On my long plane ride back to the States this week, I thought about what I learned during my two-week racing adventure in the UK and Ireland with the University of Louisville's Equine Industry Program.
I learned that while our racing industries differ in some ways, they face a lot of the same issues. Declining foal crops, decreases in betting handle, competition from other forms of gambling, weak marketing efforts – a day didn't go by without mention of the same concerns with which the U.S. industry struggles.
For both industries, responding to the challenges will require efficiency, creativity and a broader perspective.
Renowned trainer John Gosden told us he only builds wooden stalls these days. “It's not worth it” to build fancier facilities with the decline in the foal crop. “I learned in America that Grade 1 horses come out of wooden stalls, too” he said. Efficiency.
The managing director of Cheltenham said the race course is considering a partnership to build a soccer stadium adjacent to the track, which might offer the possibility of attracting new fans to racing. Out-of-box thinking, he said.
Almost everyone we spoke to talked in terms of the international scene. They are paying close attention to what's happening in Asia and other emerging markets because the racing industries that seize the opportunities in those markets will be successful in the long run. Thinking big-picture.
In a way, it's easier for an industry like Britain's to tackle its problems. The ship is steered by one captain – the British Horseracing Authority. Several people on our tour said the BHA is always concerned about image, about how the customers (bettors) perceive the sport, something that may sometimes take a backseat in the U.S. The BHA is quick to make examples of jockeys, trainers and others who violate the rules. It doesn't matter who you are. Frankie Dettori's recent suspension, which coincided with intense media coverage of whip usage, is a prime example.
On the other hand, while many U.S. racing fans and industry players clamor for a commissioner or a central authority, there are benefits to having a decentralized system. California and New Jersey can experiment with betting exchanges if they like, and if it works, other jurisdictions will surely follow. In Britain, when one track recently said it would severely restrict whip usage, the BHA said woah, you can't do that without our say-so. A centralized system has its drawbacks, namely the stifling of new, potentially rewarding ideas.
Perhaps what I appreciated most about visiting the race courses, stud farms and training operations in the UK and Ireland was the thoughtful nature of the people running them. The attention to detail is consistent and remarkable. Nothing is left to chance. “My primary goal is to eliminate risks,” said an assistant to trainer Brian Meehan. The horse's well-being is always top of mind, whether that be in the training yards where ventilation and air flow are of primary importance or on the grass gallops, where great care is taken to build foundation and prevent unsoundness. Training horses in their natural environment – on the farm as opposed to the track – seems to me an advantage in keeping the equine athlete healthy and happy. The fact that trainers need land – and not just stalls at a track – to ply their trade also sets a bar for getting into the training business.
There is disdain in all corners for the culture of medication perceived in America. I already knew this, but I was surprised just how strongly people here felt about the “weakening of the breed” as John Gosden put it. They don't tolerate unsoundness. At one prominent stud farm, our guide told us horses with the slightest hint of proclivity for unsoundness are shipped elsewhere.
There is, however, some unsoundness in Britain's system. The Betting Levy, which is a primary source for the racing industry, is entirely reliant on the betting handle of private bookmakers. If the bookies choose to seek their profits from non-race betting – and recently they have been – there isn't much the industry can do about it. Several people said they preferred Australia's model, where the bookmakers only operate on-track, and the pari-mutuel tote handles the rest of the wagering. Something will have to be done if revenue from the Betting Levy continues its decline.
Despite the financial issues the industry faces, horse racing is still prominently on the map in the UK and Ireland. While rural horse-centric areas like Newmarket face threats from development, horses and horse racing still play an obvious and treasured role. Newmarket is Lexington and Saratoga rolled into one, a place where this racing fan felt as though his passion truly mattered.
This visit only heightened my appreciation for the beauty and grace of our sport. Morning gallops on a wide-open plain, horses sprinting on a woodchip course cut through the woods, a field of brightly-colored jockey silks charging down a lush green stretch, mother and her Sea The Stars foal in a rolling pasture, the majesty of great stallions like Galileo – my mind's eye is filled with images I shall always treasure.
Or at least until the next time I invade England and Ireland.
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