Ruby Walsh: Making everyone a winner will only end with losers

Ruby Walsh: Making everyone a winner will only end with losers

DUNDALK RACECOURSE: Winter Friday nights there with 14-runner fields is ARC’s ideal product.

In June 2004, British Racing committed to modernisation. It set out a plan to be implemented by January 1, 2006, which would mean everybody in the sport - punters, spectators, racecourses, owners, trainers, breeders, jockeys, stable staff and bookmakers - would be better off.

It was their answer to findings made by the Office of Fair Trading to a challenge made by the racecourses, or RCA, as to who exactly should have the most say over the sport. The BHB, as the BHA was back then, argued that British Racing as a whole, who they represented, was the producer of the profit-generating product and not the racecourses.

The OFT didn’t entirely agree, and a power-sharing agreement, as such, was reached, which saw the BHB retain the reins of governance, but the RCA got more significant control of commercial functions. Crucially this included the fixture list. It also saw the beginning of regional Racing—a product designed for the bottom tier of horses to fill the void for punters and create a daily betting product.

ARC, or Arena Racing Company, realised that regional racing was a lucrative product and, in 2012, merged Arena Racing with Northern Racing to create ARC. It required the smallest investment in prize money, which racecourses contribute significantly to in the UK, unlike here. Still, it had the biggest pool of horses to cater for and generated a vibrant betting product.

Since 2012 their portfolio has grown to over 500 fixtures run at 16 venues. It is a very profitable business run by clever people, but ARC is the biggest winner, and the standard of British Racing has declined considerably in the last 19 years. That is not solely ARC’s fault, but the opportunity they spotted undoubtedly hasn’t helped.

What does any of this have to do with Ireland? A lot, because therein lies the blueprint of how British racing won the race to the bottom. A sport that saw the riches of data and an unlimited betting product, that put commercial interests in front of the health of its sport, and the results are plain to be seen.

Rows over prize money levels, fixture clashes and too many fixtures have led to a scenario where even regional racing struggles to have double-figure fields.

The export of stock just below the top level is driven by demand in the east and Australia because the prize money on offer on the other side of the world means purchasers can offer way more than horses could earn in the UK.

British owners have turned their interests to other destinations. Ireland has been a key benefactor in the National Hunt sphere, but how long will that last if our sport is allowed to put the commercial interests of the tracks before the sport?

Those far-away hills of commercial riches are attracting Irish eyes. The commercial interests for us lie in our media rights deal which has stalled in recent weeks with five racecourses seeking a better deal from HRI, and Dundalk flirting with a sale to ARC.

With our current legislation, HRI holds the aces with fixture and prize money allocation. It is also in charge of negotiating the media rights contracts but is starting to be questioned by racecourses. Individual commercial interests are beginning to be put in front of the interest of the sport.

ARC is unlikely to bid on Dundalk without a guarantee of more fixtures. Friday nights in Winter with 14-runner fields are their ideal product. Better still, if they are all handicaps - that will be their aim. Twice if not three times a week churning out a soulless betting shop product. It’s one HRI won’t want to give with Tipperary’s all-weather track in the pipeline and field sizes in Ireland starting to contract.

Currently, HRI has the power to control the competitiveness of our racing, which makes it worth so much as a betting product. That’s the real truth of a media rights deal: the value of your betting product, because 80% of the money paid comes from the bookmaking industry in one shape or other.

Most people think of media rights and believe that to be TV and print newspapers, but media rights are every piece of data. That includes the sale of live transmissions of every race to many outlets but has the highest value to bookmakers. Live betting shop pictures and streams via bookmaker sites make up most live picture deals. Its worth comes from the turnover each race creates to ascertain the product’s value.

In 2004 nobody saw Hexham running a whole meeting in 2023 that would have 32 runners. A poor day for valuing the product, but you can’t blame anyone for not being able to see that far ahead.

Still, you can look at what’s happening around you. That is why the UK is jam-packed with fixtures on a Saturday because it is the biggest day in the week for turnover. Competitive and quality sport drives the value of Irish racing, but filling our fixture list with races for those horses at the bottom won’t help maintain it. It might help clear a backlog and, if strategically placed, generate good turnover, but how long before we end up like the UK?

Six courses threaten to drag us that way by dividing the value of our product as a whole. I understand the need to give everybody a chance, but creating a scenario of endless opportunities to bolster the purse strings of our racecourses and making everyone a winner will only end with losers.

Saturday may be April Fool’s Day, but this is no laughing matter. HRI, love or hate them, must retain control of all aspects of our sport. It’s not perfect right now. Some things need fixing or helping, but it’s the race to the top we should be in, not the one to the bottom.

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