and Hong Kong, where betting is generally banned, there are exceptions for horse racing and some other sports. This means proportionately more bets are placed on horse racing than elsewhere, and in both places, the industry controls the gambling.

In France, prize money is underwritten by the Pari Mutuel Urbain, which enjoys a monopoly on betting. In Australia, where prize money has almost doubled in a decade, it is funded mostly through a betting tax. In Ireland, more than two thirds of prize money comes direct from the Irish government. 

In Britain, however, the system is different. Here the funds come from media rights and executive contributions from racecourses, owners’ entry fees, and the Betting Levy, which is a ten per cent tax on bookmakers’ profits from bets placed on races staged within Britain. There is clearly little scope for Britain to adopt a Japanese or French model, but there is a strong case for the levy to be reformed, so it applies to bookmaker turnover, not just profit, and is imposed on all bets made here, regardless of the location of the race.

Another challenge is the regulation of gambling itself. As ever with regulation, this originates from the best of intentions — to end the suffering caused by problem gambling and addiction — but the solution proposed in the gambling white paper published in April this year is disproportionate.

There is little appreciation of the difference between gambling on racing, or other sports, and fixed-margin gambling online and in casinos. The “affordability checks” it envisages — supposedly frictionless and carefully targeted — risk driving many casual punters away (as my Critic colleague, Stephen Pollard, rightly argues in his Turf Account). All to the detriment of the racing industry, and the enjoyment, employment and prosperity it brings to so many.

For this is indeed a sport for the many. Racing in this country has a glorious past but to make sure it has a future we need those in authority to cut the complacency. We are still the best in the world — but only by a nose. 

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