BHA Racing Blog | The Fixture List Process

31 Aug 17

With the 2018 fixture list having been published this week the July blog will aim to provide some insight into the process that is followed each year to deliver this. 

2018 Fixture List

The process to produce the 2018 fixture list started in October 2016. This was an earlier start than in previous years due to the need for the BHA to run a stakeholder consultation on funding before starting the fixture list process itself.  This was necessary as with the previous deal agreed for 2013-17 having expired, the sport faced a crossroads with regard to the future funding of the sport. On the one hand, should the government move to implement the Levy replacement, the sport would need to determine how best to spend an additional £8-9m of funding per year.  On the other hand, should efforts to bring about this change have been unsuccessful, the sport would need to face up to enormous cuts, having already depleted all available Levy Board reserves in the last two years in order to maintain prize money whilst income declined.

Fortunately, the Levy replacement has been put in place and we are in a position to launch the package of agreed measures focussed at the bottom end of the sport.

This has meant that we have been free to continue the fixture list process proper as have in previous years, which follows the following steps:

  • Production of initial fixture list framework

At this stage this fixture list features only 1,259 racecourse fixtures, plus fixtures allocated on a longer than one year lease.

Other than the general one day shift of fixtures each year we also have to deal with the complexity of certain fixtures such as Derby Day, 26th-31st December, Easter and Bank Holiday Mondays. These fixtures are not subject to the usual movement of fixtures and mean that we tend to shuffle a few dates around each year to ensure that the pattern of fixtures (and the Pattern of races) makes sense. The process is further complicated by the fact that the gap between the Cheltenham Festival and Guineas is sometimes six weeks long, and sometimes seven weeks long. In the years featuring a six week gap, a home must be found for the “squeezed out” fixtures.

  • Racecourse fixture moves

Racecourses are able to apply to the BHA to swap racecourse fixtures either with other racecourse fixtures or into the gaps in the criteria that we have included at the outset. These moves require the approval of the BHA and some restrictions apply as to what is possible, including a condition that prevents a fixture swapping code or surface without approval and one that prevents the creation of geographic clashes.

  • BHA fixture auction

New for 2018 was an auction whereby racecourses could bid to stage fixtures in certain desirable slots such as 5th Saturday and 3rd Friday evening fixtures.  Approximately £1.2m was bid for 27 slots, money that will be added to prize money in a manner yet to be agreed but likely to support the development of the race programme.

  • Allocation of other BHA fixtures

By now, 1,295 fixtures are in the fixture list. A balanced scorecard is used to evaluate the performance of racecourses wishing to be allocated additional fixtures to fill the remaining criteria gaps that exist, taking the size of the fixture list up to 1,508 in 2018.  Many of these tend to be in slots that are less desirable for racecourses such as early January.  The BHA control the specific dates provided to these fixtures and aim to allocate them in such a way as to avoid geographic clashes wherever possible.

Progression of the fixture list in recent years

As the above highlights, the procedure for producing the fixture list involves both racecourses and horsemen as part of the sport’s tripartite governance structure. This means that making developments to the fixture list is not always straightforward but, nevertheless, a number of significant improvements have been made in recent years.

Pinch points

Implemented in 2015 and following an extended period of an increasing number of races per fixture, this policy limited the number of races that could be staged per card at times of the year when the horse population was unable to sustain the number of fixtures.

Development of Easter

Having been highlighted as a focus area by bookmakers we have developed Easter weekend with the staging of three Good Friday fixtures, including the AWT Championships final at Lingfield Park. Additionally the Haydock Park card on Easter Saturday now stages the final of the newly created Challenger series.

First quarter fixture list

A number of changes have been made to develop this period over the last few years.  Firstly, we set out to ensure that, wherever possible, each weekday is made up of two Jump fixtures and one all-weather fixture.  This can be difficult as there are only so many racecourses that can race in this period and turf constraints mean that their fixtures must be reasonably spaced apart.  Since 2013 the number of days that we have been unable to stage two Jump fixtures has reduced from eight to one, excluding Sundays.

Secondly, this was the only period of the year when we featured no Saturday evening racing on the majority of weekends. From 2017 we added in 11 additional Saturday evening fixtures to this period.  To achieve this without impacting field sizes unduly and remaining mindful of the demands placed on flat yards of a late Saturday meeting we created flat-free Sundays, arranging for two Jump cards to take place each week from mid-January to the end of March.

Post Jump season break

As mentioned above, we do not have the right to move racecourse fixtures form their existing positions without the racecourse’s agreement.  In the 2014 fixture list we did manage to persuade racecourses to facilitate the creation of a short break after the last Jump fixture of the season.  This meant that, excluding the all Hunter Chase card at Cheltenham on the Wednesday, there would now be a four day gap with no Jump racing.  This gap has been extended to a full week from 2018, although the caveat agreed around staging Jump fixtures on the Bank Holiday Monday when it occasionally falls in this period remains in place.

