June 10, 2011 5:19 pm

British institutions: horse racing

The sport, always given to bouts of anguished navel-gazing, is more than ever lost in gloom
 
Derby Day

Derby Day 2011

The Queen appeared phlegmatic, which is part of her job description. And she could take comfort in the fact that she had retained something in common with her subjects, nearly all of whom have also never owned a Derby winner.

And British horse racing tried to maintain its equanimity when its hopes of a regal publicity bonanza ended in narrow failure at Epsom last Saturday. It was not a bad old Derby Day. The sun shone; the turnout was respectable; the finish was breathtaking; and a royal winner looked possible until the last few seconds.

Still, there was a sense of anti-climax, which is a familiar feeling on this occasion. The Derby used to transfix the nation; parliament would rise at lunchtime in its honour; until the 1930s it was the sporting event of the year. In 2011, competing against Test cricket and an England football international, it may well have been only third on the day, just like Carlton House, the Queen’s horse.

The decline is partly specific to the Derby, a race with problems relating to its role on the racing calendar. It is partly a problem of flat racing vis-a-vis the winter sport of jumping which, in the British Isles (though nowhere else), has begun to outstrip it in popularity. It is to some extent a reflection of the sport’s global problems, some of them recession-related.

But British racing is in particularly deep doo-doo, and this is not just a question of a sport in difficulties, or even of an industry that affects 100,000 jobs. This series of articles is about British institutions, and the Turf is exactly that, indeed almost the epitome of British life. It is a subculture that, in many respects, has changed little since the 18th century: the silks, the sweat, the fun, the raffishness and the immutable stratification by class. Only last week, Willie Carson – champion jockey turned stud-owner and television presenter – told an interviewer, without irony or bitterness: “I still feel a servant to the aristocracy. I still owe them something.”

Racing, however, is a very peculiar manifestation of the class system. It represents a coalition between the rural upper class and the urban working man, in an eternal alliance against the disapproving ­bourgeoisie. Yet the middle-class Labour MPs who conspired to emasculate racing’s blood brother, fox hunting, also created an uncharacteristically liberal environment for gambling. And that, in a roundabout way, is at the heart of racing’s crisis.

This should be a golden month for racing. First we had Her Majesty’s assault on the Derby. This coming Tuesday, the opening day of Royal Ascot, is due to bring the reappearance of the wonder horse Frankel, the most domineering mammal to appear on TV since the last rerun of King Kong.

But nothing feels golden at the moment. British racing, always given to bouts of anguished navel-gazing, is more than ever lost in gloom. This year marks the golden jubilee of a much newer British institution, the betting shop, and that, arguably, is where the problems began.

In the United States, the word “bookie” is synonymous with small-scale corruption. In Asia, it is linked to large-scale corruption. In Britain, the bookies are at the heart of the financial establishment: the big two, Ladbrokes and William Hill, are in the FTSE 250; the No. 3, Coral, is owned by ­private equity. The No. 4 is privately-owned Betfred. The US government would have the FBI on its case. The British government has just sold Betfred the Tote, which runs racing’s betting pool.

 
Spectators on Derby Day at Epsom Racecourse

Spectators on Derby Day at Epsom Racecourse, Surrey, earlier this month

Britain’s bookmakers are not just respectable: they popularise racing, market it, sponsor it and contribute via the betting levy. They are innovative and successful firms, and the Tote has always struggled to compete. But the decision to sell to Betfred, announced the day before the Derby, was astonishing. It was insisted on by the Treasury, which gains £90m, enough to bomb Libya for several minutes, while exacerbating the fundamental structural flaw in British racing: the flow of the profits the sport generates out of the racing industry and into the betting industry, much of it based offshore.

In most of the racing world, the local equivalent of the Tote is the only way to bet, though some places, such as Australia, have a hybrid system, allowing bookmakers on course (and/or online) but a Tote monopoly elsewhere. A race meeting without bookies is like shopping in the former Soviet Union, but the system allows the tracks to build far better facilities and offer much bigger prize money.

It is, on the face of it, staggering that British racing could not put together a credible bid to buy the Tote for itself. But its component parts can agree on little; if they met for peace talks they would fall out about whether to serve digestives or ginger nuts. Notionally the sport is now controlled by the British Horseracing Authority, a weak body hamstrung by two contentious rulings – by the Office of Fair Trading over its power over the racecourses and by the European Court over data rights. Mainly, things just drift.

Meanwhile, the sport keeps ebbing from ­popular consciousness. Frankel’s brilliant win in the 2000 Guineas in April hardly made it off the racing pages. The BBC now broadcasts just 13 ­racedays a year; Channel 4’s coverage hangs by a thread. Soon horses may be confined to specialist satellite channels. The starriest of jockeys can walk the streets largely unrecognised.

In the days when the Commons bowed to Derby Day, horse racing was just about the only legal means of betting. Other sports made it difficult or impossible. Now you can bet, at the press of a button, on just about anything: the colour of the Queen’s Ascot hat, the name of the next Pope, or whether Denmark will lift the Marmite ban. Who needs the horses? Just guess the hat.

