RACING COMMENTARY: Owners at breaking point

Click to follow
It is part of racing's well thought out ritual that the Flat's turf season should end dismally this afternoon at the dreary setting of Folkestone's Westenhanger course. It almost always rains on this affair but seldom can there have been such good reason for the dark clouds that will arrive over the sport.

Racing is in desperate need of a tourniquet as the financial lifeblood gushes away relentlessly. In terms of funds returned to owners, Britain lies 36th out of the 40 serious racing nations, with 21 per cent of owners' outlay being returned in prize money. Ahead of us are the mighty nations of the Lebanon, Korea and Mauritius.

It is not possible to weep for those who can afford to purchase and nurture thoroughbreds, but neither can they be treated as the fools they are beginning to be taken for. Rich people have to suspend the business acumen they have collected when becoming involved in bloodstock, but even they have their breaking point. In recent weeks there have been announcements by both Peter Savill, who did not make a profit even when Celtic Swing was in his pomp, and the Cyzer brothers that they would be cutting back their sizeable strings, and the biggest owner of them all is not above glancing at the bottom line.

Sheikh Mohammed proved that he too is driven by market forces when selling Lammtarra to the Japanese, and those who take the benefit of his oil-driven revenue for granted should think again. The Sheikh continues to enjoy the elements no administrator or bookmaker can destroy, the tradition, variety and keenly followed nature of the sport in the green and pleasant land, but his camp does recognise the detrimental side.

"The history of horseracing in this country is fascinating and there is a genuine deep interest in the sport in this country," Simon Crisford, the racing manager of the Sheikh's Godolphin operation, said. "The people who go racing, the punters and the public, they have a very serious knowledge about the sport. When they turn up at the races they want to see the horses in the paddock, they worry about the form and they get tremendous satisfaction out of the whole thing, the sort of interest that is not evident in other countries.

"But what these other owners have been saying is quite true. In comparison to other racing countries, the prize money here is very low indeed.

"This country has got the best racing in the world: the best racehorses, the best race-tracks, the best of everything, but for how long will that be sustained when the financial backing is not there? We're hanging on in there by a thread at the moment but how long will it go on for?"

Racing's begging bowl has been a much available piece of crockery recently, with Richard Spring MP, whose constituency covers Newmarket, wearing out his knees in attempting to persuade the Treasury that racing deserves a better return from government. Rather incongruously though, racing chooses to promote an image of expensive horses emerging from the mists to the backing of orchestral music, an industry of top hats and champagne corks. Then we tell the outside world we are skint. A better representation would be the serfs of the stable-lad kingdom rising before daybreak and shovelling manure for a fraction of the pay of their overlords.

Most of the manure we get, of course, comes from the big bookmakers. They have throttled the game for 35 years now and the victim is beginning to show terminal symptoms. Bookmaking interests seek not to address the increasingly impoverished situation, but rather produce the sort of algebra that would fox Euclid to explain what a rotten time they are having. These men could deliver statistics to prove we are living in Lapland.

Unless the conglomerates are living in another land, that of the cloud cuckoo, they will soon have to recognise they need to pay for their sport's life-support machinery. Prize money has fallen to such a farcical level that even the chap who earns a reported pounds 20m a day from his liquid gold is worried by the equations.