British horseracing – The going is heavy


Whilst the going for next week’s Cheltenham Festival is drying out nicely, the financial outlook for the British horseracing industry is rather less propitious.

Flat racing is being seriously impacted both by the recession and, more specifically, by the financial crisis which has imploded in Dubai, whose rulers - the boys in blue - have invested massively both in world bloodstock and in British horseracing.

Major flat races, too, are being eclipsed. The Derby, once one of Britain’s great sporting occasions, has been greatly diminished, although the brilliance of such winners as Nijinsky and the ill-fated Shergar endures.

National Hunt racing is arguably in a rather better state, although the major meetings – the Cheltenham Festival and the annual drama of Aintree’s Grand National - mask the reality that most racing is at modest tracks with modest attendances.

Historically, through various guises, the bookmaking industry has been the key financial backer of British horseracing. However, with rapidly increasing betting levels on other sports, notably soccer, leading bookmakers are now less focussed on just one sport.

Importantly, recent results from bookmakers were very lacklustre. Despite a £275 million rights issue, Ladbrokes’ UK Retail operating profits fell by 28% compared with 2008. William Hill’s financial profile has been similar: poor 2009 trading figures and a £350 million rights issue. These setbacks are hardly helpful either for boosting the valuation of the Tote, which the Government has been seeking to sell.

If horseracing’s appeal continues to wane, UK racecourses may increasingly replicate many of those overseas, such as in the US and Brazil. In many cases, with virtually no spectators, horseracing has simply become a betting medium on television.

And if there is a long-lasting recession, horseracing could undergo the prolonged demise of greyhound racing. In which case, how many of the c60 racecourses in Britain could survive?