Firstly a thank you to the ROA Council for inviting me to address you today.
Just sitting there, it struck me that your agenda for the rest of today reflects three important elements of this great sport; the serious business of racing, a bit of fun – and of course lunch.
I am very pleased to be speaking to you in what is my first public speech of this kind – there have been a fair few in private. I have been in my new roles, as Chief Executive of racing’s governing and regulatory bodies, since the end of February, and it has certainly been a busy few months. In addition to the day to day, and the final preparations for creating the new organisation, the British Horseracing Authority. I have been getting out, listening to and learning from people from all corners of British Horseracing. It’s a great privilege to be involved, with so many people with such great passion and enthusiasm, in building racing’s future.
This is of course the first full day in a new era for Britain – and there will be many more important speeches than this delivered today as Gordon Brown settles into 10 Downing Street.
Partly because of this political change, in recent months there has been a fair amount of debate about what makes Britain, what is Britishness, and where we want to be as a country. There may well be more today.
For Racing this debate is vitally important; not just lunchtime table talk. With society, the economy, changing at great pace, there is a major challenge for British Horseracing to fully understand where we fit – where we want to be – in modern Britain. Much has been written about the phenomenon that is Royal Ascot, and whilst it is interesting to look at the forces that shaped that great racing event, the issues we face run much deeper and wider, and impact on the whole of racing.
As a nation, it is said, we can be an unruly bunch; sport-loving, risk-taking, fun-seeking, we enjoy a great day out, we are entrepreneurial and like to have a gamble – ask people why they want to work in the City. We put on a great show. We are international in outlook, welcoming, open to change, and up for a challenge.
All of these are coupled with having at the same time a very strong spirit and tradition of “fair play”. We like to know there are clear rules in place, and have a deep respect for the rule of law.
It’s clear to me from my many discussions over recent weeks that those same characteristics can just as easily be used to describe British Horseracing. And the reasons why to a great many, including the leading figures from the world’s major racing nations who we hosted last week, British horseracing is the best in the world.
Sport runs through the heart of British society, and goes a long way towards shaping our sense of Britishness. I was certainly well aware of this in my former roles in football and with other sports. But the analogies between Racing and the characteristics I’ve outlined are perhaps clearer than with any other sport.
Racing has a unique capacity to attract people from all backgrounds, and the sheer range of people who go to racecourses and participate in the sport eclipse any other leisure pursuit. Andrew Marr summed this up, following a visit this year to Cheltenham by questioning whether he should return to the Festival wearing a trilby or a nose stud.
Or perhaps both.
The democratisation of racehorse ownership is an example of this change, with success stories not confined to royal families and the old elite, but also to partnerships of friends, colleagues and like minded people up and down the country. It is one of our roles at the British Horseracing Authority to promote the sport to the new participants of the future. We – the ROA being a key part of this – must persuade the “eye-poppingly rewarded folk” observed by Alastair Down at Royal Ascot to get involved. We will always have great stories to tell, so many to tell, and must do all we can to spread them far and wide.
This brings me on to what the British Horseracing Authority is here for, and the job that you have entrusted us to carry out on your behalf. Within a month or so, we will be formally up and running as a fresh start for the sport.
As I said upon joining, we will have one simple test in all of our work: what is best for British Horseracing? We are here to lead, to represent, to regulate and to promote British Horseracing. And we are here to listen. The British Horseracing Authority will not have the inbuilt representation and consultation routes that exist in the BHB. It is very important to create the channels which ensure that the sport and all those with an interest in its successful future can convey their views. We must be connected to the sport and the industry as a whole, through formal and informal processes. The ROA involvement at the Chairman’s meetings will be an important part of this process, as will a revamped role for the long-established Industry Committee.
BHB stood for Racing shaping its own future. It had a vision for Racing’s future – a strong vision. It was dealt a severe blow by, perhaps, those same forces in Europe that the Minister for Sport has had to face up to in the last few weeks. The BHB team are people who care passionately about the greater good of the sport, and these strengths will continue under the British Horseracing Authority, unhindered by sectional interests.
Similarly, in a short space of time the HRA has established itself as a regulator of the highest order. Professionalism and the highest standards of integrity are also key themes for the new organisation. The HRA, and the Jockey Club in the lead up to its formation, has been defined by a constant desire to improve the regulation of the sport and to increase the regulator’s transparency and accountability.
These are two sides of the same British Horseracing Authority coin now.
How will we go about our role? Importantly, by being independently-minded. We will be dynamic and responsive, challenging and open. We will be strong, and not flinch from taking the tough decisions when they are called for. We will earn trust and respect by showing it.
We certainly have plenty of challenges already upon us, and many more on the horizon. We face the challenge of change – social change, market change, competition in betting markets, welfare challenges.
Racing has a rich history, a well-earned and long-standing reputation for sport of the highest quality and the most intense passion and drama. Our terms are embedded within the national vernacular, our metaphors part of everyday conversation. We must not squander all that we have inherited, and will rightly be judged by future generations on how we reacted to the present day challenges.
The first weekend in June saw us receive media coverage that most sports or major events crave. Similarly, with Royal Ascot last week – to receive that amount of coverage for an event is the stuff of dreams for most sports. There were great stories to tell.
