The gloom and doom merchants are in their element. Using the current economic downturn as their excuse, they are forecasting dire consequences for British racing, reveling in the situation, which they claim, should have been foreseen many moons ago.
Happily they are wrong. Personal evidence from both sides of the Border over the past month indicates that racing still retains its appeal and that properly marketed, it will survive the recession and emerge a stronger if slimmer industry.
Forget Royal Ascot, Newmarket's July Meeting, York and Glorious Goodwood, flagship fixtures which mint their own money and concentrate on the minor venues, " the gaff tracks".
If the moaners are right, these courses should already be in financial peril. This quite simply is not the case. Musselburgh has recently enjoyed two "sell out" crowds, the first on June 5th- Epsom Derby Day- swarmed through the turnstiles to watch a spectacular day's racing featuring the initial running of the £85,000 Edinburgh Cup. The second- a fortnight later on a Friday afternoon- celebrated Ladies Day, an occasion which, thanks mainly to the untiring efforts of Musselburgh's own marketing arm has sold out for four consecutive seasons.
Similar good news has been reported from Carlisle where the recent evening meeting which highlighted the £15,000 Stobart Rail Trophy, won by Mark Johnston's progressive Capponi, together with an outdoor concert starring Jools Holland, brought in a crowd of nearly 11,000, the first time in its history that the Cumbrian course had recorded a five figure attendance.
Despite a near washout in the early spring the crowds at Carlisle already show an increase of 15% and massive popular support has also been evident at Hexham, Cartmel, Newcastle and Pontefract. The enthusiasm is there. It simply has to be tapped in the right way..... and this leads on to........
The reaction of " the men at the top".
The leading lights of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) are wringing their hands and bewailing the dramatic drop in the income from The Levy, the annual return from the bookmakers' turnover which is the prime source of the sport's funding.
Their immediate response has been to propose a sweeping reduction in the fixture list for 2011, starting with the removal from the calendar of the 250 fixtures which are owned by the BHA and which ironically they were only too ready to auction off to the highest bidder less than five years ago.
The racecourses most seriously affected by this knee-jerk reaction are aghast while there has been an ominous silence from the leading bookmakers who are unanimous in their desire to maximise their betting opportunities and under the system currently in place are paying the racecourses a substantial sum for the use of the pictures screening the live action from their meetings.
The BHA claim that fixtures have to be cut to compensate for the shortage of funding. Over simplifying the matter perhaps they blame the bookmakers for the methods which they have employed to avoid paying their full share of the levy.
The BHA seem to regard the layers as " the devil incarnate". That old cliché about the necessity for using a long spoon to sup with the devil may be correct but " to sup" with him they must surely do as the bookmakers are almost daily expanding their interests in global sports betting and racing cannot afford to ignore this fast growing trend.
Racing For Change!!...
Frankly, I regard this organisation which has to be eating up a lot of money and was the brainchild of the BHA, as little more than a marketing quango whose role should be carried out with equal effect by the marketing executives already employed by the majority of our racecourses.
To begin with the organisation is misnamed. " Racing for the Future" might be more appropriate. Then there is the long established principle that if something works; leave well alone.
Alright, I am probably being harsh in my approach here but from my perspective in the course of their tenure Racing For Change has come up with about three serious and potentially beneficial improvements and arguably the racing authorities or indeed the racecourses themselves could have come to a similar conclusion of their own accord.
The need for greater " media friendly" relations between the sport's participants, in particular its star names, the lowering of admission prices and the widening of ownership opportunities through partnerships, syndicates and racing clubs are the three suggestions which I would endorse.
Ironically the latter method of encouraging racing newcomers into the joys of group ownership by implication also leads, partially anyhow, to the increase in the numbers of moderate horses cluttering up race programs. The very nature of multiple ownership is associated with the purchase of inexpensive horses and one of the main complaints of the gloom and doom brigade is that British racing lacks quality horses.
Obsession with Saturday....
The Melbourne Cup is run on the first Tuesday in November and the whole nation comes to a halt to watch or listen to the race. The Epsom Derby used to be staged on the first Wednesday in June and the Cheltenham Gold Cup is still by a hairsbreadth run on a Friday.
