From the desk of the ROA President Rachel Hood
The possibility of a reprieve from closure for Hereford and Folkestone doesn’t remove the fact that racecourses generally are now becoming increasingly vulnerable to the effects of a new commercial environment in British racing.
The levy system has contributed greatly to some racecourses surviving when, without fixture subsidies, interest-free loans and the like, they would have disappeared many years ago. Now, with the future of the Levy Board itself far from certain, racecourses will have to stand entirely on their own feet and, at this point, only a policy of complete transparency regarding racecourse media rights payments will be acceptable to horsemen.
In those days when the levy’s income topped £100 million and the board’s largess towards courses seemingly knew no bounds, the ROA was often critical of what we regarded as a subsidy culture. But, now, our welcome to this new world has to be qualified, because it gives us no satisfaction to see racecourses close.
The diversity of British racing is good for the sport and good for owners. Turf racing is fundamental to the British scene but it clearly requires having many racecourses. A country racecourse is invariably supported by a group of regular owners and trainers who are happiest when racing their horses at their local track, not least because the costs of travelling horses are lower. A racecourse like Hereford is also part of the fabric of the community, helping to support the local economy.
As racecourses enter this new era, it would be nice to think that those which put on the best racing entertainment in terms of quality, competition and field sizes will naturally have their futures assured, but this will not automatically be the case.
Under the current Levy Board, it is right that almost all of the funding it provides for racecourses is compulsorily spent on prize-money. But when it comes to discretionary spend, a racecourse draws primarily on money from media rights and gate money, both of which are largely dictated by the number of fixtures it has and when those fixtures take place. These key factors, however, are ultimately dictated not by the racecourse but by its historical fixture list, although the legal ownership of a fixture has never been properly established.
One of the lessons to be learnt from the recent news about Hereford and Folkestone – irrespective of whether they survive – is that the BHA has to be much stronger in the policy it adopts on fixtures when a racecourse closes. If a racecourse group knows that it will automatically be able to distribute fixtures from a course that it closes to others within its group, this may well influence closure decisions.
Hereford racecourse is owned by Herefordshire County Council and leased to Northern/Arena. After news of its imminent demise, there was an automatic assumption that Hereford’s 13 racecourse fixtures would be absorbed by the group to run at other Northern/ Arena venues. Whilst much will depend on the wording of the lease agreement, the BHA should question this, particularly as there are a number of other courses leased by Northern/Arena from local councils.
In a perfect world, when fixtures are lost as a result of racecourse closure, they should be sold to the course making the highest bid for those fixtures.
If Herefordshire County Council, now working with horsemen and racegoers, are successful in their endeavours to save the racecourse, there would surely be no question that Hereford should continue to be allocated fixtures.
The Herefords and Folkestones of this world may not be able to deliver the levels of prize-money and facilities that owners should expect at higher-grade venues, but they help to make British racing what it is. Yes, racecourses must face up to a new commercial reality but we also have to create a broad geographical mix of fixtures and venues that are right for owners and horsemen.
14 September 2012