Should horses be paid to race?

Should horses be paid to race?

  Horseracing has never been the kind of sport to rely on a maxim like: 'If you build it, they will come.' If you want people to run horses at your racecourse, you have to give them a good reason, like prize money or the promise of a good time or the chance of landing a prestigious and historic contest.       And some go further than that, offering an additional payment as incentive to owners to show up. Racing has, over the years and in several countries, dabbled with various schemes that might broadly be grouped under the heading of appearance money, without really talking through the implications.       This might be a good time to have that conversation because the incentive for tracks to attract the big-name horses is only going to increase. For evidence of that, one only has to ask Nick Smith, director of racing and communications at Ascot, about the benefits that flow now and will eventually flow to the Queen's track from having a good number of international raiders at the Royal meeting every summer.       "We started chasing international horses just because we wanted to make the meeting more interesting and develop an identity," Smith said. "The Gold Cup is a wonderful race, but it's a long time since people woke up in the winter talking about the Gold Cup at Ascot. It doesn't happen.        "So the Royal meeting needed an identity over and above fashion, globally. And that's why we worked from the start on bringing the internationals in, to make it Europe's international hub. Now the benefits are really starting to flow in because the media rights money is all linked in, the betting will become linked in -- that's a bit further down the line but it's coming -- and there's the intangible sponsorship benefits. Plus, it's what people talk about in the pub, they talk about the Australian winner, the American winner. It's one of the key selling points."       Thanks to a steady stream of US-trained winners at Royal Ascot in recent years, notably the star mare Tepin, NBC covered at least four races in that country on all five days this summer, broadcasting from two fixed positions at the course. Smith adds: "If you can put a presentation together for new sponsors that [shows coverage by] NBC, Channel 7, NHK, Fuji TV, and ITV, then you can go to sponsors and say, ‘This is what we deliver.’ Everything comes together for the general good."       As you might expect, Ascot has sought to be responsible in its means of attracting those valuable raiders to Britain. Smith pays a fixed sum to each runner from outside Europe, depending on which part of the world they're coming from, the aim being to cover about half of their travel costs. But he will only pay for "Group One horses in Group One races," with the result that Wesley Ward's many two-year-old raiders have never qualified and must pay their own way.       "What you don't want is too many horses coming just because it's a good gig. Whilst we're really happy to have a 115-rated horse run in our Group One races and we are very happy to pay a travel allowance towards that, if we did full payments for those kind of horses, we would be overwhelmed and most of them would be out of their depth."       Smith stresses that what he is paying is "a travel allowance," to avoid any suggestion that it might be appearance money as understood in some other sports, ie an amount that might actually be greater than the prize money on offer. No one can hope to secure a net profit just by having a runner at Ascot; for that to happen, the horse must perform well.       Nevertheless, Smith is considering whether to introduce a "double allowance" for horses rated 130 or over, on the basis that there will only be one or two in the world at any time. "What I wouldn't do is change the rules for a particular horse. Black Caviar got the same allowance as everybody else and they wanted to run, so they invested in it as well, like every other horse owner.        "In the case of horses like Winx, there is an argument that the merit of having them here, in terms of media rights value and marketing, does merit you being slightly more flexible. But what I don't want to do is be so flexible that you're having 15 different conversations with 15 trainers, who all talk to each other and then it isn't fair."       In the end, Winx's connections decided that staying in Australia was in her best interests and it does not appear that cold, hard cash would have changed their minds. Would Smith have been prepared to make an offer, had it seemed likely to make the difference? He doesn't think so.       "You want to talk to people whose mentality is, ‘I want to do this,’ and then you assist them. What you don't want is to put an incentive in place that makes them want to come [when they otherwise wouldn't]."       Other tracks, in Britain and elsewhere, have discovered that a range of financial incentives can help to get the right horse to a major race. An owner might be allowed a "risk-free entry" for an early-closing race, the fee being refunded if their horse doesn't run. The cost of stabling an international runner might be paid for by the track.        At Goodwood, staff have discovered that "experiential" incentives can have more impact than money. The horses they hope to attract tend, after all, to be owned by people whose need for another dollar is not pressing. But those people might very much enjoy spending the night before the race in Goodwood House as a guest of the Duke of Richmond, or perhaps taking a spin round the estate's motor racing circuit in a Ferrari.       Such deals are private arrangements between owner and racecourse and, in Britain at least, they often go unmentioned in public. The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) says it has no concerns about that from a regulatory perspective, as every horse is still regulated independently. My personal preference would be for such deals to be acknowledged in public by the parties, providing the transparency which is so healthy for a public sport; but then, as a journalist, I would say that, wouldn't I?       Ireland has remained innocent of such incentives, the Turf Club's Denis Egan telling me that the priority remains offering good prize money. But Leopardstown was part of a joint effort by several tracks to attract Winx, and a new willingness to reach out to foreign raiders is also evident at the Curragh, where a smart new yard has been built in the stable block specifically for horses from overseas.       