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Harrington defends decision to shelve race reduction plans amid heavy criticism

ASCOT, ENGLAND - MAY 07: A general view as runners leave the stalls for The tote Victoria Cup at Ascot Racecourse on May 07, 2022 in Ascot, England. (Photo by Alan Crowhurst/Getty Images)
The National Trainers Federation is upset with the decision to reject proposed changes to the race programmeCredit: Alan Crowhurst (Getty Images)

BHA chief executive Julie Harrington said she was willing to take criticism over her decision to shelve the organisation's own proposals to take 300 races out of the 2023 programme for "the greater good" as the governing body was accused of abdicating responsibility over the controversial issue.

The decision has already caused a furious row to erupt as the National Trainers Federation voiced its "extreme disappointment" over the decision and its "significant concerns" over the process.

A decision on whether to go ahead with the proposals to cut the race programme in response to concerns about small field sizes was due to have been made at a meeting of the sport's executive committee, a three-person body comprising Harrington and senior executives from the Racecourse Association and the Thoroughbred Group.

Racecourses had been expected to vote against the proposal, but the Thoroughbred Group had been in favour of them, leaving the BHA to decide whether the proposals would be taken onwards for further discussions at the BHA board.

However, at the meeting on Wednesday Harrington decided the issue should be considered as part of the racing industry strategy review announced by industry leaders last week.

BHA chief executive Julie Harrington: 'I think it is worth going through the pain on the bigger argument rather than the smaller one'
BHA chief executive Julie Harrington: 'I think it is worth going through the pain on the bigger argument rather than the smaller one'Credit: Steve Davies

She told the Racing Post: "This is an example that perfectly illustrates the need for an industry strategy but it also perfectly illustrates how difficult it is going to be to get to an agreed position. I think it is worth going through the pain on the bigger argument rather than the smaller one."

Harrington added: "My decision, which I know isn't popular with some parties, was to defer it but not because I don't think competitive racing is an issue, it's because I want to take a more strategic approach to it."

Details of the BHA proposal to take 300 races out of the calendar at pinch points during the year to help tackle the issue of declining field sizes emerged last month but, despite receiving support from stakeholders such as the NTF and Jockey Club, the proposal was also opposed by bodies including Arena Racing Company.

The NTF issued a statement early on Thursday which said it was “extremely disappointed” with the outcome of the executive committee vote.

It added: "Further to this, we are left questioning a situation where, despite the Thoroughbred Group voting in favour of the BHA proposal, it was not possible to even reach the two to one majority needed to justify a discussion at the BHA board. Clearly, this raises significant concerns for us."

Harrington said she had spoken to both leading trainer and NTF president Ralph Beckett and to NTF chief executive Paul Johnson.

She added: "I am prepared to take the criticism for what I think is the greater good and I hope that Ralph, Paul and the NTF will continue to work with us to get to something that breaks this constant cycle of short-termism where we are just constantly looking at the next year's fixture list and having a new argument.

"I can understand why Ralph is upset because he believes that we should have pushed that up to the BHA board and let the BHA board make a call on it.

"I am chief executive and my view is I would just have been ducking the decision, and I think the braver thing to do was to defer now because we'd have been asking the BHA board to make a decision in the absence of a strategy."

Nevertheless, Harrington said that if work on the strategy was slow then action could still be taken over the race programme.

"Programme book one for 2023 is not published until October," she said, "so we have got some time, and if it is looking like we are not going to get to agreement by then and we still need to make an intervention on field sizes because things aren't going in the right direction then that is the time to make a more tactical intervention."

Despite Harrington's conversation with Beckett, the trainer was still highly critical of the governing body.

"My personal view is that the BHA have handed over responsibility for the sport to Arc with this decision because they didn't vote for their own proposal," he said.

"If you think that the sport is in good shape in Arc's hands then you'll like this decision."

Beckett also referred to Harrington's former position as a leading racecourse executive as well as BHA chair Joe Saumarez Smith's gambling industry background, adding: "As disgraceful a decision as this is, it didn't actually surprise me."

Fellow trainer Mark Johnston also expressed his disappointment with the decision.

"It sounded as though they were going to take decisive action and now it appears they don't have the balls, which is a pity," he said.

Mark Johnston: 'Now it appears they don't have the balls, which is a pity'
Mark Johnston: 'Now it appears they don't have the balls, which is a pity'Credit: Getty Images

"I'd have applauded them for cutting races, despite the fact that it is not in my own short-term interest. It's clearly in the long-term interest of the sport and the industry. They should have stuck to their guns."

However, Racehorse Owners Association president Charlie Parker said it was right to wait to put a strategy in place before taking action on the race programme, despite his position as chair of the Thoroughbred Group who had supported the cut.

Parker said: "I absolutely applaud efforts to try and help competition and things like the levy, but let's do it properly.

"We just need to take a breath and do the right thing. If that means taking out races or fixtures then absolutely, but let's do it sensibly.

"It's a strategy that everybody needs to buy into based on proper data analysis and getting all the variable factors in play and then doing the right thing."

Read these next:

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Published on 9 June 2022inNews

Last updated 19:50, 9 June 2022