Not long for this world? The winner of the Grand National at Aintree this April

The final furlong

Horse racing is in existential crisis

Turf Account

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

It started with my father, who would deposit me in the library on Saturday mornings so he could go and put his bets on. I would then walk to Mecca Bookmakers and wait for him outside. (I was once asked as a tie-breaker in a kids’ general knowledge quiz, “Where is Mecca?” My answer, Northwood Hills, was met with a glare).

We would discuss the form, the jockeys, the ground. He’d take me with him to Windsor, Ascot, Newbury, Newmarket and so many other courses. I was captivated. Nothing else was as exciting.

Fifty years on, I am as in love with it as I was back then when Lester Piggott was known as a jockey, rather than a criminal, and a woman had yet to ride in the Grand National, let alone win it. But magical and romantic as it remains in my mind, the part of my brain that deals with reality tells me something very different.

Racing is dying. It is an industry calculated as worth £4.1 billion a year to the UK economy, and supports tens of thousands of jobs. And it is run, in the main, by duffers who would struggle to make under-manager in a hay factory and who possess not even the most basic understanding of how they and their sport are viewed by the world around them. 

They see the Cheltenhams, the Derbys and the Royal Ascots and they slap themselves on the back at the success of their “product” and their fools’ paradise continues.

The anti-gambling ideologues have racing in their sights

Racing is beset by crises, each one of which is enough to cripple it. Let’s start with the gambling review, due soon. A core proposal is said to be that anyone who loses between £100 and £1,000 a month betting — some say the trigger will be merely staking that in a month, even if you win — will prompt an “affordability check”, with bookies having to scrutinise bank statements and other financial documents before a decision is taken on whether a punter meets the criteria to be allowed to continue placing bets.

This will cripple licensed gambling — which is precisely the intention. The anti-gambling ideologues have racing in their sights because they can see how easily it can be toppled. Racing receives around £80 million a year from the levy paid by bookmakers. 

Go after the bookies — and who is going to stand up for bookies? — and you get racing, too. The threat is existential and imminent and racing is clueless politically as to how to counter it. 

The fight is being left to the bookies, which is worse than useless as many MPs have already been persuaded by campaigners that the betting firms are rapacious villains that need to be stopped.

But to add to the mess, racing’s own structure is falling apart. Without owners, there are no races. Owners spend over £672m a year on training fees and bloodstock. Yet less than two per cent of owners even come close to covering their costs. 

Fair enough: it’s a sport and to have winners you have to have losers. But prize money is a joke — one category of race has just £3,000 total prize money — and getting worse in relation to other countries such as Ireland and France.

A study in July 2020 predicted a 20 per cent fall in owners by 2025 and a 15 per cent fall in horses in training — an immediate financial loss to racing of £124m. 

That forecast was, of course, before the current economic mess. A Cheltenham championship race this year had just four runners — all Irish. Racing seemed to react with a collective shoulder shrug, when the sensible reaction would be panic. A Cheltenham race with four runners! How can you not see something is wrong? 

There was a similar story with the dire card that opened the turf flat season at Doncaster in March, with just eight horses in the Spring Mile. I’ve not seen an age profile of owners, but I’d be astonished if it wasn’t increasingly heavily skewed to the over-60s, just as racing more widely is retreating into its comfort zone. Many leading owners are, literally, dying and not being replaced. 

Racing is — or should be — in the entertainment business. But when some of the crowd at Cheltenham had a sing-song after the last race, much of the reaction on racing forums and social media was one of disgust at the plebs who didn’t understand how to behave on a racecourse.

There is no reason why racing should die. It has everything to thrive. Everything, that is, except the will.

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