'We must take a leap of faith' - Racecourse Association chair calls for racing to act quickly as challenges loom

Present View winning at the 2014 festival
Price of the Cheltenham Festival was said to compare well to other sporting eventsCredit: Stringer

Racecourse Association (RCA) chairman Wilf Walsh has warned of a challenging year ahead for Britain's courses and called on the sport's leaders to take a "leap of faith" and make radical changes to safeguard the future of racing. 

Walsh, writing in the association's business review, praised the new governance structure and strategy for racing. However, he reaffirmed the urgency for issues such as declining field sizes and attendances to be resolved, and a requirement to grow betting turnover in order to help the long-term health of the sport.

Walsh wrote: "2023 is already promising to be a challenging year for a variety of reasons, mainly due to the difficult economic climate. While it is easy in these testing economic times to get caught up in a whirlwind of despair, it is worth noting that 2022 saw record prize-money of £182.5 million paid out in our sport with executive contributions from racecourses totalling £88.9m.

"Driving growth through change means that the RCA is actively working in partnership with all stakeholders in racing on issues such as growing betting turnover and the levy, increasing our raceday attendances and arresting the field-size decline which makes our product less attractive. If British horseracing is serious about growing its various income streams, then doing things in the same way simply cannot be an option – growth means change, and change entails an element of financial risk for everybody involved."

As regards discussions regarding the fixture list for 2024, Walsh – a member of the BHA board – pointed towards a preference for bigger change. It comes after a shake-up of the fixture list was said to be agreed in a BHA board meeting on Tuesday.

Wilf Walsh: "Change is easy when you are not directly impacted financially"
Wilf Walsh: "Change is easy when you are not directly impacted financially"

Walsh added: "At time of writing, the only expedited element of the strategy that must come to fruition is a fixture list for 2024. We need to robustly test and trial change initiatives for an extended period. Change is easy when you are not directly impacted financially. We must be willing to take that leap of faith and collectively make change work for the long-term health of our sport."

Last year, total racecourse attendances dropped below five million for the first time in 25 years, apart from the 2020 and 2021 seasons impacted by the Covid pandemic, but Walsh described crowds so far this year as "positive". Attendances were up for the first two months of this year, but down in March and April.

The cost of going racing has been criticised but the RCA defended the pricing set by courses. The Racing Post collected cost prices from all tracks in Britain and Ireland in the Racecourse Prices Index with average admission prices on a Group/Grade 1 day in Britain costing £31.64 and £21.22. The same ticket costs the equivalent of £16.92 and £14.40 in Ireland. Yet key fixtures such as the Cheltenham Festival and Grand National were said to "compare well" to other sporting events by leading sports marketing agency Two Circles.

Walsh added: "Racecourses across Britain have responded and embraced change on a range of bold pricing initiatives to drive turnover and encourage people on course, with attendance levels positive in the first quarter of 2023. Contrary to some uninformed opinions, in comparison to leisure activities such as cinema, theatre and other top sports events, we have consistently proved that racecourses overall, provide excellent value in terms of entry cost, food and beverages."

The RCA, which increased its profits by £14,000 to £258,000 last year, outlined a number of plans for 2023, including its continued work to improve the experience on racecourses for those with accessibility needs and a switch to a more data-focused approach to marketing racedays, in an initiative with Great British Racing and Two Circles.

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James StevensWest Country correspondent
Published on 24 May 2023Last updated 19:03, 24 May 2023