France also remains aloof. "It wouldn’t be appropriate or fair to the connections paying regularly to run in our races to give appearance money to their competitors," said a statement from France-Galop, which runs the sport as well as six of the biggest French tracks. It is prepared to assist in organising logistics for foreign raiders, but no money changes hands, I was assured.       Germany's Direktorium insists that a sum to mitigate travel expenses is paid to every runner in every race there, though the amount varies from track to track and runner to runner, depending on distance travelled and recent form. That assertion clashed with the experience of three British trainers I asked, who are not aware of having had such payments when they raced in Germany.       "The prize money is dire in Germany and Italy don't pay, so I've virtually ruled them out," the Newmarket-based William Haggas told me. "And in Germany, those races are not that easy to win, either.        "I've got a runner in New York and I get a $20,000 travel allowance for him, which covers about half my costs. It's the Belmont Gold Cup, an invitational. I think I'm right in saying that, if they're invitation races abroad, you then get their travel allowance.        "For example, Moonee Valley will pay you quite considerable costs to run in the Cox Plate. But the Melbourne Cup is not an invitational, so Flemington don't pay anything towards your travel costs."       Haggas is comfortable with Ascot's efforts to attract foreign runners to Britain, even while it makes their prizes harder for him to win. "They're taking Ascot to the rest of the world. So if you get a big Hong Kong horse coming, does it make it better for us? As trainers, as participants, probably not. But for racing as a whole, it surely does. And that's what we have to look at, I think, is the big picture."       Huge sums were bandied about in public when US tracks were trying to lure American Pharoah in the weeks after he won the Triple Crown in 2015, including a touted $5 million bonus for a three-race series. In the end, the colt followed an orthodox route that could have been mapped out for him before the Kentucky Derby. And therein lies a major limitation of using money as a lure. Getting horsemen to deviate from established paths is hard work.       This is also what Ascot found when it tried another variation on the theme of appearance money in relation to its jump racing. Frustrated by small numbers of runners, course officials offered field-size bonuses for some races, which would significantly improve the prize money if a certain number of horses ran. In Smith's recollection, the bonus was triggered just once before the project was at length abandoned.       More success has been enjoyed by Chester with a scheme it introduced in 2016, guaranteeing a minimum of £500 to connections of every runner, regardless of where it finishes. The aim is to compensate for the notorious draw bias at the almost circular track.       "We were trying to say to those owners of horses drawn wide, we do understand that you are at a disadvantage but please do run because there is a financial reward," says Chester's head of racing, Andrew Morris. "We also looked at the return an owner gets on his investment, which we know in the UK is pretty low. If we have 12 runners in a race, only six are receiving prize money. So we wanted to widen that, to reward owners for their investment."       It worked. In the first year, withdrawals dropped from 106 to 81, while total runners went up from 597 to 667. Other tracks with awkward topographies or ineradicable biases should surely be considering similar action.       On a much more ambitious scale, the BHA started 2018 by committing £6.5 million of central funds to an appearance money scheme aimed at the sport's middle and lower tiers. Qualifying races now have prize money of £300 or £350 for horses finishing fifth, sixth, seventh, or eighth.        The initiative was prompted by the discovery that the owner of an average Flat racehorse in Britain was getting back just 8p in prize money for every £1 he spent on its upkeep. Surveys also identified an unsurprising correlation between horses who went an entire year without getting prize money and owners who drifted out of the game, never to return.       Richard Wayman, the BHA's chief operating officer, says that in addition to offering those owners a return, the hope is to increase the number of races with at least eight runners, which are more attractive to bettors, and perhaps also to drive up the average number of races run by horses each year.        Similar thinking is behind the decision in France to pay prize money down to seventh place in some handicaps, to which some object as tending to reduce the pressure to obtain a better position. The Arc-winning trainer Nicolas Clement sees the positives, however. "They've done it in America," he says, "and studies show that, if you give up to seventh or eighth place, your chance of having an extra runner is good and the extra runner is going to boost income, which is going to boost purse money. More runners, more betting, more income.       "As long as the winner gets half of the pot, I'm not against it. It used to be that the second place was paid very highly in France. You would get 40% or 45% of the winning prize and you even had people who would rather be twice second in handicaps, get no penalty and stay at the same level than win."  Now that prize money is spread further down the order, the return for running second is reduced.       It's too early to say whether such schemes can be called a success, but anyone who loves racing could be pleased by the attempt to do something in support of the game's general health. The motivation is much less altruistic when it comes to major tracks battling each other for star names or big fields.        "We, racecourses, are all in competition for runners," says Morris. "Not many people seem to say it but there is only a certain horse population."       If Smith is right about the gains to be made from high profile runners, that competition will intensify over time and across Europe. Inventive use of appearance money could become a factor that separates successful tracks from those that just keep going at the one pace.     

