While I agree there should be an all-weather racecourse in the north of England, I would not agree – certainly not at this stage – that the new track should be at Newcastle racecourse.
Principally, I am against this proposal because Newcastle is one of 14 racecourses owned by the Arena Racing Company (ARC), which recently rejected a prize-money agreement with the Horsemen’s Group. Nobody in racing needs to be reminded that ARC has an appalling record on prize-money and, despite their recent and much-welcomed announcement of an extra £2.2 million injection into prize-money for 2014, it will take considerably more than a one-year deal to convince me that ARC puts owners, trainers, jockeys and stable staff anywhere on a par with their own business.
So the first thing we must say about a Newcastle all-weather track is that the BHA should not think about supporting it until ARC have signed the Horsemen’s Group prize-money agreement.
It is worth repeating that the principle underpinning the prize-money agreement is that horsemen receive a share in the growth of media right payments through improved racecourse contributions to prize-money.
By working together, horsemen and racecourses can increase their revenues, but ARC has refused to establish this link
By working together, horsemen and racecourses can increase their revenues, but ARC has refused to establish this link and, instead, retains discretion over how much it will return to the sport’s participants.
ARC, as the owners of tracks that put on 40% of the fixture list, is the prime beneficiary of the surge in media rights payments from bookmakers. Each time they put on a fixture, they receive a payment that is several times greater than the amount they feed into prize-money and you have to look at the Racecourse League Table in this month’s magazine to see where ARC’s three all-weather courses are in terms of average contributions per fixture to prize-money.
Four other racecourses – Yarmouth, Chepstow, Brighton and Bath – ‘compete’ with Lingfield, Wolverhampton and Southwell for the bottom seven places and, yes, in case you hadn’t guessed, they too are owned by ARC.
If Newcastle were to get the go-ahead on this, it would also raise serious competition issues for all-weather racing. ARC already has over 70% of all-weather fixtures, with only Kempton standing between them and a clean sweep.
It’s not just that converting Newcastle’s Flat fixtures into all-weather would exacerbate this situation. You also wonder whether a commercially-driven company such as ARC, with the high cost of converting a racecourse into an all-weather venue hanging over them, might be tempted to look at the finances of some of their existing Flat turf tracks and work out how much more profitable it would be to move turf fixtures to Newcastle and run them on the all-weather, where costs are lower and reliability greater. Do not forget that it is little over a year since Hereford and Folkestone were closed for ‘commercial reasons’.
None of this is meant to decry the success or belittle the importance of all-weather racing, but British racing is fundamentally about horses running on turf and this is how it must remain. Of course, all-weather racing has a vital part to play in sustaining our fixture list and providing running opportunities, but we must never allow it to become dominant in terms of the number of fixtures.
That said, there are, of course, many northern and Scottish-based owners and trainers who would relish the opportunity of greatly reducing the distance they have to travel a horse to get a run on the all-weather, and we have to recognise their needs, especially when levels of prize-money come nowhere close to meeting running costs.
But any enthusiasm to embrace the Newcastle proposal must be tempered with the realisation that there are wider issues at play. With the BHA already well versed with these issues, their initiation of a wide-ranging feasibility study for a northern-based all-weather racecourse is welcomed, especially now that Catterick has also revealed its interest in this area. Newcastle is not the only game in town.