Royal Ascot has come and gone: 300,000 racegoers, men in top hats and tails, women in chic outfits and beautiful, or bizarre, millinery, gathered for the highlight of the racing calendar. But beneath the pageantry, all is not well in the world of horse racing.
The sport’s leadership is in disarray. Day-to-day racecourse attendance is plummeting; gambling restrictions are looming; animal rights activists are piling on pressure; funding and prize-money are woeful; some of the best horses are being sold overseas; and the sport is at an increasing competitive disadvantage compared to Australia, the Gulf, Hong Kong and Japan.
For one man in particular, Joe Saumarez Smith, three weeks into his tenure as chair of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), the sport’s governing body, the next few months are critical. After Ascot, his in-tray is overflowing. The imminent publication of the Gambling Act review, ongoing relations with the government’s Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and betting levy reform are just some of the thorny issues he must tackle.
But there are deeper problems going right to the heart of the sport’s relevance. Smith has already served as a board member for nearly eight years, so his latest appointment is only for 18 months. It is vital in his first 100 days as chair that clarity emerges on the BHA’s strategic imperatives and how it intends to correct fundamental weaknesses in the sport’s governance. Will he be a caretaker or a change agent?
Unfortunately Smith’s honeymoon period lasted barely a few days. In his first week, he attended an archaic all-male Derby Club dinner with 350 attendees of the sport’s ‘great and good’ (excluding all the women, of course). So much for racing’s pledge to improve diversity and inclusion. Then in week two the executive committee of the BHA, under his chairmanship, didn’t even support its own proposal to cull low-runner races. Kicking the can down the road hardly inspires confidence.
The sport’s labyrinthine structure and glacial decision-making hardly helps matters. Bitter in-fighting among representative groups, and the closing of ranks on sensitive issues such as corruption endanger the sustainability of horse racing. Low morale and a revolving door of top executive departures has made things worse. Some of those who have departed are sorely missed, others less so. But leadership strength in the sport is weak.
Overhaul is long overdue. The operating model of racing is totally unfit for purpose, and requires radical surgery, not incremental tinkering. There is widespread recognition that the 2015 formation of a tripartite structure involving three groups – the BHA, the Racecourse Association and the Horseman’s Group (now rebranded the Thoroughbred Group), a fragile coalition of owners, trainers, breeders, jockeys and agents – has completely failed. It promised a united approach but became dysfunctional through in-fighting and brazen factionalism, and has now collapsed into rancour and leadership by veto. Strategy, governance, structure and decision-making desperately need to be redefined; in parallel, racing’s relevance, sustainability and social licence to operate have to be strengthened.
To add to the woes, a widely-held belief persists that dishonesty, self interest and lack of transparency still plague the equine supply chain, despite the comprehensive findings contained in an independent review commissioned by the BHA in 2017 and published in 2019. Yet even now, three years on since the report saw the light of day, investigations into alleged breaches of the bloodstock industry’s self-regulated code of practice drag on and on.
A key recommendation from the review was that agents acting in the buying and selling of bloodstock in the UK should be licensed, as they are in football, cricket and rugby. Last year, the BHA published a new code of practice but licensing was not included. Justin Felice OBE, the retired senior police officer who conducted the review, warned at the time his report was published that it would be ‘too easy’ for racing to suffer another high-profile ‘Panorama Moment’, as occurred in 2002 when Jockey Club failings were exposed, without stronger regulatory enforcement. It would be a cruel irony if racing suffered government intervention with the regulatory role of the sport being passed to the Financial Conduct Authority as envisaged for football.
For the racing fan on the Clapham omnibus, it is clear that the arrival of much-needed radical solutions for the sport is more a 100/1 outsider bet than an odds-on certainty. The future of horse racing is in Smith’s hands.
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