First published in European Trainer, July-September 2018, issue 62

Chris Cook

Horseracing has never been the kind of sport to rely on a maxim like: 'If you build it, they will come.' If you want people to run horses at your racecourse, you have to give them a good reason, like prize money or the promise of a good time or the chance of landing a prestigious and historic contest.

And some go further than that, offering an additional payment as incentive to owners to show up. Racing has, over the years and in several countries, dabbled with various schemes that might broadly be grouped under the heading of appearance money, without really talking through the implications.

This might be a good time to have that conversation because the incentive for tracks to attract the big-name horses is only going to increase. For evidence of that, one only has to ask Nick Smith, director of racing and communications at Ascot, about the benefits that flow now and will eventually flow to the Queen's track from having a good number of international raiders at the Royal meeting every summer.

"We started chasing international horses just because we wanted to make the meeting more interesting and develop an identity," Smith said. "The Gold Cup is a wonderful race, but it's a long time since people woke up in the winter talking about the Gold Cup at Ascot. It doesn't happen.

 

"So the Royal meeting needed an identity over and above fashion, globally. And that's why we worked from the start on bringing the internationals in, to make it Europe's international hub. Now the benefits are really starting to flow in because the media rights money is all linked in, the betting will become linked in -- that's a bit further down the line but it's coming -- and there's the intangible sponsorship benefits. Plus, it's what people talk about in the pub, they talk about the Australian winner, the American winner. It's one of the key selling points."

Thanks to a steady stream of US-trained winners at Royal Ascot in recent years, notably the star mare Tepin, NBC covered at least four races in that country on all five days this summer, broadcasting from two fixed positions at the course. Smith adds: "If you can put a presentation together for new sponsors that [shows coverage by] NBC, Channel 7, NHK, Fuji TV, and ITV, then you can go to sponsors and say, ‘This is what we deliver.’ Everything comes together for the general good."

As you might expect, Ascot has sought to be responsible in its means of attracting those valuable raiders to Britain. Smith pays a fixed sum to each runner from outside Europe, depending on which part of the world they're coming from, the aim being to cover about half of their travel costs. But he will only pay for "Group One horses in Group One races," with the result that Wesley Ward's many two-year-old raiders have never qualified and must pay their own way.

"What you don't want is too many horses coming just because it's a good gig. Whilst we're really happy to have a 115-rated horse run in our Group One races and we are very happy to pay a travel allowance towards that, if we did full payments for those kind of horses, we would be overwhelmed and most of them would be out of their depth."

Smith stresses that what he is paying is "a travel allowance," to avoid any suggestion that it might be appearance money as understood in some other sports, ie an amount that might actually be greater than the prize money on offer. No one can hope to secure a net profit just by having a runner at Ascot; for that to happen, the horse must perform well.

Nevertheless, Smith is considering whether to introduce a "double allowance" for horses rated 130 or over, on the basis that there will only be one or two in the world at any time. "What I wouldn't do is change the rules for a particular horse. Black Caviar got the same allowance as everybody else and they wanted to run, so they invested in it as well, like every other horse owner.

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