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Another one balloted out? - What's going on with Low-Grade Racing

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

Low-grade horse racing is used by all trainers in some way or another. Whether it is for younger horses looking to gain experience or more established horses who have ultimately found their level, all trainers use these races at some point. Grassroots trainers who do not have the financial backing of the top trainers find these races particularly useful, as they still get the satisfaction of seeing their horses run. Low-grade racing is a hot topic at present; in jumps racing the demand for these races far outweigh the availability, whilst on the flat the uncompetitive low-runner handicaps are being favoured. How can grassroots trainers expect to earn a living when their horses rated within this bracket are continually ‘balloted out’ of races? This could lead to them turning their backs on the sport for good and horses being retired as a result. The number of low-grade horses is so large that many will struggle to be re-homed, that’s on top of the increased demand to find homes for horses at present. I think the structure within horse racing needs some serious consideration…

Firstly though, I’d like to begin by mentioning an article I read in the Racing Post by Lewis Porteous. The premise of the article was the idea that horse owners could give up on the sport if it gives in to the calls to reduce the number of low-grade fixtures. It is seen as though low-grade races are targeted as a way of reducing the volume of racing. Porteous wrote “The races that do the most damage to the sport are those such as the Class 3 handicap at Newmarket a week last Friday, a two-mile contest with just two runners and a 4-11 favourite. Uncompetitive races like that are a turn-off to spectators and punters alike, while their financial contribution to the sport based on the levy they return from the amount bet on them is negligible.” Why is it that lower-grade competitive races are being ousted yet higher-grade low-runner handicaps which nobody has an interest in are being favoured? Not to mention jumps racing where the demand for these races is so great, some class 5 handicap hurdle races are having 70-80 entries when only 10-15 horses can be declared.

Here's a Class 3 race with just 6 declarations compared to a class 5 race with 44 declarations, many of which won't run

It is worth remembering that no matter the quality of the horse, the cost of training is the same. How can you expect smaller trainers to continue training horses when they cannot get their horses declared for a race? Minimising the number of low-grade races will inevitably cause trainers and owners to turn their back on the sport, with others being forced out of business. From his article, Porteous wrote "The BHA has added meetings that largely cater for these horses, yet trainers continue to press the case for more. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, among British Racing’s most pressing issues was attracting new faces and owners to the sport. For racing’s long term health it remains a crucial ambition, but far more pertinent in the short term is retaining existing owners.” Robin Dickin (a trainer mentioned in the article) is one of many who has struggled with entries, a number of his yard are rated below 100 and the consequences from these being balloted out have been significant.

Some people argue “why not retire the horse if it’s not very good?” There is no need for these low-rated horses in the sport and so they should just be removed. Simply retiring poor horses would take a large number out of racing, eventually leading to low-grade races being rare or even extinct. This then has the knock-on effect of trainers and owners being unable to take part due to a lack of money and then a loss of jobs on multiple different fronts. This is something Porteous also touched on in his article, “Earlier this year the BHA introduced measures to improve the traceability of retired racehorses, which was commendable, and the industry has a clear duty to any horse that has stepped foot on a racecourse. Care and precision would be needed if a time comes when it is decided it (the fixture list) must be reduced.” He went on to say “One thing is for sure, take too many cards away from the bottom and you risk the whole house crashing down.” Whilst some think the removal/reduction of low-grade racing would bring potential benefits to the racing world, it might be worth looking beyond the congested fixture list...

A competitive low-grade handicap taking place at Kempton Park

I have recently spoken with Roy Henderson, co-manager of the NHRE Racing Club. I started by doing some digging with regards to horses being balloted out of races and the issues surrounding that:

How do you feel the lack of low-grade racing could be improved for owners and trainers? What current issues are there with regards to horses being “balloted out”?

“The number of Class 5 handicap horses is between 30-40% of all handicappers and yet there are still cards with no Class 5 races. We need to have more meetings, especially midweek, with lower grade races whilst existing meetings need to look at the balance of their cards. There needs to be a reserve system in place so that there is an extra opportunity for balloted-out horses to get a run. On 13th October at Hereford, there were 3 x Class 3 races with a total declaration of 18 horses between them. Meanwhile, the Class 5 race had about 80 entries and 57 horses declared to run. Even though the race was divided 30 horses didn't get a run, so unless your horse had a rating of 92 you wouldn't get a run in a 0-100 race! Grassroots trainers are not being taken seriously and the BHA although adding the odd extra fixtures here and there doesn't seem to be doing enough on the face to help.”

“Also, why so many all-weather cards during the week that have no spectator appeal? Put on a lower grade race on some of the bigger cards at the premier courses as a way of encouraging more enthusiasts to get involved in ownership, as well as balancing the structure of horse racing to keep lower grade races going alongside the standard cards. Prize money is at a hopeless level. It costs approximately £20k per year to keep a horse in training. With first prizes of around £3k, you would need to win 6 races to break even. Compare this with Ireland and France and you can see why some trainers are re-locating or giving up.”

This information is quite simply shocking. Entries for these races at the moment are that high that you need a horse towards the top of the specified rating to even be in with a chance of a run, any horses below the 90 rated mark are essentially null and void, which you can understand why the trainers of such horses are ready to turn their back on the sport. So much more could be done to clean up the fixture list without the risk of cutting out these low-grade races and potentially pushing people out of business for good.

What have the BHA said regarding this topic and your interaction with them? (From the BHA)

“As highlighted before, the agreed approach to the race programme is that we optimise it in advance based on the expected horse population and then add fixtures and races at shorter notice if excess demand exists. This year the demand has been higher than expected due to the curtailment of the previous jump season and we have looked to add in fixtures to deal with that. All parties of horsemen and racecourses agreed to add in 19 additional fixtures. With lower levels of eliminations over jumps than flat and with turf constraints reducing the feasibility of adding jump fixtures, these were ultimately split 12 AW, 5 jumps to take place now (winter) and 2 jumps to take place in spring.”

