Magazine article The Spectator

The Turf Commercial Approach

Magazine article The Spectator

The Turf Commercial Approach

Article excerpt

British racing is such a quirky minefield that some were surprised when in 2011 the authorities chose Paul Bittar, a man from Wagga Wagga with most of his racecourse experience in New Zealand and the state of Victoria, to run the British Horseracing Authority. Australian cricketers, it used to be said, had a standard uniform: green caps and a chip on the shoulder. When I mentioned in front of a racing club audience the other night that New Zealanders will bet on anything that moves, and if it doesn't move they will kick it and bet on when it will start to move, Paul was sufficiently Australian to chide: 'You're not suggesting, are you, that Australians would be any less eager to have a bet?' It set the tone for an evening of good humour and candid common sense. We have, thank God, a realist in the saddle.

Paul arrived as the BHA had managed to turn the introduction of new whip rules for jockeys into a public relations fiasco on the first Champions' Day. Racecourses and owners were publicly at each others' throats with owners, via the Horsemen's Group, threatening racecourse boycotts. Racing was one long moan about poor prize money and low-grade fixtures.

Swiftly, he defused the whip controversy by reintroducing discretion for racecourse stewards. He has achieved warmer relations with the betting industry, on whom racing depends for its finances. He has cooled the factions and reasserted the BHA's authority.

'I knew there were quite a lot of good haters in the sport. I thought that I could bring a more commercial approach. I also felt that the BHA had lost its way a bit and there was a good opportunity for the governing body to reconnect with the sport.'

Is there too much racing? 'The way the economics of the sport in Britain work [through a levy on bookmakers], the sport is incentivised to put on more product - more races, more fixtures. The fixtures list is put on for racegoers and the betting industry in the first instance, so we look to fill it from a demand perspective - how great is the demand for racing? Once we know what the demand is, we say, "Do we have enough horses to fill that?" So we then look at it from a supply perspective. Over the past seven years the average field size has declined by almost two horses per race. You could say that is because we run too many races, too many fixtures. The horse population has been in decline, racing has become slightly less competitive, that is probably true. But the economics of the sport are actually better.'

Owners, he insists, are not in decline if you include syndicate members with less than half a horse. …

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