“When there was a foot-and-mouth outbreak in the 1960s, and horse racing was cancelled, there was hardly any point in opening the betting shops,” recalls Graham Sharpe, William Hill’s media ­relations director. “It was about 90 per cent of the turnover. Now it’s half, and still falling.” Racing remains the No. 1 sport in Hill’s shops but online it has been overtaken by football. Even the amount staked on racing – static for years – is in decline.

Modern Britain is punter heaven: hot competition online between bookmakers and the advent of betting exchanges (bookie-free zones that pit buyers against sellers), have actually increased the chances of making a profit. However, someone has to pay for the horses – and prize money is now often lower than in the 1980s.

Michael Harris, chief executive of the Racehorse Owners Association, estimates that the prize money as a proportion of costs – already the lowest in the known world – has just dipped below 20 per cent. “It’s already apparent that the number of horses in training is going down,” he says. Owning a racehorse has always been like tearing up fivers and flushing them down the toilet. Now it’s like tearing up £50 notes. Fortunately, a lot of rich and even not-so-rich people enjoy the process.

“There’s an element of Wolf! Wolf!” says Brough Scott, the former amateur jockey and joint founder of the Racing Post. He remembers a report which insisted that unless bookmakers put £150m into the sport, all the owners would shove off to France. The bookmakers didn’t; and nor did the owners. Even so, the economics of ownership are beginning to shift from the ridiculous to the insane. And the sport finds it ever harder to recognise its strengths, which include a vibrant, varied, matchless ­programme across 60 highly individual, often delightful, racecourses.

On one level, this is the simplest of sports: it’s first past the post after all (no nonsense about ­proportional representation). One group within the industry, Racing for Change, is campaigning for “greater customer focus”, in part to make it simpler. How simple can you make it? On another level, it is unfathomably profound. Contrary to myth, no trainer can know for sure when they might have a winner. Betting on horses thus offers its devotees a constant intellectual conundrum that keeps renewing itself. That’s the heart of its appeal, and it’s un-dumbdownable.

And there are some glimmers of success. The big summer meetings are increasingly popular, ­especially with young women wearing fascinators and little else. These days often now conclude with a concert by Tom Jones or the Scissor Sisters, and I suppose every little helps. Yet in other ways racing has retreated further and further into its own ghetto. “People within it exist in a calendar entirely different from the outside world,” says Scott. “When can we meet? The Wednesday of the Craven meeting? The Thursday at York? The day we’ve got a runner at Wolverhampton?”

When it breaks out into the wider consciousness, the news is usually bad: at the Grand National, two horses were killed and the winning jockey, Jason Maguire, was banned for over-zealous ­whipping, which created a double helping of ­material for the anti-cruelty lobby; last month a group of jockeys were implicated in yet another of racing’s perennial corruption scandals.

Actually, modern racing is infinitely safer than it was. And 93-year-old Sir Peter O’Sullevan, the great TV commentator, insists – almost certainly correctly – that the sport is far straighter too. Where there are bets, there are shenanigans, but these have become far easier to detect. However, this is a sport not only incapable of conveying good news but increasingly finding it difficult to believe in it.

. . .

Nowhere is the inwardness more ­obvious than at Newmarket, British racing’s HQ. The old mining, steel and railway towns have long since ­diversified but this remains its old self, both in terms of its industry and its ­hierarchy. “There’s no middle-class here,” one resident explains. “Which is why the best ­restaurant is Pizza Express.”

At the bottom are the stable staff, increasingly Asian or East European because of the problem of finding British youngsters either devoted or light enough. Their bosses are the trainers. In the US these can be young men with a horse, a bridle and a dream, renting a stall at a track: “glorified ostlers,” Brough Scott calls them. Here they are masters of all they survey, somewhat less brusque with their hard-to-find staff than the old-timers but still impatient with their smaller owners, who are expected to sign the cheques and not offer many opinions. Across the Atlantic, money always talks; here only big money does that. But they do have to make their businesses pay, and that gets ever tougher.

 
Jon Scargill

Racehorse trainer Dr Jon Scargill treats one of his charges to a Polo mint at his stables at Newmarket

Some trainers look and sound as though they are about to sell you a three-wheeled banger; the doyen, John Dunlop, looks and sounds like Prince Philip. The most improbable of the 80 based in Newmarket is Dr Jon Scargill. It is hard to know which bit is more unexpected: the PhD in biochemistry or the ­surname. He arrived as an outsider in a world full of interconnected dynasties in the late 1980s, when his namesake, Arthur, was still the equine classes’ favourite hate-figure. “It’s a common name in Yorkshire,” he insists.

. . .

This Scargill was a beneficiary of a scheme to help new trainers get started: “I’m the last guy standing from that influx. All the rest have died or gone skint.” He was briefly successful in conventional terms, winning the flat season’s first big race, the Lincoln Handicap, in 1994. Unfortunately, he missed the moment: it was his sister’s wedding day. And these days it is hard to find a winner at all. Of his 48 horseboxes, only 12 are occupied.