But there is no doubt that the media gaze will be of an altogether different nature come the autumn. As with any sport or business we have to send out a clear message of what we stand for – integrity is key. It has to be a given that any instances of cheating, any attempts to cheat the betting public, will simply not be tolerated. We are not alone in this challenge – for those of you who bought the No. 1 bestseller, Freakonomics, on holiday but have not got round reading it yet, I suggest you do or at least those pages where the economist author proves that any system faces the challenge of cheating – from sumo wrestling to teachers marking exam papers. Racing has the rules in place and has invested heavily in a security department to be a deterrent in place. We will not shy from investigating and acting where we see fit. But the team at 151 are not alone in facing this challenge – and it is up to all of us to meet it head on.
Our share of betting turnover has declined as competing betting products have proliferated. Racing does not have exclusive rights to punters’ attentions. We are also competing in many other markets, from luxury goods to leisure and entertainment.
Broadcasting and the media industry as a whole is experiencing unprecedented change. As sports content providers we are ideally placed to seize upon and make best advantage of this change. People should be able to dip in and out of our sport, or immerse themselves in it. Sports like our have real significance to businesses that constantly change, modify, define; we have to be open to that same need for change.
A major challenge will be working out how we can all change the minds of people who are currently closed to the idea of partnering with Racing – getting behind the views of absent blue-chip sponsors is high on this list.
It is against this backdrop that the British Horseracing Authority decided to start a root and branch review of the Fixture List which takes place, as our first major project – even before we exist. It’s through the fixture programme that we address many of our challenges.
British Horseracing means different things to different people. It is a sport, a foundation for racecourses’ business and a betting product. It may well be other things besides. Just as I have outlined what the British Horseracing Authority is here for , to you the owners the question is “why are you involved”? Is it the thrill of ownership and racing opportunities? Or Prize Money? For breeding? I’m sure it may be a combination of these factors, plus others, but in the current climate we cannot necessarily have our cake and eat it. Before we can reach conclusions about the shape that our sport should take, we need to understand the real motivations of those within it – and of those we want to attract. We need to make decisions based on facts and information, not assumption and guesswork. Racing people can be amazingly optimistic – they can also swing to the other end of the spectrum. Our role is to make sure that this does not translate into denial.
Alongside this, look at the incentives – the financial incentives – to underpin the fixtures – and the sport as a whole. We have set this running.
We have asked for initial responses to the questions we propose to base the Fixture List review around by the end of tomorrow, with the review in earnest taking place over the summer. Those who have views have the means to address them in a way that can help get things right. The constructive input of the betting industry is vital; and the message is very much that we need to get it right for both of us. There are many more areas in which we should be working together as well, not least as we are also witnessing political change with attitudes potentially hardening towards gambling in general.
There is perhaps even more said and written about marriages and relationships than politics and Britishness, and what makes a good one. Opposites attract, apparently. There are some in the sport who say that betting and racing are at the extreme opposites, but we have a deep relationship, whether those people like it or not. There are disagreements, fundamental fallings out even in commercial partnerships and over half way through our 5th decade together, British Horseracing is a world leader, as are Britain’s betting operators. To me, that demonstrates that it is more than possible for our two industries to work together to create benefit for both. It’s vital. A fair return to racing from all sectors of the betting industry will always be a fundamental aim, but a modernised relationship also requires genuine partnerships and a mutual commitment to maximising racing’s attractiveness, and the attractiveness of betting on racing.
An early message in the review is that preserving and perhaps enhancing the quality of British Horseracing – the best in the world, with 7 of top 12 Flat races run anywhere – is a priority. While Jump Racing can be said to be thriving, are we collectively making the most of the jewels within our Flat racing programme? There is a sense that we are not. Sports need narratives. Successful sports have got there by focusing in on the sport itself, and asking what the fans – the customer – wants, by creating a compelling total package and promoting it with relentless zeal. We need our stars to come forward; we need to bring to life the fabulous complexity of Racing for people now. To do this will require joined up thinking and the collective will of racing, committed to an outcome for the overall good of the sport.
We face a welfare challenge, and must continue to set and pass stern tests. This applies to horses and people alike. As Paul said back in January, the welfare of our participants should be uppermost in everything that we do.
On the human side, restricting jockeys to riding at nine meetings a week during the core summer period is not unfairly or unreasonably restraining trade, but borne out of a desire to listen to jockeys, move away from unrealistic working schedules and prevent burnout. We are not operating as a nanny state in this area, nor with regard to making the wearing of body protectors mandatory for all stable staff – if racing is about risk taking, it’s our role to ensure a balance.
Our first major appointment will be a Director of Equine Science and Welfare. On horse welfare, we must demand the highest standards of ourselves. To those extreme activists who seek to score cheap points in the media with ill-informed comment, our response is that this is a sport populated by people who love horses, and who understand the vital need for an intelligent and informed approach to animal welfare.
So there you have it.
British Horseracing is serious fun. And the best in the world. There are a huge number of positives – racing is an important part of British life. But we face a great many challenges. I am up for it. All of us at the British Horseracing Authority will be up for it and I know that the ROA is too.