Racing Report: February 2024

04 Mar 24

In this blog, Richard Wayman, Chief Operating Officer at the BHA, analyses some of the key areas within our refreshed monthly data pack for February.

Two months into 2024 and it would be fair to say that our latest analysis of racing data, which is now available, is a bit of a mixed bag. That is not entirely unexpected as the elements often have a big say on how the sport fares at this time of year and a clearer picture will undoubtedly begin to emerge as we move into the spring.

20 Premier Jump fixtures were scheduled in January and February, and 5 of those were abandoned. At the 15 Premier fixtures that went ahead, 52% of races had at least 8 or more runners; that compares with 53% in 2023 and 47% in 2022. That masks significant variation with the four Premier fixtures staged at Cheltenham and Kempton (two each) attracting at least 8 runners in only 28% of races. At the other eleven Premier fixtures, this increases to 61%.

With the Levy Board having agreed to increase the funding of Premier fixtures by £3.8m in 2024, it will be important that races at these meetings have larger and more competitive fields as the year progresses. Our elite product has a central role to play in attracting and retaining customers and fans, hence the significance of Premier fixtures consistently delivering an appealing product. The increased investment in prize money also has an important role to play in seeking to reverse the recent downward trend in the number of higher rated horses running in Britain, which is inevitably having an impact on field sizes at Premier fixtures. This is a key area of focus within the industry strategy but will, of course, take time.

The aim for more competitive racing obviously applies across all fixtures and you may recall that changes for 2024 included that we’ll programme 300 fewer Jump races throughout the year. It is therefore disappointing that at Core Jump fixtures in January and February, there has been a decline in race competitiveness compared with the same period last year; the number of races attracting at least eight runners has fallen from 57% to 53%.

This decline has occurred despite the fact that 59 fewer Jump races have been staged so far this year. However, there has also been a decline in the number of Jump horses in training. The latest numbers from February show that horses registered by their trainers as either Jump or Dual Purpose are 3.9% down compared with this time last year.

Fewer horses in training will clearly have had an impact as will the ground conditions following one of the wettest Februarys on record. In January and February, 74% of Jump fixtures have been run on ground described as soft or heavy. This compares with 31% in 2023 and 53% in 2022. As the going begins to improve, plenty of horses will return to the racecourse and we expect that the impact of scheduling fewer races and other changes we’ve made to the race programme will have an identifiable impact on the competitiveness of Jump races.

It is a different story on the all-weather, with 73% of Flat races attracting fields of eight or more during the first two months of the year. This is up from 67% during the same period in 2023 and 65% in 2022. Indeed, you would have to go back to 2007 to find a higher percentage of Flat races hitting this target.

This increase has occurred despite staging 31 more Flat races in the first two months of 2024. This rise in race numbers is directly attributable to changes to the policy for dividing races, with the threshold for divisions lowered from 18 declarations to 16. As a result, there have been an extra 29 divisions. 78% of those divided races have ended up with at least eight runners and this has avoided 117 horses being eliminated, so that policy change has clearly been a success.

Total prize money across the entire sport has increased by £300k to £17.7m. Flat racing, which has included four higher value Sunday evening fixtures as part of a six-fixture trial, has benefitted from an increase of £900k. The total prize money at those four fixtures was over £600k and, whilst these meetings had been moved from elsewhere in the fixture list rather than being new fixtures, they have clearly played a part in the prize money growth on the Flat.

Prize money at Jump fixtures, however, has fallen by £600k. Whilst Jump Premier fixtures have increased by £900k, the returns at Jump Core fixtures have fallen by £1.5m. As previously mentioned, there have been 8% fewer Jump races staged but that is only part of the story, with the average prize money per race at Core Jump fixture declining from £11.3k to £9.7k.

There are a number of reasons behind this decline including that half of the additional funding allocated to boost Premier meetings was reallocated from Core meetings. It is worth reiterating that this reallocation was agreed with the aim of growing customers and, therefore, revenues that will ultimately benefit all levels of the sport.

In addition, changes have been made to realign the race programme to the demands of the current horse population with this often involving dropping the race class and therefore reducing the prize money of a race. Another significant factor has been that the policy of allowing racecourses to programme additional races if they offered total prize money at a fixture of at least £75k in the first three months of the year was not repeated this year. That change was part of our wide-ranging attempts to make Jump racing more competitive and, therefore, more appealing to our fans.

Our expectation is that the drop in average prize money at Core Jump fixtures will be at its greatest in the first three months of the year and that this will get smaller from April onwards. In addition, when the horse population begins to grow and allows an expansion in race numbers, we will want to consider how this can help drive increased prize money investment at Core meetings to better support those competing at these meetings.