No longer at the races: how the sport of kings has fallen from the saddle

The industry was in turmoil long before allegations of race-fixing hit the headlines last week. Abigail Townsend reports
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The Independent Online

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is racing at its biggest and brashest. The upmarket spa town set amid the Gloucestershire countryside, offers fancy hats and champagne, top racehorses romping home and the fantasy of the long shot coming good. The three-day festival, which gets under way on Tuesday, traditionally marks the start of the racing season.

The Cheltenham Gold Cup is racing at its biggest and brashest. The upmarket spa town set amid the Gloucestershire countryside, offers fancy hats and champagne, top racehorses romping home and the fantasy of the long shot coming good. The three-day festival, which gets under way on Tuesday, traditionally marks the start of the racing season.

But behind the facade, racing is in a mess. The Office of Fair Trading is investigating the British Horseracing Board, the sport's main governing body; two jockeys, including champion rider Kieren Fallon, last week found themselves embroiled in race-fixing allegations; and at the end of this month, a much-hyped £307m media rights deal is set to unravel just three years into what was expected to be its 10-year lifetime.

Elsewhere, the Tote, the state body that operates pool, as opposed to fixed-odds, betting, is being privatised, while the Gambling Bill, intended to overhaul the UK's unruly gaming legislation, is now in front of a parliamentary scrutiny committee.

Yet, rather than pulling together at this pivotal time, racing is at war with itself. "We don't get on, and that's where all the problems start," says one bookmaker. "You have bookmakers, the courses, owners, trainers, punters, who ultimately all take different things out of racing."

Part of the problem lies in racing's heritage. The Jockey Club was set up in 1752 by a handful of wealthy breeders and enthusiasts. As the sport grew, it was accepted that the narrow remit of the club was insufficient, and in 1993 the BHB was born.

This should have been the answer to racing's prayers. Here was a separate body charged with putting racing's interests first, and accountable to the entire sport, taking over responsibilities such as planning, fixtures, finance and marketing.

But in the past few years, the BHB's reputation has become sullied and by April last year, it was under investigation by the OFT. The racing organisation stands accused by the OFT of anti-competitive and monopolistic behaviour, particularly over the sale of its database (the "runners and riders"). It is said to be limiting prize money and controlling the fixtures list.

Much of the blame for the BHB's uncomfortable position within racing has been laid at the feet of its chairman, Peter Savill. One senior industry figure, who once served on the BHB board, says: "The BHB is dominated by a narrow interest group, led by Peter Savill, who has not built bridges with other people - he's tended to do the opposite. He's rubbed other organisations up the wrong way and it's ended up in chaos."

Mr Savill was criticised in particular for initially coming out against the OFT with all guns blazing. The BHB, however, stands by its early aggressive stance. "The first move was to rebut the OFT," says its spokesman. "We felt it was important that everyone fully understood that if the OFT proposals were implemented, as initially suggested, they would be very damaging. We never felt it was the wrong thing to do."

The BHB does, however, accept that racing needs modernising, and is putting together a new structure for the sport. Its stance towards the OFT has softened and it hopes to have a plan in front of the Government body by the summer.

Yet previous attempts to modernise have not always worked out. BSkyB and Channel 4, with Arena Leisure - the owner of six racecourses, including Royal Windsor - realised the value of the sport's media rights, the potential for interactive betting and attraction of a dedicated racing channel, formed Attheraces. In 2001 they paid £307m to secure the media rights from 49 of the UK's 59 racecourses in a 10-year deal.

Yet the deal is now in disarray and - with parallels being drawn with the collapse of ITV Digital's agreement with the Nationwide football league - debate is raging about what went wrong. David James, the chairman of the Jockey Club-owned Racecourse Holdings Trust, which runs 13 racecourses, including Aintree, Cheltenham and Epsom, says: "The collapse of Attheraces is something of a mixed blessing. In one way, I'm sorry that it's going because racing really needs a racing channel. But it's not surprising: the plans were ambitious and the economics did not match expectations."

What happens next is the subject of similar debate. One solution is that courses set up their own dedicated racing channels. Edward Gillespie, managing director of Cheltenham, says: "It would have to be done as a group because we only have 16 race days a year here. We'd be mistaken to think we have the same day-to-day interest as Manchester United. But it is one of the options if enough racecourses are able to put enough resources into a deal."

Attheraces is not baling out, however. An insider says the original deal collapsed because of lower-than-expected revenue from the Tote, and refutes claims that it overpaid. It now wants the 49 courses to agree to a new contract - and less favourable terms - but believes a deal will be struck. "I think it will get done," says the source. "Can racing really afford to turn its back on TV?" If a new deal can't be struck, the Atthe-races channel will go off the air at the end of this month.

The deregulation of the industry is less of a threat than the issue of media rights. The prospect of casinos luring punters away is a worry, but Cheltenham, for example, has just spent £15m building an events and leisure centre. It hopes the centre will allow it to continue making serious money in between race meetings. Next year will also see the Gold Cup festival extended to four days.

Likewise, the sale of the Tote, which last week celebrated its 75th birthday, is now an accepted fact. Concerns do remain - racing wants it sold to a trust, for example, which the bookmaking community is unhappy about - but, overall, everyone is backing the move. "We were cosy and protected within government," says its chairman, Peter Jones, "but I'm a realist in these matters. It was made pretty clear that if we resisted they would make our lives uncomfortable, and that's why we've embraced the process."

Instead, the most potent threat to racing could, ultimately, come from the punters themselves. Around six million people went racing last year, a record high. But people are also finding other things to bet on: around 60 per cent of Coral's revenues, for example, now come from race betting, compared with around 80 per cent just five years ago.

"Racing is in the news for all the wrong reasons at the moment, and there's a feeling that British customers are being turned off," says a Coral insider. "Punters would much rather bet on football. Racing's totally out of touch with the outside world, which just sees the sport as wealthy people scrapping with each other."

It remains to be seen whether the industry is in irreversible decline. But in a sport rife with backbiting and internal conflict, not even the chance of backing the winner in the Cheltenham Gold Cup may be enough to tempt punters to part with their cash. As one insider puts it: "Racing just has this wonderful ability to dig itself into a hole."