British racing told to be brave as wide-ranging fixture list reforms are revealed
BHA chief executive Julie Harrington has told the British racing industry to be brave and not to take a short-term view as the governing body unveiled a major shake-up to the 2024 fixture list on Thursday.
A new Premier tier of racing, a two-hour Saturday shop window for the sport and the trial of six Sunday evening floodlit fixtures are among the innovations set to be introduced next year after being approved by the BHA board this week.
There are also plans to increase the competitiveness of British racing in the face of falling field sizes with a reduction of 300 jump races across the year and the transfer of some Flat races from the summer to the autumn and early winter, along with better quality racing on Sunday afternoons, including Premier fixtures.
The proposals, formulated by the cross-industry commercial committee, are set to be implemented and tested for an initial two-year period. The aim is to grow the sport’s reach, appeal to new fans and better engage existing customers with the hope it will generate extra revenues which will in turn boost prize-money levels.
"What's absolutely important is we don't take a one-year view of this because if you did you would not do anything," Harrington said. "We've got to remember the aim is about creating a more attractive product that is going to increase engagement for everybody."
Harrington said the sport should not approach the changes as if everything were done in just one year, adding: "We need to be a bit more agile, try new things and learn from them – either roll them out or stop them."
Asked if she was asking the sport to be brave, Harrington replied: "That is a fair summary."
Premier racing, a concept put forward by former BHB chair Peter Savill last year, will be the top tier of the sport with higher prize-money and more competitive top-quality racing featuring the best horses.
The most controversial aspect of premierisation has been that of the introduction of a two-hour slot for around two-thirds of Saturday afternoons which would feature two Premier meetings and one other meeting. The remaining third of Saturdays would still feature Premier meetings but there would be four fixtures those days, allowing a comparison between the two approaches.
BHA chief operating officer Richard Wayman said: "We want our best horses to be running and competing when our customers are watching and clearly ITV plays a massive role in that."
Smaller courses have voiced concern about their lucrative Saturday meetings being moved to either earlier or later slots as a result, with the threat of legal action having been raised. However, Harrington said that she did not think that prospect was likely.
She said: "We have had the entire industry represented around the table including small and large independents and where we have ended up on the proposals for the shop window for Saturday is not every Saturday. We have reached a position for year one which we think is really pragmatic and tried to ensure there are no unintended consequences from an admissions revenue point of view.
"I would say no, I don't believe we are going to get a legal challenge because everybody has been represented around the table and we have been listening."
Harrington said the plans were "unashamedly trying to maximise the revenue generated to help with the long-term health and sustainability of the sport". However she claimed the suggestion that the fixture list work was concentrating too much on increasing the return from betting and not looking after the racegoer was "absolutely not the case".
She added: "I don't want anyone to think that this is devaluing racecourse customers."
Harrington said there would be detailed metrics at which the sport would be aiming but did not have details yet as they are linked to the final fixture list.
"Once we know how many fixtures we have in what slots then we'll be able to give you a clearer vision of the metrics but rest assured we are not just crossing our fingers and hoping for the best," she added.
Wayman said the reduction in the number of jumps races and the transfer of summer Flat races to later in the year were "very targeted" and developed with the use of betting data. "This is the outcome of quite complex analysis and will make a significant difference to race competitiveness in 2024," he added.
The BHA said further details to support the implementation of the core principles would be developed and refined in the coming weeks, including the vital subject of funding which will include submissions to the Levy Board. Smaller courses had been concerned they would lose out as resources were funnelled towards Premier meetings.
Harrington said the intention was for the Premier tier to have enhanced levels of prize-money underpinned by higher minimum values and that it was anticipated the extra money would come from both the levy and racecourse contributions.
"We now need time to work through with our colleagues at racecourses and the Levy Board about how that is going to work," she added.
The governing body also said talks would take place about how to support racing's workforce in light of the changes, including discussions and recommendations around the number of breaks in the calendar.
BHA chair Joe Saumarez Smith said the BHA board had endorsed and approved the recommendations because "it was clear to us that they were necessary and in the best interests of the sport".
He said it was "inevitable" that not everyone would agree with the proposals but added that the sport's new governance system which made the BHA board the ultimate decision-making body had been created for just such circumstances.
Data key to the decision-making process
Those behind the significant changes to the fixture list approved by the BHA board this week stressed that their actions were driven by data analysis. The commercial committee had access to figures from betting companies, the Levy Board and racecourses and was able to see how revenues flow into the sport.
It also received customer insight, including from the Horseracing Bettors Forum, and input from the industry’s fixtures and funding group.
Saumarez Smith said: "At the heart of growing the sport is using data properly. For too long, racing has made decisions based on sentiment or partial information and we are now starting to make genuinely data-driven, evidence-based decisions about what is best for racing."
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