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The Saviour of Greek Racing

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Making progress and facilitating change in racing can be tough and time consuming. Doing it in a challenging economic environment makes it tougher still. With that in mind, the strides being made in Greece, where the racing industry had fallen to its knees, is both admirable and encouraging. The article “Greek racing hoping for revival of fortunes” published in Issue 45 of European Trainer offers a more detailed explanation of the decline of the sport in Greece. The scene at the new venue of Markopoulo, 35 kilometres from the capital, was far removed from the halcyon days of high betting turnover and large crowds at a vibrant track close to Athens. However, in January, 2016, OPAP (a Greek-based betting company) was granted the licence to organise and conduct racing in Greece. Improved relations with the Greek Jockey Club, who are still responsible for the governance of the sport, have followed, as Costas Alexopoulos, chief of operations, explains. Alexopoulos says, “We have a very close relationship with the Jockey Club now. There have been differences but we cooperate very well.” With the need for racing in Greece to become a commercial success, OPAP are keen to make the right calls, turning to Fin Powrie, a man with extensive international experience in the industry, to organise and implement a plan for change. The Australian previously worked in Dubai, Bahrain, India, New Zealand, and his homeland. Powrie speaks with enthusiasm about the work being done in Greece and seems encouraged by the progress made since his arrival. The challenge of reestablishing racing as a popular sport and betting product in the country is a large one, and a detailed plan of action was required. “OPAP had to decide how it was going to progress Greek racing; we have founded our plans on four pillars: safety, welfare, integrity, and product,” explains Powrie, who has spent much of his time focussing on the first three of those areas. Markopoulo has a dirt surface similar to that of the old Nad Al Sheba racecourse in Dubai. It was built to host the equestrian events during the Olympic Games of 2004, but in the ensuing years become rundown and has required significant investment. “We started in January, 2016, and have already invested more than €1 million into the racetrack alone,” states Alexopoulos. That investment has been overseen by Powrie, who has used his knowledge and experience to oversee a vast amount of work at Markopoulo. Explaining the process, he says, “We approached it pragmatically in terms of what we inherited and what we needed to do to ensure that we had a facility and system that was going to be safe and viable.” Suggesting that to renovate all of the facilities at the venue would run to “an inordinate cost,” he explains that so far, much of the work has focussed on improving safety and welfare for the horses and horsemen based at the site.   “We started with the track, going back to the original installers in France and renovating the surface. We have also re-rubberised lots of areas, torn down wooden fences, and replaced it with proper plastic running rail so to look at it now is a very different picture to 18 months ago.” Powrie believes there is still room for improvement in “certain aspects of the regulatory side of things that have been inherited and don’t necessarily assist the product,” but also that “significant inroads” have been made – and that by not compromising on the issues they have tackled, they now have a venue to be proud of. “We’ve worked very hard and have had some stumbling blocks along the way, but in terms of the safety of our people, the safety of track work, and the welfare of the horses, I can guarantee the place stands up to scrutiny.” Alexopoulos is also pleased with the progress made at the track, to the point where he believes that “the problem now in Greece is not the facilities; what we are struggling with now is the number of horses and number of owners in Greece.” The statistics back up those concerns. The number of racehorses in the country had fallen to less than 250 from a peak of more than 1,700, and there were less than 70 registered owners from more than 250 previously. To implement the kind of racing programme OPAP is aiming for, a significant rise in the number of horses in training is required, and in turn that also means an increase in the number of owners and trainers will need to rise. OPAP has tackled the problem head on, travelling to the major horses-in-training sales in the UK and Ireland to buy horses to import to Greece, where they are then sold on in OPAP’s own auctions – two of which have taken place so far. At Tattersalls Autumn Horses-In-Training Sale in Newmarket, Greek racing interests were particularly busy, signing for a total of 64 horses. As a result, there are now more than 400 racehorses in Greece. By covering the cost of travel OPAP are removing one of the barriers to importation and are not only looking to increase the number of racehorses in the country, but also the quality of that stock. Many of the horses being sent to Greece are sourced by Oliver St Lawrence, a leading bloodstock agent in Britain who works closely with Greek racing. “We’ve looked for relatively cheap horses, up to around 7,000 guineas, usually with form on the sand,” St Lawrence says, before adding, “horses with form at Southwell are preferred as they seem to take well to the surface in Greece. In terms of pedigrees then anything with a USA pedigree would give you hope they’d be effective on the dirt while the Danehill-Green Desert line seems to do well over there, though we’re dealing with a pretty small pool of horses to be definitive about that.” The focus has been on buying horses that are young and sound. “We bought almost all two- and three-year olds, rated between 50 and 70, and we were looking for sprinter-milers. The real emphasis, though, was on buying horses that were sound and would be able to take their racing well,” explains St. Lawrence. More horses means more owners are also required, and attracting them isn’t an easy task in a tough economic climate, though the numbers are on the rise. The focus has been on trying to re-engage with previously registered owners as well as bringing in new ones, and one of the key initiatives has been a change in the rules to allow syndicates. Marketed with the slogan ‘Share the cost – Spread the joy,’ the advent of syndicate ownership – a significant part of the landscape in many major racing jurisdictions – could have a hugely positive impact in Greece. The