Racing heavyweights’ plan for radical shake-up of sport too narrow in focus

Several months after the first rumours of its existence emerged in the Racing Post, some fairly sketchy details of Peter Savill’s latest scheme to transform racing’s fortunes emerged this week, suggesting that Savill and a number of other “industry heavyweights” want to “restructure” the Flat and boost prize money and field sizes at the highest levels of the sport.

Savill, for the benefit of younger readers, was a very hands-on chair of the British Horseracing Board, the forerunner of the British Horseracing Authority, from June 1998 to July 2004, a six-year reign that was never dull and, at times, highly controversial.

A vainglorious attempt to demand payments from newspapers for publishing racecards was eventually abandoned when it became clear that the cards – and coverage – would be abandoned instead.

More generally, Savill also pursued the sale of data – on runners, riders and so on – to bookmakers in particular as a potential source of riches for the sport. The plan was eventually frustrated by a landmark ruling of the European Court of Justice in November 2004, shortly after Savill left office, in a case brought by the bookmaker, William Hill.

Savill told Nick Luck’s Daily Podcast last week that he had returned to the fray on racing’s behalf because “I felt that it needed to come from not just one sector of the industry, it needed some general support from across the industry.” The “key players” involved include both racecourses and those closely connected with the horses: owners, trainers, jockeys and breeders.

Savill identified two major problems that need to be addressed: small field sizes, and what he described as “basically a horse drain, or a loss of horses at the top end.”

As Savill sees it, “British prize money has gone up to the point when in 2022 it’s going to be £170m [but] the problem is that all other countries have gone up a lot faster than ours, particularly in America, where betting off-track is now legalised.

“Those horses that are rated in the 80-85 [official ratings] range are getting offers of up to £200k to £250k to go off to America and run straight off the plane and win maidens that are worth $100,000.”

Savill’s answer seems to be a major redirection of prize money towards the biggest tracks and meetings, at the weekends in particular.

This feels very much like what used to be called “premierisation” of racing, with some smaller tracks facing an uncertain future as a result, though Savill insists that the overall number of fixtures would be cut. “I don’t see this as an elitist thing,” he told the Racing Post. “I see this as something that the industry needs to do to identify what its top product is.”

The BHA played the straightest of bats to the news of Savill’s initiative, with a spokesperson saying that “we welcome any proposals from those who have the interests of the sport at heart,” and that the Savill group’s ideas “would be considered as part of the [current] development … of an industry strategy which has the sport’s financial future, prize money, international competitiveness and the appeal of the racing product to our various customers at its core.”

But Savill’s former status in the sport gives his views rather more weight than those of, say, a random racegoer “with the interests of the sport at heart”. And the emergence – or re-emergence – of a form of premierisation as a possible future for the sport does nothing to improve the BHA’s uneasy position as arbiter in the eternal struggle between racing’s actors and impresarios.

In essence, owners and trainers, who supply the actors for the narrative, believe – or suspect – that racecourses are pocketing a bigger slice of the pie than they deserve for supplying them with a stage. The tracks, without which a £3m thoroughbred is just another horse with time on its hands, insist that it’s not that simple. They know what they are doing, times are tough and prize money alone will not pull in an audience if the theatre itself is falling to bits.

This is British racing’s most fundamental structural issue and unless or until it is resolved, simply pushing prize money towards the bigger tracks will make little difference in the longer run. The same arguments will come around again in a few years’ time (though probably in an industry shorn of many of its smaller tracks).

Savill’s intervention this week highlighted serious issues that the sport needs to address, but a narrow focus on prize money and its distribution ignores the unique attractions of British racing that have kept owners, big and small, interested for generations.

The US might have $100,000 maidens but they don’t have Royal Ascot, the Derby, Glorious Goodwood or the Knavesmire, and there is an enduring value in that heritage and prestige.

The US does not have an immensely popular and lucrative National Hunt industry, either, which makes planning from the sole perspective of the Flat feel a little myopic, to say the least. It remains to be see how much, if anything, of Savill’s latest plan for British (Flat) racing comes to pass, but the sport would do well to proceed with caution before embarking on profound changes with unpredictable – and irreparable – consequences.