“On the face of it I can see that this appears to be the sport favouring flat racing by allocating a greater number to that code but this is not the case. We have added Jump fixtures in recent weeks at Hexham, Stratford and Lingfield (subsequently abandoned) and have also divided low-grade handicaps at meetings early this week to try to ensure that the demands of jump owners are met. The revenues generated by these fixtures will support both codes and it is not easy to just add jump fixtures, particularly as the weather gets wetter.”

Again a Class 2 race with just 9 declarations compared to a Class 5 race with 29 declarations, many of which wont run

As you can see here, the BHA is beginning to take on-board what people are saying regarding this issue. However, the continuation of races with a handful of declarations and evident lack of low-grade fixtures shows grassroots trainers are still not being taken seriously. It was clear from my conversation with Roy that he too felt it made no sense when you can simply prune higher class races and have more competitive racing with larger fields. This in turn would reduce fixtures allowing more space for Class 5 handicaps and more horses being able to run as a result.

How can the BHA do more to help owners especially in low-grades?

“Lower grade racing should be seen as the Entry-Level into ownership. The BHA make the right noises about encouraging clubs and syndicates but if they don't give more opportunities for low-grade horses they will see people disappearing from the sport. Our club (NHRE Racing Club) was set up 3 years ago and my main aim was to encourage racing fans into ownership at a low level and low cost. Many of our members have gone on to become members of other syndicates because they have so much enjoyed the ownership experience. So, in our small way we have helped to increase the number of people joining the ownership ranks. Multiply that by the number of clubs operating and you have an excellent entrance into ownership at higher levels of racing. My message to the BHA is, if you are going to encourage more people into ownership through clubs and syndicates then you must have a viable programme that meets the needs of low-grade horses.”

This is something that I think all concerned can agree on. The balancing of the midweek programmes as discussed to reduce the number of small field races with odds-on favourites would go a long way to solving the problem. The BHA seems to have a lot to say on the topic but is quick to point the finger and is reluctant to help those most in need. What some people may think is a step in the right direction, to others is a case of too little too late… I'd like to thank Roy for his co-operation and for sharing his views on the topic.

I also spoke to Dan Abraham, Owner/Manager of Foxtrot Racing to get the view of someone from a syndicate background on these issues and also the re-homing of retired horses:

How could the issues surrounding low-grade races potentially be avoided?

“The number of horses looking to run in these races is too high and the reliance on the handicap system for these horses is too strong. There should be other types of racing for these horses with their weight being based on wins, prize money won, size of trainer etc. Claiming races used to be for lower-rated horses but are now often won by a mid-120's rated horse.”

I thought this was a brilliant idea as it would open up the opportunity for bigger fields in the class 3 races without the need to cut anything from the calendar. This in turn means horses get a better chance at running and the fixture list is smoothed out somewhat which benefits trainers on every level and also provides more exciting races for the spectator.

How do the fees compare to the prize money available?

“Some of our horses make an annual profit, having been purchased very cheaply, but it’s almost impossible with those competing in lower grade races. However, the most important thing is to have your horse running and winning at any level and that should be the focus, getting more horses to win and more fun for owners.”

Linking back to what Roy said earlier, the money just isn’t viable at the moment for these types of races. You struggle to get your horse to run, and then when it does you have to win a minimum of 5/6 races just to break-even on the training costs etc.

A low-grade hurdle race taking place at Fakenham

What could the BHA do to help syndicates/owners? And also horses when they retire?

“The BHA are the regulators of the sport so we shouldn't expect them to fulfil roles outside of their remit. I would however like to see more regulation regarding the buying and selling of injured horses, this would make a huge impact (especially) on those of us that buy at the cheaper end of the market. Many believe more restrictions are needed to prevent the buying and selling of injured horses, the whole area of horse welfare throughout its life needs to be examined. Here at Foxtrot Racing we always ensure we find a suitable home for our ex-racehorses and that's critical. I'm sure a lot more can be done to assist in this area to help re-home horses without making it an additional expense for owners, but there is an issue of who takes responsibility. Is it the responsibility of the owner, the regulator or the industry as a whole?”

The life of a racehorse once it retires is just as important as the life it has whilst racing. It is paramount that once it finishes its racing career it has somewhere to go to be looked after. With the number of horses within horse racing increasing year by year (up 6.6% in the UK and Ireland from 10 years ago), there is a rising number of injured/older horses retiring and needing to be re-homed and so this issue needs to be acted upon quickly. The capacity for retired racehorses is finite and will eventually run out. I would also like to thank Dan for his time and contribution to this article.

So, there are several issues surrounding low-grade horse racing at the moment. From a lack of races, to the re-homing of retired horses and even racecourses struggling for funding too. The lack of spectators has affected the finances of racecourses, even the premium ones! If a racecourse was to close due to a lack of money, that takes even more opportunities for low-grade races out of the fixture list. This coupled with the pre-existing issues is a disaster waiting to happen, for spectators, trainers, owners and racecourses alike. It is important to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity to be involved in the sport, and as mentioned above, the BHA could be doing more. If these steps are not taken soon, I fear many racecourses will have to close, smaller trainers especially will be forced out of business and a lot of people will lose their jobs. With just some simple adjustments I feel horse racing as a sport could be improved for everyone in some way or another, it remains to be seen however how quickly the BHA act on the advice given, and just where the sport will be in years to come.

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