Yet "the powers that be" continue to preach about the necessity to move all our major races to the Saturday, stressing that this is the one day in the week that most people have the leisure time to attend meetings, yet at the same time, turning two blind eyes to the already near saturation point that Saturdays have now reached in regard to alternative sports.
If the authorities maintain this obsession one will have a situation in which there will be an absurd clash of top venues all competing for the crowds and midweek fixtures will become an arid desert.
With this in mind it was amusing to read a timid suggestion that The Derby would benefit from being run on the Friday. The race should never have been moved from its traditional day in the first place!
Race goers need the top jockeys....
Racing For Change, bless their hearts, are absolutely right to emphasize the importance of racing's star names becoming more " available" to the racing public. Mind you, they are not the first to raise such an issue! The length of time that many of our top riders spend on the sidelines serving suspensions is ridiculous.
Race goers will always throng to their local courses to watch a class horse. They are equally keen to welcome the big name jockeys. Names like Frankie Dettori, Ryan Moore, Tony McCoy and now the likes of Richard Hughes and Paul Hanagan act as magnets to the audience.
To leave such charismatic figures lolling on the sidelines is like cutting off one's nose to spite one's face.
Okay, careless riding must not go unchecked but on a sliding scale of seriousness, a system of fines for relatively minor infringements would surely be preferable with the " totting up" procedure abandoned altogether.
The authorities have traditionally swerved this idea on the grounds that suspension rather than a fine is the greater deterrent and that if that threat were to be removed, then the temptation to engage in rough riding tactics to ensure success in valuable races would be too strong to resist.
Understandable, yet the stewards have the mechanics in the rulebook to negate this abuse. Any deliberate or indeed reckless breaches of the riding rules should rightly be punished by suspension. What the jockeys are saying is that occasions of carelessness should be dealt with by a fine. I am with them on this matter simply because I feel that the racing public deserve to see their stars in action as much as possible.
And on the subject of jockeys....
The second half of the British turf season will be lit up by the prolonged and intense competition between Ryan Moore and Paul Hanagan for the title of champion jockey.
Several shrewdies to my knowledge are holding ante-post vouchers at odds of 40-1 and longer about Hanagan winning the title. They are looking pretty smug at the moment with their man past the 100 mark and 16 wins to the good.
The problem about Paul, in the past anyhow, has been his habit of upsetting the stewards and picking up suspensions while Ryan is a disciple of the rulebook and usually avoids the enforced holidays.
To date this time round Paul Hanagan has been keeping his enthusiasm and will to win under severe restraint. Long may this last because he has never ridden better and the whole northern racing fraternity are right behind him in his championship quest. Do not worry about his supply of winners drying up. Not only will his boss, Richard Fahey continue to be a consistent source of success but Richard Hale, his admirable agent, will make sure that trainers of the calibre of Jim Goldie and Kevin Ryan will step into the breach when Paul is available.
And finally to the winners?....
Jim Goldie has two decent handicappers well worth watching. Hillview Boy, 50-1 fourth in the John Smith's Cup at York from the coffin box draw of 22 is a nailing good horse. Follow him religiously. Stable mate Sea Of Leaves, unlucky to clip heels when well fancied for the Scottish Sprint at Musselburgh, is fit again and could yet be a force at Ayr in September.
Looking ahead to that month Dandino has not been entered in the Ladbroke St Leger just to give his owner a big day out at the final Classic. The winner of valuable handicaps at Epsom and at Royal Ascot, Dandino has always been held in the highest regard by his inform trainer James Givem and stable jockey Paul Mulrennan is well up to the job.
At the same Doncaster meeting, the Leger Legends is a fascinating contest in which many of the greatest jockeys of the past will be taking part. The winner though may well turn out to be Tom O'Ryan, a workmanlike and highly competent rider in his time and over the past two decades an outstanding journalist with The Racing Post. Tom rides out daily with Richard Fahey. He won a similar race at York last autumn on Charlie Tokyo, trained by Fahey and he will be on another of the same ilk at Doncaster.