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Thursday, 17 January, 2019

Opening the doors to ownership key to a sustainable future

Alternatives need to be found to tackle lack of prize-money

Quiet Reflection: the Ontoawinner-owned filly powers away to Group 1 glory at Royal Ascot
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We have reached a point where the supply of horses far exceeds the demand of those willing and able to buy them, but whether we are faced with overproduction or a lack of demand seems to depend on who you ask.

What is universally agreed upon, however, is that more needs to be done to encourage new owners to participate in the sport.

As Lee Mottershead argued in his column on January 29, the title of the Sport of Kings is neat but not entirely helpful. It is time that racing became available to as wide an audience as possible.

Syndicates play a significant factor in Australian racing, not just in terms of weight of numbers but also their standing in the sport, with the owners, behind the likes of Global Glamour and Houtzen being prime examples, and the impact they have on bloodstock sales.

In the hunt for a more sustainable base of owners British and Irish racing would be well advised to take note.

One of the most upwardly mobile syndicates around on home soil is Ontoawinner, which now counts 300 members among its ranks with shares spread between 60 horses in training with 14 different trainers.

It races Quiet Reflection, whose victory in the Commonwealth Cup at last year’s Royal Ascot provided a huge amount of feel-good factor that can, on occasion, be lacking at the big meetings.

“I think there’s a decline in new owners coming into racing rather than overproduction,” says Ontoawinner director Simon Bridge. “In Australia, syndicates have been on the go for a number of years and with lots of success, but people in the UK seem more wary about believing that what they see is what they’ll get. But we want each syndicate member to feel like they’re part of something special.”

Bridge says that treating syndicate members equally regardless of the size of their share has been a key part of the growth of Ontoawinner. He says: “We want all our members to feel like owners, communication is imperative and the raceday experience has to be good.”

Bridge noted that efforts are being made by racecourses to improve the ownership experience, but that the initial registration procedure, a process he describes as “crazy”, still presents a stumbling block to the process of making new owners feel welcome.

“It’s almost as if the BHA try to make it as difficult as possible,” he says. “Registering is painful, naming can be painful, just trying to get a horse to the racecourse can be painful. It could be made so much easier. We’re in the 21st century after all. Racecourses are certainly moving forward, the only hold-up now is the BHA.”

Amy Murphy, one of the youngest members of the training ranks, concurs, saying: “It’s a case of coming up with new ideas that will get owners registered quickly. Once owners have decided they want a horse they don’t want the rigmarole of all the paperwork that comes with it, they want to be able to get on and enjoy the thrill of ownership.

“I also think there ought to be a one-off registration fee rather than hitting owners with several costs the day they sign up.”

There are several moving parts in the finances of owning a thoroughbred. At its most simple there is purchase price and associated expenses; the cost of keep and training fees and then there is prize-money.

A stagnation of the latter in relation to the cost of purchase and keep is routinely spoken about as the single biggest issue facing modern British and Irish racing. When you consider the likes of Stand Guard, the prolific all-weather performer whose record of 28 victories and seven placings have earned him just £88,383 in a career spanning ten years and counting, it is easy to see why.

Unfortunately, in such financially turbulent times it seems unlikely that the sport-wide cash injection many will be hoping for is going to appear on racing’s horizon any time soon.

If the potential financial returns from ownership are limited, the point Murphy raises about the thrill of ownership takes on an altogether more important meaning.

Fun may not be a currency that pays the training fees, but it is something syndicates and racing clubs can, and should, provide in spades for those with shallower pockets.

There is no getting away from the fact that prize-money has reached a critical level, but that does not mean that racing should not try to engage with those who want to be involved simply for the thrill of it, win, lose or draw.

It is worth remembering some 5,987,167 people attended a race meeting in Britain in 2016, which made it the second-most attended sport in Britain. It is a safe bet that some of those would love the opportunity to return as an owner.

There is a video on the Ontoawinner website aimed at promoting the syndicate.

“There’s a huge pool of people out there, an untapped pool, who don’t know yet that it’s the best thing they’ll ever do,” remarks Niall O’Brien of Ontoawinner.

It is about time racing opened its collective doors and welcomed those people in with open arms.

Registering is painful, naming can be painful, just trying to get a horse to the racecourse can be painful. It could be made so much easier

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