Thursday 22 March 2018

Rust knows where bodies are buried

BHA chief to be applauded for taking fight for racing's future to bookies

Richard Johnson guides Bishops Road over the final fence on the way to landing Saturday’s Grand National Trial Chase at Haydock. Photo: Anna Gowthorpe/PA.
Richard Johnson guides Bishops Road over the final fence on the way to landing Saturday’s Grand National Trial Chase at Haydock. Photo: Anna Gowthorpe/PA.
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

A lot of sensible commentators have serious concerns about the manner in which the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) are playing Russian roulette with the issue of bookmaker sponsorship.

In the past, this corner has observed the danger of overstating racing's value to bookmakers, as declining turnover on the sport contrasts with overall betting being on the rise.

That is the sort of thinking at the root of the reservations of many now, namely that, having been ostracised, bookies will simply be happy to spend their sponsorship money where they are made to feel welcome. Given racing's undeniable struggle to attract non-bookie sponsors, it is a legitimate fear.

It has also been suggested that firms with both a retail and online presence don't have the profit margin to absorb what the BHA is looking for them to pay in lieu of lost Levy revenue.

In that sense, it is interesting that three of the four firms that have achieved Approved Better Partner (ABP) status are online only operations, namely Bet365, Betfair, 32Red. BetVictor has in recent days been revealed as the latest ABP, apparently at the behest of owner Michael Tabor of Coolmore.

Having watched events unfold over the past couple of months, it's hard not to admire the stance being taken by the BHA, in particular its new chief executive Nick Rust.

A senior executive at two major bookmaking firms prior to what was at the time perceived to be a left-field appointment by the BHA, Rust knows where the bookies' bodies are buried and is intent on using this intimate knowledge for racing's long-term betterment.

No doubt, it's a high-risk strategy, but it's refreshing to see someone in a position of such influence be so willing to rock the boat. Let's be honest, radical change is not something we tend to associate with the establishment.

Rust is showing real leadership here, and it looks as though he has the courage of his convictions to see it through. Bravo. There are far too many incidences of the tail wagging the dog in this game already.

Last week, after 10 years backing and playing a pivotal role in the re-branding of the World Hurdle, Ladbrokes were replaced by Ryanair as the Grade One's sponsor at Cheltenham next month. As a result, they also opted to forfeit the tenancy on their shops at the track.

Betfred, sponsor of the Gold Cup for the past two years, have also been replaced by Timico. Skybet, Stan James, Coral and Betway are all non-ABPs with existing sponsorship contracts at the Festival that could also be lost if they don't sign up.

Call me naive, but I'd venture that, one by one, they will all come round to accept Rust's terms, and it is encouraging to see the industry begin to get behind the initiative, because it needs to.

All Jockey Club Racecourses and Arena Racing Company tracks, which constitute a total of 60pc of British venues, are already supporting the process. Now Racecourse Media Group, which owns the subscription channel Racing UK, has rowed in by stating that the business of its four bookmaker partners - Ladbrokes, Coral, William Hill and Sky Bet - will no longer be welcome on their channel from the end of the month, unless they sign up as ABPs.

With the likes of Tabor and Michael O'Leary standing four-square behind the BHA, the ante is being upped. It's only a matter of time before the rest fall into line.

Regardless of whether or not betting turnover on racing is in decline, there is no way that all these firms can risk being left on the periphery. They need the exposure and their shareholders need the business.

Surely no other sport generates consistent, everyday turnover for them in the way that racing does, and, ultimately, they are not going to cut off their noses to spite their faces. Rust knows this.

His stance is also a world removed the one that in 2009 saw Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) unilaterally spurn a multi-million Euro offering from Betfair and then, effectively, exclude the betting exchange from sponsoring Irish racing events.

That was an inexplicable solo run that had its origins in a fit of pique, rather than as part of a considered, all-encompassing strategy. In Ireland, since last August, a modest 1pc tax has been imposed on bookies' online business and a 15pc rate on commission for exchanges has been enforced. Firms that don't pay up are denied a licence to trade.