first syndicate-owned horse to run in the country was Poetic Guest, who ran in the colours of the Champagne Syndicate, a group of 10 ladies, seven of whom had never been involved in horse ownership. A four-year old gelding by Poet’s Voice, he won by a wide margin last month on his first start since being picked up for 4,000 guineas at Tattersalls in October. His success immediately caught the attention of the mainstream media in Greece and enquiries about ownership took a sharp upturn. The hope of Greek racing executive Alexopoulos is for the amount of owners to double in the next three-to-five years, with a target of having 600 horses trained in Greece within two years and 900 in five years. For those attracted to racehorse ownership, levels of prize money are already better than many other countries when compared with the cost of keeping a horse in training. The minimum prize money on offer is €4,000, with an average of €6,500, and prize money offered down to seventh place in a bid to boost field sizes. Total prize money on a single card is usually around the €40,000 mark, though every third week a more valuable meeting takes place featuring a race worth between €16,000-20,000. In terms of the cost of keeping a horse in training, basic training bills are expected to be in the region of €650-700 per month. As Powrie explains, “In 2014 the IFHA (International Federation of Horseracing Authorities) released their data on the cost of keeping a horse against the return of prize money and it showed that owners in Greece were on average getting back 75% of their investment, which compared favourably with the rest of Europe. For example in Britain, it was only 25% and in France it was 52%. The figures are no longer released but since then our average prize money has increased.” The strategies already in place to increase ownership will help make OPAP’s goals achievable, while it’s hoped that recent improvements and further plans to change the landscape of racing in Greece will make the sport more appealing to both owners and punters. Improvements in the way the racing calendar is released have already been made, with the provisional programme now put out on a quarterly basis, as is the case in the UK. A much greater change is forthcoming as Greek racing is to significantly alter the way its races are framed. Powrie describes the current set of race conditions as “convoluted,” and though they have been in place for decades he believes it’s a system that doesn’t really work. “It’s a one way valve, so once horses have progressed it doesn’t allow them to come back down,” he explains, before detailing the plans for the future move to “a ratings-based system that is internationally recognised.” Based on the same principles as those used on a daily basis in the likes of the UK and Ireland, horses will be allotted a rating that will move up or down based on their level of performance and current form. Those ratings will be assessed following each start by a team of professional handicappers, and Powrie believes the benefits will be great. “We’ll be able to frame races more easily to suit the population of horses we have and it will allow people to race their horses more regularly and also allow us to spread the prize money on offer more easily as it will give more horses a chance of winning it.” A further added benefit will surely be more competitive racing, something that racegoers and especially the betting public wish to see. So, for Greek racing’s ambitious custodians, it’s these groups that are also being targeted as they wish to spread the racing bug back across the country. When asked about the daily figure of 300-500 racegoers currently attending the races at Markopoulo, Alexopoulos says, “We are not happy about the number of visitors so one of our goals is to make our racecourse a destination, a place where people visit and have fun.” Powrie agrees, adding, “We want to encourage more families to come racing and make racing a popular entertainment sport in Greece.” Ultimately though, for a racing industry being operated by a betting company, the need for more horses, more racing, more racegoers, and in turn more interest, boils down to one thing – more turnover in the pools. OPAP must make its investment in the sport commercially viable, and there is little doubt that the appetite for racing as a betting product in Greece is there. Up until the late 1990s, betting on racing was “much bigger than sports betting and the numbers games we have here,” explains Alexopoulos, “but it started to decline when the races moved away from Athens, partly due to bad management from the state-owned company at a time when OPAP were introducing sports betting and KINO (a numbers game), and they became very popular.” Racing may never again dominate the betting landscape in the way it has previously in Greece, but a greater share of the market can be targeted. Even as recently as 2007 and 2008 turnover on racing was at €200 million per year. That figure had dropped to €30 million in 2015, the year before OPAP took control, so there is work to do to restore the numbers of a decade ago. “It will be difficult after such a period of decline, but this is our goal,” states Alexopoulos. It’s a goal they are working towards already. In OPAP’s first year of control, turnover rose by 9 million euros to €39 million, and the numbers suggest the target of 50 million will be reached in 2017. Further progress is anticipated in 2018. As Alexopoulos explains, “In the first half of 2018 we are going to have betting on the races available on the self-service terminals throughout the OPAP network. We are also launching an online betting platform for the races, so we are gradually working on increasing sales and giving more customers the opportunity to find the races and bet in a modern way all over Greece.” So, following a difficult period for the sport in Greece, perhaps racing is on the way back. Progress is certainly being made. Much more is needed but the strides made in the last 18 months have been recognised by the European and Mediterranean Horseracing Federation, who in May inducted Greece as their newest member. That recognition from an outside body is appreciated by Powrie, who also appreciates the help he has had from elsewhere. “It has been a rebuilding process from the ground up using best practices. We have aligned ourselves with the people that are already doing the things we need to do and doing them well, for example the BHA in England, and we have formed very good alliances and relationships around the world because we are very keen to put in place a significant racing industry in Greece.”

