As U.S. racing struggles to bring in younger fans, boost wagering, and improve rule uniformity, French trainer Criquette Head-Maarek says the European racing industry is facing similar issues.
Speaking from her base at Chantilly, Head-Maarek said the French industry is in a dark period she hopes is just part of the cyclic nature of the business.
“They're struggling with the attendance. For big days it's ok. It used to be very good. Fifteen years ago, it used to be a big crowd [every day]. Now, during the week if you get 2,000 people, you'd be lucky,” she said. “We try to bring young [people in]. But in this country, people go on weekends. They leave on Friday, and are gone Friday-Saturday-Sunday.”
In France, she believes decreased attendance (and with it, decreased wagering) is more a symptom of social and governmental policy than competition with other sports. In 2000, the country passed a law limiting the full-time work week to 35 hours instead of the previous 39, with the rationale this would stimulate hiring and better divide labor. Instead, Head-Maarek and others have observed an increase in the unemployment rate (which is around 10 percent nationwide), and for racing, fewer people in town over the weekend.
Although medication rules are more or less the same between European countries, Head-Maarek said other rules of racing, particularly those regarding blinkers, tongue ties, and other equipment, need updating.
“What I'd like is to make all the racing rules the same in every country in Europe,” said Head-Maarek, who is president of the French Trainers' Association. “Everywhere where we go in Europe there's different rules. It's a very, very long process and I don't know if we're going to get there. In other sports, when you play football or rugby, the rules are the same in America, England, France, wherever you are.”
Head-Maarek also worries French tax policies are driving owners and trainers out of the business and hampering the careers of young trainers. The VAT tax rate in France rose from 7 percent in 2012 to 20 percent at the start of 2014. Head-Maarek estimates the work riders in her yard pay around 30 percent of their income to taxes. As their employer, she pays an additional 75 percent of their salaries in taxes and social programs contributions.
“It's crazy. Ten percent of the population is out of work, and that's never happened in this country, never. The time is bad,” she said. “We have to hang on, but it's very hard. I hope the government will go away and the one that comes in will be easy for racing.”
The withdrawal of owners has created challenges for young trainers, too. Head-Maarek has seen several of her assistants open their own yards and struggle to get horses despite good win records. Owners with the biggest pocketbooks are already settled with trainers like Head-Maarek, so up-and-coming talents must wait for their predecessors to retire. Until then, there aren't enough horses to go around.
“The government we've got, they're hopeless. The only thing they know, it's to tax people. It's not only in racing, it's everywhere. If you've got a factory, it's the same. They raise the tax all the time. They don't do anything else than raising tax. We've arrived to a point that it's really hard to work, because you work for the government,” she said. “They haven't touched the prize money yet, but we're not sure that in the coming years, they won't have to lower the prize money and that would be very bad. In Europe, the best country to race is here prize money-wise.”
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