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Talking Horses: racing’s factions bury differences in bid for brighter future

British racing took a significant step towards what it hopes will be a brighter and more harmonious future on Monday, as the British Horseracing Authority unveiled a new governance structure for the sport which Julie Harrington, the BHA’s chief executive, insists will “enshrine the BHA board as the ultimate authority for the sport as a whole.” If the new structure works as planned – which, of course, remains to be seen – it could finally end, or at the very least significantly reduce, the factionalism and squabbling that has dogged the sport for decades.

The new regime, which was finalised when the Racecourse Association signed up at an EGM on Monday morning, means an end to the previous “tripartite” structure in which the BHA tried to balance the interests of the racecourses, on one side, and the Thoroughbred Group (ie. owners, trainers, jockeys and stable staff) on the other.

Money, ultimately, has always been at the root of their major differences, as the tracks sit astride the sport’s revenue streams, including media rights income from the betting industry and broadcasters.

The tracks also own the fixtures, though without horses attracted by prize money, there is no show, no audience and no revenue. The Thoroughbred Group, though, has long suspected that when it comes to a choice between offering what the horses are worth and offering what they can get away with, tracks will always tend towards the latter.

Under the tripartite system, decisions on the most significant issues facing the sport – such as the size of the fixture list at a time when field sizes are in decline – needed to be unanimous. This effectively handed a veto to both sides with the BHA often hamstrung in between.

The new structure creates three new standing committees to consider important questions of policy and strategy, the most significant of which is a Commercial Committee on which all interested parties will have a voice.

On the racecourse side, that includes Jockey Club Racecourses – the second-largest commercial operation in British sport after the Premier League – and Arena Racecourse Company (ARC), which operates a significant number of high-volume all-weather tracks such as Lingfield Park, Newcastle and Wolverhampton, plus representatives of both “large independents” – such as Ascot, York and Goodwood – and smaller independent tracks.

Owners, trainers, jockeys, stable staff and breeders will also have a member each, alongside Harrington, Richard Wayman – the Authority’s CEO – and the chair, David Jones, an independent non-executive BHA director.

Crucially, this will not be a committee that votes. Instead, it can recommend courses of action to the BHA board but the board itself will decide how to move forward.

“It creates a vehicle to make decisions that are not universally popular,” Harrington said on Monday, “which when you were trying to do things by tripartite was nigh on impossible.

“The first piece of work we’re looking at is, can we organise our fixture list and race programme from 2024 and beyond to make sure that we’ve got the right product, that is relevant to the fans of the future. How we then promote that, market that, gain inward investment is absolutely in the sweet spot of what the commercial committee is going to be looking at.

“Of course, you would rather get everybody on the same bus, as it were, but ultimately [if the BHA decides] to make more radical changes to the fixture list and race programme, we can do that.” Fixtures are assets to racecourses and the tracks are – understandably – very reluctant to let them go, but with field sizes in steady decline, many punters and racegoers might suggest that some pruning of the programme to improve competitiveness cannot come soon enough.

If so, however, they will rely on others to make their voice heard, as the new structure has no formal place on any of its new committees for the people who choose to spend their money following the sport, either in person or as off-course punters.

In an age when two or three winning bets in a row can be enough to see an account restricted to betting in pennies, and big winners regularly struggle to get hold of their money, that feels like an opportunity missed.

The owners, after all, are the other big investors in racing, and they effectively have several commercial committee members to represent them.

It also remains to be seen how long Monday’s generally harmonious mood endures when other competing interests – such as those of the two biggest racecourse ownership groups – rub up against each other.

But for the moment at least, the guiding principle seems sound. None of racing’s various factions and interest groups can survive on their own, and co-operation, unlike competition, is not a zero-sum game. The more they can be persuaded to co-operate, the greater the long-term rewards all round. In theory, at any rate.

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