First published in European Trainer issue 58 - July - September 2017

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Making progress and facilitating change in racing can be tough and time consuming. Doing it in a challenging economic environment makes it tougher still. With that in mind, the strides being made in Greece, where the racing industry had fallen to its knees, is both admirable and encouraging.

Making progress and facilitating change in racing can be tough and time consuming. Doing it in a challenging economic environment makes it tougher still. With that in mind, the strides being made in Greece, where the racing industry had fallen to its knees, is both admirable and encouraging.

The article “Greek racing hoping for revival of fortunes” published in Issue 45 of European Trainer offers a more detailed explanation of the decline of the sport in Greece. The scene at the new venue of Markopoulo, 35 kilometres from the capital, was far removed from the halcyon days of high betting turnover and large crowds at a vibrant track close to Athens.

However, in January, 2016, OPAP (a Greek-based betting company) was granted the licence to organise and conduct racing in Greece. Improved relations with the Greek Jockey Club, who are still responsible for the governance of the sport, have followed, as Costas Alexopoulos, chief of operations, explains. Alexopoulos says, “We have a very close relationship with the Jockey Club now. There have been differences but we cooperate very well.”

With the need for racing in Greece to become a commercial success, OPAP are keen to make the right calls, turning to Fin Powrie, a man with extensive international experience in the industry, to organise and implement a plan for change. The Australian previously worked in Dubai, Bahrain, India, New Zealand, and his homeland. Powrie speaks with enthusiasm about the work being done in Greece and seems encouraged by the progress made since his arrival.

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