Home » ‘Areas of concern’: British racing faces headwinds as Grand National looms

‘Areas of concern’: British racing faces headwinds as Grand National looms

If anyone at Aintree needed a reminder of the oscillating exhilarations and perils of jump racing, it came within a few tragic seconds on Ladies’ Day. In one breath, the favourite for the opening race, Inothewayurthinkin, surged over the last fence, to a roar that could have been heard back in Liverpool. In the next, Giovinco crashed to the floor to gasps, the green screens came up, and he became the first fatality of this year’s meeting.

But, ahead of the Grand National, British racing is not only facing familiar questions around horse welfare, but increasingly biting financial headwinds. There are warnings of falling attendances. The dominance of the Irish. The lack of competitiveness and depth in UK races. And questions over cocaine use among fans.

“I think there are obviously areas to be concerned,” says Nevin Truesdale, the chief executive of the jockey club which owns 15 courses, including Aintree. But, he insists, the situation is also nuanced.

“In the last 18 months, we’re definitely seeing a drop-off in ticket sales in our lower priced ticket areas,” he says. “And that implies to me heavily that this is predominantly a cost-of-living issue. Other sports tell me the same thing. But we’ve never sold more hospitality tickets at Cheltenham and Aintree. So that top end of the market is extremely healthy.”

Last month the Telegraph also warned that cocaine-snorting men dressed like Peaky Blinders, “in drainpipe trousers that didn’t reach their sockless shoes”, had changed the mood of the Cheltenham Festival for the worse. Truesdale does not deny that cocaine use is a problem – but insists that other sports are in a similar boat.

“I absolutely think we have an issue we need to address,” he says. “And we are doing that with sniffer dogs and amnesty bins.

“But I don’t think that issue for us is any worse than it was two or three years ago. It’s actually a societal problem, because some of these substances are priced to the level where they’re very accessible for people.”

Truesdale, who this week had to announce £1.5m prize money cuts for this year, also insists there are reasons to be cheerful. He points to the new “Drive to Survive-type” documentary about the jumps season that will launch on ITV1 soon. And don’t forget, he says, that most sports would love the 100 days of terrestrial coverage that his sport enjoys. The use of drones and data, he insists, is also giving the TV viewer a better experience.

But both Truesdale and Julie Harrington, the chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority, admit that dominance of Irish horses in the major British races is a problem. And they want the government to solve it by increasing the 10% levy that bookmakers give to racing from their profits.

“We have to make sure that we’ve got the best quality horses trained in the UK,” says Truesdale. “How do we address that? Ultimately, it’s a funding issue. It’s a prize money issue. But our levy system is not as generous as the equivalent in Ireland and France, which is what is putting us at a disadvantage.”

Racegoers at Aintree. ‘When I walk round the course, I see people from all walks of life,’ says Nevin Truesdale. Photograph: Carl Recine/Reuters

Within racing there are also concerns that the government’s planned reforms to online betting, including more strenuous affordability checks that many consider unfair, will cost the industry more than £250m in the next five years.

When asked what her message to the government is, Harrington is blunt: “We need to make sure that we’ve got the firepower to make sure that we’re on a level playing field.”

Harrington is also keen to stress racing’s contribution to the wider British economy, including that it employs 88,000 people and generates £4.1bn a year.

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For now, though, all eyes will be on the Grand National, which has undergone significant reform since last year’s start was delayed by protesters from Animal Rising, before the death of Hill Sixteen early in the race.

Not only has the field size been reduced from 40 to 34, but the first fence moved closer to the start to reduce the mad dash from the off. The hope is that it will make the race safer – as much as any race over 30 fences can be.

The BHA is also aiming to go on the front foot in the battle for public opinion by launching its HorsePWR platform, which aims to build public trust around horse welfare.

“We realised that we need to be transparent, get the facts out there and share some of those messages with the broader public,” says Harrington. “Because in the absence of transparency people are potentially following false narratives.”

It follows damaging revelations raised by Panorama in 2021 about the way horses were treated, including how some were sent to the slaughterhouse after their careers ended.

“British racing mandated from the start of 2022 that all of our domestically trained racehorses that are entered to run in Britain have got to be signed out of the food chain,” she points out. “They cannot be going to an abattoir. It’s just fundamentally wrong.”

Meanwhile, despite the cost-of-living crisis, Truesdale is hopeful that Saturday’s big race will be another 70,000 sellout.

“This is a compelling, exciting sport, watched by nearly six million people a year,” he insists. “When I walk round the course, I see people from all walks of life, and a male and female split close to 50/50. It will be a fantastic day and a fantastic atmosphere. This really is a sport for all.”