Racing: Growth in attendance points to turf's health

A bullish bulletin emerged from the British Horseracing Board yesterday as its leaders prepared to meet their critics at the Office of Fair Trading face to face on Monday, four months after the OFT issued its Rule 14 notice to the turf's ruling body.

"Racing is on the up," Greg Nichols, the BHB's chief executive, said and produced some impressive figures that showed that prize-money reached record levels in 2003 and that racecourse attendances were at their highest for half a century.

That prize-money rose by 12 per cent from 2002 to 2003 to reach £94.1m is an achievement, but it could have been more according to Nichols.

"Reaching the £100m mark is an aspiration which I believe will be realised in 2004," Nichols said. "We would have reached it last year if we had been able to avert the horrendous scaling back of prize-money by the Levy Board." Last July the Levy Board announced a shortfall in income which resulted in cutbacks of £6.05m for the final four months of 2003, and reduced prize-money at some courses.

Peter Savill, the BHB chairman, called the owners' boycotts which took place last year in response to the lower prize-money levels "insulting".

"We tried to make a number of overtures in order to head it off but neither racecourses nor the BHB were ever to blame," Savill said. "I thought the strikes were insulting to the progress that has been made and unfair to the racecourses.

"There was £6m in cutbacks due to the shortfall but racecourses put in £1.2m at very short notice and they deserve a major pat on the back."

Attendances topped six million for the first time in over half a century, with 2003's total of 6.02m up 8 per cent on the 5.56m of 2002. Nichols continued: "It is easy to overlook that British racing is one of the few sports which can honestly say that it is getting stronger and better as each year goes by." Then came the political broadcast: "This progress is the result of the sectors of the sport working in conjunction with a strong governing authority," he said.

The threat that the OFT has laid down to that "strong governing authority" is what concerns Nichols and Savill. The latter confirmed yesterday that talks aimed at reaching agreement with the OFT are to recommence on Monday, with the BHB leaders joined in the negotiation by the independent director Martin Broughton, who is expected to take over the chairman's role when Savill's term comes to an end in June.

The BHB also released a list of seven key points that will be addressed with the OFT, which mark a softening in the attitude of the Board. Of particular interest is the willingness of the BHB to allow racecourses to have a say in the sale of data to bookmakers. "Data is the largest income stream that racing has and the BHB currently controls it," Savill said. "We have to show the OFT that we will not prevent the racecourses from operating freely for their own commercial gain."

Meanwhile, claims that the BHB Summer Triple Crown is to be scrapped after just one year were denied, but hardly in the strongest terms. "To say that it has been scrapped is both premature and wrong," Alan Delmonte, the BHB's director of communications said. "We said when we launched it, it would run for a year and then there would be a review of how it worked. That review is still going on."

Racing in brief: Beef on the way back

Beef Or Salmon has recovered from a setback and is on course for the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Michael Hourigan's charge was suffering from a bug when third to Best Mate at Leopardstown last time. "He's grand again now and back in work," his trainer said yesterday.

Andrew Thornton hopes to ride at Newbury today despite twisting his right knee when El Hombre Del Rio, whom he had pulled up in the novices' chase at Leicester yesterday, shied and dropped him as he cantered him back.

Russ Garritty was suspended for four days for using his whip with excessive frequency on Sylviesbuck, winner of the handicap chase at Sedgefield yesterday.

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