Premierisation in UK racing: a new concept or just an inevitability?
British racing embarks upon a new classification from 2024 in an effort to sustain its place in world affairs. The much-vaunted Premierisation of racing effectively denudes smaller racecourses from operating in the core terrestrially-televised period of a Saturday afternoon, and channels funds directly from marginal country meets to major headline fixtures.
Premierisation is being driven by a Flat-centric British Horseracing Authority that sees a steady sale of the UK's best stock to run abroad in what look ostensibly lower quality races that are much better endowed. And you can sense the angst, when viewing the sheer scale of the investment put into jurisdictions like Saudi Arabia, Dubai, the Far East, and Australia. $1 m races have become quite the norm.
But, as James Sanderson, BHA director representing the independent courses, which are generally smaller enterprises, articulates very well in a column in this week's Racing Post, smaller racecourses have been positioned as the patsy for a two tier racing market in which money is channelled toward bigger events that might accelerate world betting focus on British racing.
Two tier racing achieves support among owners and trainers with the bluest of blue bloodstock, whose owners can breed or purchase the best bloodlines. Yet prize money is not a leading factor in the making of these horses; their subsequent value at stud is what drives value. And focusing more and more cash into a smaller set of races only drives more and more money into the hands of those that had most of it at the start.
Racing's success is predicated on the broadest of bases of support, meaning that it should be possible to win a few races with a modestly-bred horse, enjoy a premium experience, and more or less wash one's face on costs. Britain already lags behind other leading jurisdictions in its return from prize money, but premierisation must surely exacerbate this dilemma. The sport is for everyone, not just for the few, and there are plenty of trainers and riders whose livelihoods will not be enhanced by a redirection of funds to the top of racing's pyramid of excellence.
Sadly, however, I sense that this move does no more than follow a trend from elsewhere. In France, the key racecourses staging 90% of the French Pattern are owned by France Galop. Small wonder that provincial racecourses struggle to match their efforts when they don't have a seat at the table.
Whilst there are Flat Pattern events away from the Paris conurbation, almost the entirety of the Jump Pattern takes place between Auteuil and Clarefontaine, marginally more spread out for the Flat. For more adventurous trainers and owners, it is still possible to root out Black type in the shires, as illustrated by Time Lock's 2l victory on Sunday at Craon in the Listed Prix Dirickx, when trained by Harry & Roger Charlton.
The French example is an illustration of two tier racing in action already, and yet goes against any sort of trends in spectator behaviour. Craon's biggest three days of the year attracted crowds larger than might descend upon Sandown on a Saturday, whilst cards at the metropolitan tracks are often played out to deserted grandstands. In short, premierisation has done nothing for growing interest in the sport.
A big following for racing in the UK allows us a stand out feature from many other northern hemisphere jurisdictions. Surely big tracks should be digging into their own resources to grow their crowds and thence their prize funds, rather than stealing from the mouths of babes? I sense an injustice of marginalizing the underdog, and the British have a penchant for supporting those unfairly dealt with.