Yet he gets by, running his operation with his wife Sue and a staff of three. “You’ve either got to be a big trainer with a lot of horses, almost a factory. Or you can be a boutique. It’s the blokes in the middle, with all their fixed costs, who are in ­trouble. There’s no money from training fees [Scargill charges £34 a day, the big boys double or treble that]. You have to live on your share of the prize money or by selling on.”

“We don’t want to scrabble round rubbish ­racecourses on rubbish days in rubbish weather for rubbish money,” says Sue. But the Scargills have proved skilful at taking a profit when they think a horse’s value may have peaked.

And their analysis is shared at the opposite end of the scale. At Clarehaven, on the posh side of town, John Gosden has 148 boxes, 148 horses, 78 staff and a regular stream of big-race winners. Yet his analysis of the problem, and his recipe for survival, is the same as Scargill’s: “You can’t train at a profit, but you can’t run at a loss.” So you win and sell.

For Gosden, the British prize money crisis is more urgent: “Last year I had 550 runners and 110 winners. One horse in one race in Dubai earned more than that lot put together. That’s a pretty stark statistic.”

Notionally, the breeding industry is an adjunct to racing: you breed thoroughbreds to win races. That logic has been turned upside down: British flat racing is just a prelude to the sex. One reason why jump racing is more enticing than the flat is that it produces that elusive goal, narrative. The males are safely gelded and so run into equine middle age. Over the past five years, the battle between Kauto Star (twice the winner, thrice beaten) and his rivals in the Cheltenham Gold Cup has had an epic quality. Flat champions flicker only momentarily across the firmament before heading to stud.

For the flat horses just below the top class, there is a very different future. They may have little stud value but heaps of racing potential. So they are worth far more in big-prize places such as the Far East and Australia. “The process usually starts around the middle of May,” explains Gosden. “Once you get to Royal Ascot, the agents are ­everywhere. There’s lots of racing to come but a lot of good horses will go. Racehorses are an international commodity. You can put them on a plane and ship them anywhere.”

The reality of that is clearest if you are invited into the holiest of Newmarket holies, the Dalham Hall Stud, UK home and base of HH Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, emir of Dubai and also of British horse racing. The aristocracy beloved of Willie Carson has long since given way to Sheikh Mohammed, his brother Prince Hamdan and the Saudi prince Khalid Abdullah.

Their dominance is perceived as almost wholly beneficent and it is hard to imagine where the game would be without them (“We’re three funerals away from a holocaust,” says Jon Scargill) or how it might have developed over the past 25 years had the sheikh instead found delight from yachts, fast cars or crocheting tea cosies.

Even Clarehaven looks like a stable-yard. At Dalham Hall the huge new offices, over-kempt lawns and sterile shrubs look more appropriate for a top-of-the-range Californian software company. It is surprising they allow animals anywhere near the place without potty training. And this is just a fraction of Sheikh Mohammed’s Darley Stud ­business, which has stallions in six countries, and is in turn just one part of his racing empire.

It is awesome, and I was very grateful for the chance to pat the sheikh’s stallion Lammtarra and thank him for my winnings on the 1995 Derby. But even here the cold winds blow. Global bloodstock prices are well down from their heights in the 1990s and the fragility of the UK industry is a worry.

“I know there are people who will bet on two flies going up a wall and who’ll bet on horses ­running at somewhere like Wolverhampton,” says Dalham Hall’s director of stallions Sam Bullard. “But if we don’t maintain the quality of bloodstock in this country, the basis on which this industry is built will crumble.”

It was Sheikh Mohammed who enabled the Queen to have her chance in the Derby by giving her Carlton House as a present (thus earning him the right to pat her arm in the paddock beforehand without being beheaded). But the mood on Derby Day was edgy, and not just for the Queen: the bookmakers’ area had big empty spaces; and over on the Hill, where admission is free, the funfair in full cry and the view almost non-existent, the food vans did a less-than-roaring trade. “Too many caterers and too little business,” says a bored ice-cream man.

Still, there was a touch of the old atmosphere: like a gypsy wedding staged on a seaside Bank Holiday. And the joy of racing is that it breeds a resigned cheeriness: leaving the course I met Len Light from Bournemouth, who has attended 64 of the past 65 Derbies without winning much money. “In the old days there were poor stands, poor food and drink, poor everything,” he says. “It’s so much better now.”

Sometimes the optimism can infect even the trainers. “Why do you do it?” I ask Jon Scargill. “Because there’s no greater challenge than training a horse,” he replies. “It doesn’t mean anything. It’s not going to change the world. But it’s a test of your temperament every day.”

The most telling report of Derby Day, however, was in the Racing Post, which sent reporter Steve Dennis to Windsor to find out if the Queen’s ­neighbours were cheering on her horse. He ­struggled to find anyone who knew anything about it. Even the royal story had failed to stir the ­populace. “Racing had its chance,” Dennis ­concludes. “What a shame anyone failed to notice.”

British institutions: local government

British institutions: the BBC

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