Shift of twilights to evenings

From the beginning of 2017 a trial commenced whereby Thursday and Friday twilight fixtures were converted to evening fixtures, with the majority now commencing at 6pm rather than immediately after afternoon racing.  This change was made on the basis that feedback from remote operators suggested that a later start would be beneficial from a betting perspective and that these fixtures would become more viable for attendees if staged after normal working hours. We will review the outcome of this trial in April 2018.

Lead Fixture Fund

This was a new initiative for the 2017 fixture list and involved the use of a £750,000 pool to incentivise at least one racecourse to stage a £50,000 fixture on Sundays, Mondays and Tuesdays, as part of efforts to improve the quality of midweek racing. The outcome of this was that the number of days not featuring a £50,000+ card decreased from 84 to 52. The initiative has been scaled back to just apply to Sundays from 2018 as funds are used to support new initiatives such as the appearance money scheme.

Northern jump fixture list

Following feedback from northern trainers that the number of jump fixtures taking place in the region in September was insufficient we put in place measures to boost this number.  This included the ring fencing of 2 criteria fixtures and the offering out of a limited number of turf twilight fixtures for northern jump fixtures.  The annual number of northern jump fixtures over the last six years is shown below:

Weak Saturdays

Although some concern exists that the sport has become increasingly focussed on the weekend and efforts are being made to address this, the number of Saturdays that were deemed to be weak was investigated in 2013. As a consequence initiatives were put in place to attempt to improve those Saturdays without two cards of at least £130,000 prize money (partly on the basis that terrestrial TV requirements were generally for at least two fixtures). The outcome was that the number of Saturdays without two such cards was reduced from 22 to 11.

Although the above items give some flavour of the kind of developments made, there is no doubting that one of the most talked about areas of the fixture list each year is the strong Saturday in mid-July.  This features high value cards from Newmarket, York and Ascot and divides opinion as to whether it is the sport showcased in the best way or if it is an embarrassment of riches. Regardless of our views of this day, the fact is that we are unable to make changes to the positions of the fixtures without the racecourses agreeing to do so – we continue to discuss options with those involved but with no end product as yet.

A further area that is unsatisfactory at present is the beginning of the flat turf season where we frequently begin the turf season with a bang at Doncaster and then see a fortnight with very little turf action.  This is a situation that has developed over time but has been worsened by the conversion of turf courses to all-weather and a general reluctance on the part of many turf courses to race at this time of the year in order to avoid the risk of causing damage to the turf and affect fixtures later in the season.  One avenue that we have explored here is moving the Lincoln meeting to later in the year and creating a flat free break at the end of March to mark the end of the all-weather season and the beginning of the turf. Although this is quite an attractive proposition, logistically it has defeated us so far – mainly on account of the Grand National/Lincoln clash that cannot be avoided in many years.  Again, we will continue our efforts to improve this period of the fixture list.

Further fixture list related queries are covered below having been received either via the racingquestions@britishhorseracing.com email address, which goes straight to the BHA Racing Department or via Twitter. 

1. Why does the number of fixtures per day change?  For example, on Sundays there are two or three fixtures, on Saturdays four or five (or even six!), on Mondays and Tuesdays there are three fixtures except when there are two.

The number of fixtures per session is based on betting activity that takes place during that session and is known as the fixture criteria. In the past this has been determined by the Levy Board based on returns from bookmakers but for 2018, the BHA took a more active role in determining what the criteria should be.

In order to understand this we looked at the marginal betting impact of adding a fixture to each session.  The use of marginal impact takes into account any substitution that may occur when adding a fixture in a specific session.  In order to take a full view of the impact to the sport of staging fixtures we also overlaid the racecourse attendance income, media income and a measure of costs to horsemen of servicing fixtures.  The below graph is an example of how we determine, given a limited supply of horses, which fixture slots we should fill.

2. Why are Sundays not recognised as a viable day to schedule decent racing by the BHA? Is there only one day in the weekend at BHA HQ?

Sundays have been a day that we have been focussing on for some time with a view to improving the quality of racing on offer. The impact of various initiatives that have been put in place is shown on the below graph.

One area that has prompted a degree of comment is the scheduling of all jump days on a number of weekends throughout the summer.  Although we are aware that many fans of the sport would like to see flat fixtures at this time of the year, a collective decision was made by the industry to provide occasional blank days for flat yards throughout the busy summer period – given the difficulty of doing so on days with evening fixtures, flat free Sundays were the only way to achieve this.