All the major operators are on board, but the crucial difference is that the BHA's model is designed to siphon the yield from the ABPs directly back into racing, as opposed to the government coffers.

The aim is to promote a "fair and mutually sustainable funding relationship" between the layers and racing. It's a big-picture perspective that will serve racing better in the long run, however long it takes for some firms to see the light.

In truth, we could do with a similar mindset being adopted here, where the issue of television rights money obscures the landscape to the point that the game is dying on its feet in many areas.

As one of shrewd mind pointed out to me last week: "Irish racecourses couldn't take their heads out of the trough long enough to think of doing something similar. Always small picture stuff here."

The pun wasn't intended, I think. But it was pretty apt.

Mullins' title bid in the balance

Willie Mullins might have lost Faugheen for the rest of the season but his relentless Closutton operation continues to excel.

The champion trainer had two market-leading French imports turned over in the early exchanges at Fairyhouse on Saturday, but his luck soon turned. Mala Beach looked to have the At The Races Bobbyjo Chase sown up only to crash two-out under Davy Russell.

In his absence, the Ruby Walsh-ridden 11-year-old Boston Bob was left to fend off stablemate On His Own to secure its first win in two years. Mullins also saddled the third home in the Grade Two, Turban qualifying for the Grand National by making the frame.

The Mullins-Walsh axis doubled up when Vedettariat dotted up in the beginners' chase.

It has been a mixed few weeks for the all-conquering firm, with Djakadam falling at Cheltenham, Valseur Lido unseating at the last when seemingly in command of the Irish Gold Cup, and then Killultagh Vic and Faugheen being ruled out with suspensory injuries. With the likes of Shaneshill, Morning Run and Up For Review among others to have underperformed of late, the sense of invincibility surrounding the Mullins runners has eased a little. Yet, as we've seen so often this year, Mullins has the depth to absorb such setbacks.

With Annie Power being thrust into the Champion Hurdle picture, he still has the first three in the betting for March 15 showpiece, and he has five of the current favourites for the seven races on day one of the Festival, plus three others.

While it's understandable that Annie Power is being talked of as being supplemented for the Champion, it is worth remembering that, when it comes to it, Mullins likes to stick to the old adage of a trainer keeping himself in the best of company and his horses in the worst. It might not be a done deal.

Mullins's slightly subdued spell will make it that bit harder for him to plunder a famous win in the British trainers' title.

After combining with Noel Fehily to win the Betfair Ascot Chase with a revitalised Silviniaco Conti on Saturday, Paul Nicholls is now odds-on across the board to top the pile again, with Mullins as big as 11/8, having been odds-on.

There is still a lot to play for, but, given how much would need to go right, it does seem a more unlikely ambition for Mullins in light of recent events. Flemenstar, incidentally, trailed in a distant last of six finishers at Ascot.

Eagle swoops to deny Duchess

There was no cross-channel success for the raiders this weekend but they were among the winners at a more exotic location.

A year ago, Duchess Andorra gave Joanna Morgan her final win as a trainer in St Moritz. She is now in the care of Johnny Murtagh, and, ridden on the Swiss snow yesterday by Connor King, she could manage only second in the same race.

However, she was beaten by Tracey Collins' Ronan Whelan-ridden Eagle Valley, which is owned and bred, like Duchess Andorra, by Michael Ryan.

Jonathan Burke, meanwhile, could to return to race-riding as soon as this weekend, having suffered compressed fractures to two vertebrae in January.

Tweet of the weekend

Colman Sweeney (@colmansweeney)'s hard not to feel a bit nostalgic after that..... #salsify #Cheltenham

The man who twice partnered his father Rodger's hunter chaser to Foxhunters glory reminisces after the 11-year-old won for a first time in three years at Fairyhouse on Saturday. Sweeney retired last year.

Numbers Game

1 Winners required by Richard Johnson to secure the first double century of his career. The champion jockey-elect is being pursued at a healthy remove by two Co Cork natives, with Aidan Coleman second on 113 and Noel Fehily now just three shy of what would be his second ton.

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