As Covid ravages the finances of cycling, the new boss has a big purse, but sport could support itself by taking out the bugs
The notorious Duke Of Alburquerque rode into the race with a freshly fractured collarbone in the days before the Grand National’s fences were filed down a bit, having had 16 screws removed from one leg shortly before. Julie Harrington, who begins work this week as chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, whose job involves keeping the sport’s finances in order before they fall over entirely, is hopefully now permeating the careless, carefree spirit with which he approached the starting gate.
At a pace of around £ 2 million a month, Covid-19 has been eating away at racing capital reserves, and the near future is no less risky than it was for the Duke when Nereo dragged it towards Becher’s Brook. The return of audiences beyond a few thousand seems a long way off, and the talk of the closing of the racecourse has been in the air for months, although the ease of transporting horses between Britain, France and Ireland, due to the combined danger of the virus and Brexit, can no longer be taken for granted.
Harrington is likely to persuade the government of the racing case for increased revenue for bookmakers through the levy system in the near future.
She also needs to look at the reaction of the sport to the gambling study, which obviously has the potential to have a significant effect on an industry so dependent on betting on its attractiveness and revenue.
Those, of course, are the key topics that her thoughts would control.
But I hope she finds time to tackle the surprising tendency of racing for fundamental organizational weaknesses that threaten to harm its image and test its supporters’ dedication.
These included a three-year-old winning a two-year-old race, judges at Sandown and Kempton reporting the wrong outcome after scanning prints, and another wrong outcome being declared because the wrong winning post was pointed to by photographic equipment. The outgoing executive director, Nick Rust, tried to reassure worried members of the public by talking about technology and “second checks” being placed in place to avoid mistakes, but late in his term, new bugs continued to pop up.
Most embarrassingly, when they raced in a high-profile juvenile race at Newmarket in October, carrying each other’s jockeys, two horses were mistaken for each other, with the result that Snowfall was declared third when it was actually Mother Earth. There were two instances of photo finish prints in late 2020 that were not plain enough to indicate which horse had won, while 10 horses had to be disqualified after June, including one winner, because their jockeys refused to weigh in. The inadequacies of the flag waving device, designed to alert jockeys to problems during the race, have been highlighted by other accidents at Sandown and Fontwell.
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For any of these issues, we can argue where the liability lies, but if the regulator does not take on the task of solving them in the future, no one else can. Instead of continuously responding to bad news and promising to learn from it, the BHA needs to get better at predicting what could go wrong and avoiding problems. Shortly after taking office, Rust unveiled targets, including 7 million racetrack visitors by 2020.
As it turned out, it was difficult to retain the figure for 2020, but attendance had already fallen last year, to 5.6 million in 2019. On the other hand, the number of horses in training rose by 5 percent from 2015 to early 2020, one of several accomplishments that the outgoing executive director would point to.