Unsung heroes a model of industry self-help
British arm of European Breeders' Fund in record £1.7 million contribution
May Day means different things to different people: keeping the red flag flying, dancing round a pole on the village green, even a distress call. In the bloodstock business, however, it should also be circled on the calendar as the deadline to register ineligible youngsters with the European Breeders’ Fund. And its approach, at a time of renewed exasperation over prizemoney levels at certain courses, appeals as an appropriate cue to reflect on the daily impact - quiet yet indispensable - of both the umbrella organisation, and its domestic partner, the British EBF.
Rachael Gowland, marketing and communication manager at BEBF, senses that its work can often be taken for granted. “With 600 races a year containing those three letters in the title, it’s almost part of the fabric,” she says. “If you asked an average racegoer what they signify, they probably wouldn’t have a clue. More worryingly, I’ve sat down with couple of racecourses and asked their PR or marketing or sponsorship departments whether they know who we are, or how we’re funded, and been told no.
“People don’t realise the scope of what we do, the amount of money involved, or the amount of work that goes into making sure that money goes to the right place. And they don’t understand who our stakeholders are, either - that the same people they’re indebted to, for propping up the industry, are also their sponsors through the EBF.”
These, to be specific, are the 47 British farms - from the Newmarket giants down to “cottage industry” National Hunt studs - who annually subscribe around 60 per cent of an audited average nomination for each of their stallions. Moreover purchasers of yearlings by ineligible stallions (imported from, say, the US or Japan) can throw $600 apiece into the pot - by May 1 - to secure eligibility for a stipulated minimum of 70 per cent of the juvenile novice and maiden programme. (Across the EBF, last year this stacked up at $1.4 million.) One way or another, 4,230 of 4,265 juveniles in training in Britain last year were registered. As a result £1.7 million will again be invested in British racing in 2017, equalling last year’s record, when the EBF came third in the national sponsorship table - whether measured by aggregate prizemoney, or number of races sponsored.
But if even these impressive headline figures represent something of a hidden dimension, then their definitive value lies deeper still - and that is in the strategic distribution of the fund. In consultation with the BHA and different racecourses, the trustees can respond flexibly to consensus and concern within the industry. In the past couple of years, for instance, they have invested in an enhanced programme for future stayers, and for fillies and mares.
The mandatory commitment to the juvenile programme accounts for only a third of the spend, leaving plenty of room for manoeuvre. “It is co-operative and fluid in nature,” Gowland explains. “People can come to us with research and say: ‘We’ve seen an area of improvement, would you be able to help us?’ The series of fillies’ races was a good example. A lot of those were already EBF races so it was a question of adding where we could, repackaging, and making a sensible story out of it - and we ended up with a £625,000 series ending in a final at Newmarket. With five per cent of each year’s spend ring-fenced as a development fund, racecourses can come to us too, with ideas they need help in getting off the ground.”
By the same token, critically, the fund is only ever available to complement the right kind of commitment. “We won’t ever support achieving minimum values for a race,” Gowland stresses. “It has to be an enhancement of the prize fund. So in those terms, we’re not a commercial racecourse sponsor. But when you look at what we do for racecourses, in terms of their average prizemoney, our contribution goes a long way.”
The revenues available represent an instructive measure of the state of the British stallion market. Sixty per cent of a Dubawi cover, for instance, might alone help to support dozens of small races. As such, after last year’s fund achieved a 16 per cent hike, even maintaining the same level this time round can be viewed as a healthy sign. Moreover the bulk of funding is pitched, in the hope of sustaining that improvement, to a broad middle tier: if Group races are never supported, nor are basement prizes that might otherwise provide a crutch to animals liable ultimately to detract from the breed.
That ability to take a longer view is imperative in the trustees, who are typically appointed for three-year terms. Under the chairmanship of Philip Mitchell, the seasoned judges currently seated round the boardroom table include Sam Bullard for Darley, as the biggest single contributor to BEBF; Simon Mockridge of Juddmonte; Chris Richardson of Cheveley Park; Simon Sweeting of Overbury; plus two TBA nominees. They are aided by Kerry Murphy, representing the guardian EBF.
“I think it’s very important for people to realise we’re not controlled by anybody, we’re not beholden,” Gowland says. “Our strategies have been built up through years of experience, years of trying different things, of constantly assessing the percentages to make sure we’re supporting races that are important.
“The last couple of years, for instance, we’ve been supporting these sire-restricted maidens for horses that could potentially go on to run longer distances. It’s all very well saying these things have to be supported. But unless you provide the environment then you can’t judge whether it is something people need. At the same time, we have to provide funding for the races people need for the horse population. There is quite a fine balance between finding ways to encourage a healthy spread and being mindful of investing in races nobody’s going to run in.”
Since its inauguration - not without controversy - in 1983, the EBF has poured £31.5 million into the British sport: not just in prize-money enhancements but also in veterinary research projects, most recently (along with the TBA and the Levy Board) funding a three-year postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge University to address the danger of worm infestation on studs.
Long held up by Government as a model of industry self-help, the EBF and its British wing are not supposed to be there for Mayday emergencies - m’aidez, as French has it - but to underpin and sustain the breed’s improvement by daily increments. Yet there is nothing routine about the fund’s distribution. There is a normative purpose to the use of every farthing.
“Everything has to be constantly reassessed,” Gowland says. “We have to be pragmatic about what works and what doesn’t. We’re in the second year of the fillies’ series, for example, so we will have to keep looking at field sizes and so on. Essentially it’s our investors’ money. People have kindly agreed to put money into this fund to be reinvested to make the industry healthier. So we have a responsibility to them. It’s a delicate balance, and an ever-changing dynamic.”