These are “bittersweet” times for horseracing, says Simon Bazalgette, chief executive of the Jockey Club. Sweet, because while other sports suffer in this economic climate, attendances are rising as many business-minded racecourses diversify and use alternative entertainment to pull in new customers.
Even prestigious Ascot is doing it. This weekend’s race card features the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes plus fairground rides. Boy George is in concert in August, while in September a real ale beer festival may attract those visitors not otherwise drawn to one of the biggest races of the year, the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes.
The first six months of the year saw a rise of 3.5 per cent in average daily attendances. Total attendances were up 2 per cent to 2.8m.
Goodwood, which has enjoyed a 20 per cent uplift in corporate hospitality, is expecting next week’s five-day festival to take attendances from last year’s 91,000 to close to 100,000.
But joy in this industry is in short supply. Earlier this month, the British Horseracing Authority announced it was delaying publication of next season’s fixtures because of funding problems, creating uncertainty among the sport’s 20,000 full-time workers and the 80,000 employed in related industries.
The scale of the problem this week prompted the well-heeled Jockey Club – operator of Ascot, Epsom, Cheltenham, Aintree and 10 other racecourses – to offer some respite. It raised the amount it contributes to prize money – the lifeblood of stable staff, jockeys, trainers and owners – by 10 per cent.
What makes the industry so worried is the marked drop in the annual horseracing betting levy, a statutory duty on bookmakers to give up a percentage of their profits to keep racing in business. According to the BHA, the size of the levy has dropped a third in two years to £77m. The reason, they say, is that bookmakers are exploiting loopholes, most notably by moving their online businesses offshore.
Racing and the bookies, the most irritable of partners, are shaping up for a now-familiar bruising battle over next year’s levy. The BHA has set out its case for a levy of £130-£150m, but bookmakers are prepared to offer no more than £60m.
Nic Coward, BHA chief executive, describes the bookmakers’ stance as “breathtaking”.
Bookmakers point out that the decline in the levy reflects the public’s reduced interest in making bets on the sport. Moreover, racecourses were enjoying an increase in media rights revenues. “This has given them the scope to make the gesture that the Jockey Club has made,” says Patrick Nixon, chief executive of the Association of British Bookmakers.
Mr Bazalgette is among many in the industry who believes the levy, conceived in the 1960s, is no longer fit for purpose. “We should go for a much more commercial mechanism,” he says.
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