Racing Commentary: Owners switch the onus to value: The people who pay the bills have started to demand more for their money from racecourses and trainers

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The Independent Online
RACEHORSE owners have at last revealed that they are not just cheque-writing machines, they have voice boxes too and this week they used them. Not that they were speaking in unison - the prime movers were as disparate as two Maktoum brothers and a quarter-shareholder in the Champion Hurdle hope Ruling - but the common cry was that they want more for their money.

Because they are among the largest owners, the most influential moves came from the Maktoums. First advisers to Maktoum Al Maktoum, the senior brother, announced that he is to ask his trainers to peg their fees at 1992 prices for the forthcoming season and then from the camp of Sheikh Hamdan came the suggestion that he may pay his trainers on a performance-related scale.

It remains only a suggestion, but it is a revolutionary one. A sensible one too considering that despite the successes of Nashwan, Salsabil and Dayjur, Sheikh Hamdan has not had the return that his investment in the sport justifies.

'We are going around the trainers to ensure we are paying no more than necessary,' Chris Kennard, Sheikh Hamdan's accountant, explained and confirmed that each horse's training fees being dependent on its success was an idea 'being considered'. The length of the list of trainers to whom the idea is being put makes it easy to see why economy has become attractive: Robert Armstrong, John Benstead, John Dunlop, John Gosden, Barry Hills, Ben Hanbury, Dick Hern, David Morley, Alec Stewart, Harry Thomson Jones, Tim Thomson Jones, Peter Walwyn. And that is just in this country, there are more in Ireland, France, Germany, the United States and back in Dubai.

Sheikh Hamdan's loyalty is commendable. He never sacks trainers, but is instead continually adding to the list of those he employed when he first began owning horses here more than a decade ago.

His are the sort of problems that most owners dream of having. Instead, their concerns are just to be treated with a little more respect in the sport to which they make such large financial contributions.

For Jim Short, it was simply a question of being allocated enough owners' passes for the Cheltenham Festival to enable all four of the shareholders in Ruling to see their horse compete in the Champion Hurdle without having to pay for the privilege. Reasonable enough considering they are supplying the raw material that allows the racecourse to put on the show in the first place.

Cheltenham at first offered two passes but, to their credit, they have reviewed their policy and will now provide four passes, on request, for horses owned in partnership. As multiple ownership is the growing trend and one to be encouraged, racecourses should at least ensure that they do not ruin what is the high point for many owners, just getting their horse on the track. Getting in the money is not a realistic expectation for so many.

It must be made clear that the executive at Cheltenham do not deserve to be thought of too harshly. They have particular difficulties at the overcrowded Festival and at other meetings have instituted some of the most progressive gestures towards keeping owners happy including laying on free lunches for those with horses engaged at the five-day stage.

They certainly do not deserve the 'wooden spoon' that will be awarded by the Racehorse Owners' Association for the first time this June to single out the course that does least to keep those who pay the bills content. Uttoxeter, under the inspired direction of Stan Clarke, took their more desirable prize for excellence last year.

'The best way for courses to make owners come back is to make them special through a better welcome at the gate, an open attitude to free tickets,' Peter Jones, the President of the ROA, said yesterday. 'It costs very little, it's just a question of good racecourse management. A lost owner is a lost runner for the track in the future.'

Jones has done much to ensure that owners get a better deal, but not enough to please one, who recently resigned from the ROA and this week voiced her dissatisfaction at its 'ineffectiveness' in a letter to the Racing Post. A 'black list of those (trainers) who don't communicate properly with their owners or who continue to charge full training fees on horses out of action' was among her suggestions.

As Jones points out: 'The best trainers, certainly the ones I've had dealings with, charge a different rate when the horse is at grass.

'I wouldn't say all trainers are rogues, but there are examples where owners have had bad experiences. Owners are not all lily white too, there are slow payers, which in turn causes trainers problems.'

Nevertheless, Jones's accuser has a point. There is little information available which the potential first-time owner can use to help decide which lucky stable should receive their galloping status symbol.

'In most walks of life you would know what things cost; that buying at a corner shop costs more than at a big supermarket,' Jones said. 'In racing a novice owner might choose to go to a trainer with only a moderate record instead of one with a really good record and never know that the good trainer actually has the cheaper charges. Many owners would not know that Mary Reveley, for example, charges little more than pounds 100 a week.'

Jones's research into his members' habits reveals a statistic that suggests many are walking away from the sport after becoming rapidly disenchanted.

'The average length that owners remain involved is only three years,' he said. 'They aren't in the game long enough to know how to assess what is good value. There is no evidence that trainers profiteer, but a number do quite well.'

The Maktoum move to peg high training fees which their presence helped to create is one being mirrored at all levels.

'Owners are being squeezed in their business life and transferring that to their leisure pursuits,' Jones said. 'Many are making it clear to their trainers that they would be unhappy to see their fees raised.

'There is another side to the equation. Labour is a major part of any trainer's costs and, as we all know, stable staff do not get a particularly fair reward. If owners put pressure on trainers then further pressure is exerted on stable staff.'

Now there is a cause to put the Maktoums' concerns in the shade.