Racing: Low expectations from Savill's regional venture

The division of racing into three levels, with the titles Premier, National and Regional racing begins its year-long experiment this weekend, having already created many more divisions within the already fractured ranks of the industry.

The scheme, created by a nine-man British Horseracing Board committee and announced and endorsed by the BHB's chairman, Peter Savill, last April, is designed to squeeze every possible penny out of the betting public by adding 70 more levy-producing fixtures to the calendar to fill every gap in the bookmakers' growing schedules, seven days a week, day and night.

These gaps will be filled by the least expensive form of racing to produce, Regional racing, which is in no sense regional but simply receives the lowest amount of funding. These regional meetings will begin with Wolverhampton on Saturday and Southwell the following day and will cater for the most moderate horses - those with an official handicap rating of 45 or below and turning out for an average prize per race of £2,000. Horses rated 45 and below account for 25 per cent of the equine population and the analogy made by the committee is with the Conference in football.

There will be no two-year-old races and no handicaps in the new ghetto and a lower category of race, Class H, has been created. Punters will have to familiarise themselves with a new term, Banded races. Horses will be placed in one of four bands and run at level weights.

Regional racing, or Ropey racing as it has been nicknamed, will be segregated from the higher tiers of the system. In a move that could signal the end of huge seasonal totals for trainers and jockeys who like to mop up smaller events, wins in Regional Racing will not count towards the main championships. It is sure to end in tiers.

The plans have been criticised by racecourses, on the grounds that there are better ways of expanding the fixture list without dragging whole meetings to the lowest common denominator, and by owners who disapprove of such paltry reward for their investment. Even bookmakers fear the risk of eroding the overall quality of the race programme as the 70 Regional Racing meetings expand the fixture list to a record 1,341 meetings in 2004.

Nevertheless, the BHB has pushed ahead with the plan, as the report said, to enable "British racing to reclaim some of its market share of betting". Virtual racing, racing piped in from abroad, numbers gaming and slot machines are the enemies in this particular battle.

In the long term, the BHB intends that the bookmakers' fixture requirements will be met wholly by Premier and National Racing fixtures, leaving courses staging Regional Racing to seek agreements with the betting industry to supply morning and evening racing, including floodlit racing in the winter, when it is hoped that betting shops will be allowed to open. Premier Racing is to embrace 100 Flat and 50 jumps fixtures, with most fixtures falling into the National racing category.

The BHB's report said: "It should be explained to owners that owning lowly-rated horses does not make economic sense. Many will continue to own them regardless, and these horses will ultimately have to perform at 'shoulder' times of the day for off-peak punters."

* The weather has taken its toll with yesterday's card at Southwell and today's meeting at Catterick falling victim to frost. There will be an inspection at Warwick, where racing is due to take place today, at 7.30am as a severe frost is forecast. Catterick will inspect at 3pm for tomorrow's card. Newcastle's Saturday meeting is subject to an inspection at noon on Friday.

Comments