WETHERBY STEEPLECHASES 2004/05 JUMP SEASON PRESS LUNCHEON
Wednesday 13 October 2004
PRESENTATION BY GREG NICHOLS
CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF THE BRITISH HORSERACING BOARD
Thank you, Chairman, for the invitation to speak at the Wetherby Steeplechases 2004/05 Jump Season Press Luncheon.
I am assured that Wetherby is the Cheltenham of the north and its excellence as the premier National Hunt racecourse in Yorkshire supports such an eminent comparison. Wetherby is renowned for its quality of racing and when you look around and see the quality of its amenities there is no doubt that Wetherby plays a significant role in the continued prosperity of National Hunt racing. 2004/2005 will be no exception; Wetherby is scheduled to run 18 fixtures and we anticipate that prize money will exceed £1m.
The success of the racecourse goes beyond those two figures alone and its attendances, sponsorship and customer satisfaction are measures of success which are unsurpassed in Yorkshire National Hunt racing. There is no doubt that the professionalism of the Wetherby Steeplechases Board of Directors and strong leadership by Tim Betteridge and his team contribute to Wetherby’s deserved reputation.
In addition to Tim’s management of Wetherby I would also like to commend him on his important role as a director of the Racecourse Association. Tim has advanced the cause of all racecourses but particularly the small independent racecourses that make British Racing the envy of all. Tim’s involvement in racing politics is a generational change that imbues racing with a commercial perspective and commitment to customer service combined with the intense passion and brilliance that only British Racing can provide.
Wetherby is also to be commended on its commitment and participation in the Order of Merit which was announced last Wednesday. This innovation is testament to British Racing’s commitment to Jump racing, the diversity that it brings and the joy that it instils in the British Racing public. This is a contest that will hopefully grip the public and media’s attention throughout the season until its culmination at Sandown Park on Saturday, 23 April 2005 with the Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother Celebration Steeple Chase and the Betfred Gold Cup Steeple Chase.
Wetherby’s participation commences with the bet365 Charlie Hall Steeple Chase and John Smith’s Hurdle Race on 30 October and concludes with the skybetvegas.com Castleford Steeple Chase on 27 December. I implore all owners and trainers to target the Castleford Steeple Chase, this is an illustrious race that deserves our support. The 2003 renewal saw 3 horses contest this historical event with Kadarann winning and Flagship Uberalles runner up. If it is to retain its prominence on the National Hunt racing calendar then it is vital for owners and trainers to support its 2004 renewal.
I mentioned generational change. British Racing is entering a period of change unprecedented in its history. This is more particularly relevant to Flat racing but certainly the promotional and marketing focus for National Hunt racing is as important as the structural change advocated by the Modernisation of British Racing document. Our marketing imperative is to accentuate the best of British Racing but it is counter balanced by the commercial imperative of maximising income for the best utilisation of the horse population. This, of course, can only be achieved in concert with racecourses.
The Modernisation of British Racing is about challenging the practices that have stood the test of time but which, I would argue, are increasingly irrelevant in a very competitive environment. Not only all pervasive football but also rugby union and cricket have all undertaken a reform agenda in recent years and you have to be an Australian in the UK to appreciate the euphoria of England winning the Rugby World Cup last year to understand what a positive impact reform can bring to a sport and to a culture. This is not change for change’s sake. You need greater justification than that for implementing a transformation that takes British Racing into a world of commercial reality that truly appreciates it doesn’t have a God-given right to exist, for punters to invest, for owners to invest and to encourage sponsors, racegoers, corporate hospitality and television broadcasters et al.
We have recently heard it said that narrow band handicaps are the first step to the destruction of the structure of British horseracing. I am the first to admit that there needs to be fine tuning, however, various people’s judgements are clouded by specific instances affecting their own short-term circumstances rather than the facts as they affect everyone. These emphatically show not that this is a sport in difficulty, as the critics would have you believe, but one enjoying considerable success. It is a sport that is on the up and is expanding more quickly than the current system can accommodate, the consequence being that we do not have sufficient fixtures during September and October for the horse population.
The Modernisation of British Racing seeks to shape the future not destroy the fabric of British Racing. We publicised figures last week which unfortunately did not receive the publicity they deserve. They state that runners during September actually rose 20% from 2003 to 2004, eliminations in handicaps dropped by 15% from 1,189 to 1,011 and importantly, the number of horses in training has increased from 9,437 to 10,211 from 2003 to 2004. That last simple fact is at the root of the recent difficulties that we have seen. It isn’t the result of narrow band handicaps being a wrong move, or of BHB’s dedicated team of race planners failing to grasp the situation – but the result of demand exceeding supply. The proposed enhanced Fixture List in 2006 addresses this.
But for now the real focus is getting more fixtures into September and October in the short-term. We are working with the Horserace Betting Levy Board to institute a minimum of 8 additional fixtures in the forthcoming four week span to accommodate the owners and trainers who are frustrated with the lack of opportunity for their horses. We look forward to the bookmakers’ support to help fund this initiative.
This is a portent for the future, following promulgation of the Gambling Bill there will be opportunity for floodlit evening fixtures 6 nights a week. British Racing with its significant income from betting and commercial generation of revenues on our own product must steel itself for the challenge. The 2006 Fixture List will remedy the anomaly of insufficient Flat fixtures. In the interim, in 2004 and 2005, we intend to work with the Levy Board and the Association of British Bookmakers (ABB) in expanding the Fixture List, albeit within the limitations imposed on Racing and the bookmakers by current legislation.
The importance of working in concert with the ABB and its members is not lost on British Racing. If racing is to be truly responsive and understand what one of our most important customers, the punter, wants then the bookmaker and other wagering media must contribute. They can help us by providing us with detailed and timely betting turnover information. We look forward to working with all wagering media to help us in framing a race programme and Fixture List that not only takes account of what the owners, trainers, jockeys, breeders and stable staff all want but, importantly, drives revenues that can only result in greater returns for owners and enhanced facilities, infrastructure and capital development at our 59 racecourses and enriching the customer experience. The ball is in the bookmakers’ and wagering media’s court. British Racing is committed and intent on working with those that contribute to the financial prosperity of the sport. I look forward to the public confirmation of the ABB, bookmakers’ leading members, and other wagering media for their commitment to work in conjunction with BHB and British Racing in enhancing the financial viability of the sport.
British Racing is fortunate that we have a dynamic wagering environment. A dependence on pari-mutuel is not the panacea to the disproportionate financing of our sport compared with other major racing nations, but nor is an unhealthy total reliance on a system founded upon the interests of fixed odds betting businesses. Britain is uniquely placed to embrace all forms of betting, old and new, for the benefit of the punter and the funding of the sport itself.
British Racing is renowned as the best in the world and deservedly so, yet it is only within the last 5 to 10 years that we have seen capital investment and increases in prize money that ensure compatibility with our international renown for excellence. We have achieved greater prosperity for the sport in recent years, yet the challenge is to grasp the commercial opportunity that the Modernisation of British Racing has opened up.
Once again thank you for the opportunity to speak on this auspicious occasion. I close by saying that we enjoy unparalleled coverage of the sport via Racing UK, Atthraces, BBC and Channel 4, dynamic betting models that invigorate public interest in British racing with a consequential impact of augmenting the sport’s revenue from betting, record attendances, an ever-expanding horse population and sponsorship levels.
The health of Jump racing is pivotal to the continuing success of British Racing. Wetherby has a long track record in attracting top-class horses and excellent crowds and I have every confidence that this progressive racecourse will maintain its tradition at the forefront of National Hunt racing.