What dangers lurk for Point-to-Point racing when normal service is resumed?
Sports administrators from football to tennis, racing to cricket, are all exercising their intellects to bring their sports back into circulation when the government permits. In horseracing, the return of Jump racing is taking a back seat to the late-emerging Flat season, where a flurry of April Classic trials have disappeared, and a generation of aspirant Classic contenders is missing out on opportunities to win valuable black type.
Yet scant regard has been made as yet to the bedrock that fuels the National Hunt machine in Ireland or in the UK, where riders, trainers and horses of the future learn their trade in the nursery that is represented by the 150+ fixtures of the UK Point-to-Point season.
In a winter already plagued by wet weather, more than 60% of the scheduled fixture list has fallen victim to the COVID-19 virus, including the generally very remunerative Easter weekend, when more spectators attend Point-to-Point fixtures than professional racecourses. Pointing is in danger of a unique storm, squeezed between mainstream Jump racing and economic necessity.
Where are the horses?
Most National Hunt yards have roughed off their inmates, and some staff have even been furloughed in those yards that do not keep up a summer jumping team or which do not have young stock for the Flat. The horse population is already under considerable pressure from owners, whose own financial circumstances have altered for the worse. Economists are now talking about a L-shaped economic recovery taking much longer than expected, and racing at large will not be immune to the impact of the virus on business affairs.
In particular, smaller owners participating in syndicates, are more likely to feel the pinch quicker than bigger owners with deeper pockets or wider agendas. Whilst Point-to-Point racing is not awash with syndicate ownership, neither is it the milieu for empire builders with large strings; putting several thousand pounds aside each winter for a Pointer is often quite a financial effort, easily foregone, and our typical owner is more likely to feel the squeeze than some under Rules.
That said, the contraction of the owner audience in Rules racing is also likely to play a role. Cards on mainstream racecourses are likely to find it harder to fill than hitherto, and Pointing should seek to protect itself from a natural temptation to follow the money into the mainstream. Our cups may be more spectacular, but in a contracted market where it is marginally easier to win a race worth £2,000 to the winner under Rules instead of £200 between the flags, we are operating at a disadvantage. The era of the owner-rider is largely behind us; in so many respects, we are competing in the same arena as professional trainers.
One further implication of the enforced shutdown that may yet correct itself is that no public sale has taken place since the Festival in mid-March. May is generally a time for public trainers to clear out stock that cannot compete under Rules. Many of these horses find a place in the less competitive Pointing sector, which in itself needs replenishing year on year.
With a weak ownership market and a limited pool of horses to freshen the pool of competitors, the back end of the season from April onward looks especially vulnerable to poor fields. Even last year, average field sizes for 6 race cards from April onward was no more than 35 runners.
How much appetite for risk will fixture organisers sustain?
Of the 167 fixtures planned for the 2019-20 season, all but 15 are run by hunts, for which the main agenda is as both a social gathering and a fund raiser. The costs of staging a fixture nowadays are generally in excess of £20,000, although a lower cost can be achieved in some areas of the country.
The median range of profitability of a Point-to-Point fixture is from £5 - 8,000, meaning at worst this represents a bet of 4/1 on; that is, a hunt is wagering £20k to win £5k. This doesn't look like sound economics even in a favourable environment. The question is, how many hunts will look at the staging of a fixture purely through an economic prism?
Traditional revenue streams may be weaker than hitherto
Three principal revenue streams dictate the financial success of a fixture, largely dependant on the time of year of the event. Those staged before March are heavily reliant upon higher entry income and a higher grant from the Point-to-Point Authority than events in April and May. With a smaller horse population, entry income may well reduce; one would hope that in the context of overall support for the broad base of racing's pyramid. the grant to the sport would not reduce.
For fixtures from March onward, sponsorship and admission receipts play a much greater role as the good weather generally brings larger crowds. There has been a rush for the door from sponsors in many sports, lookinhg to cut their expenditure as revenue has plummeted or ceased. Racing will need to be especially adroit to avoid this, although most sponsorship is at a low and local level.
However, Point-to-Point racing is better placed than its professional sibling to be able to manage social distancing. One of the benefits of Pointing is its fresh air appeal and ability to find your own space. It's not difficult to social distance at Larkhill at any fixture, being such an enormous expanse!
So what can the sport do to help itself?
Already, the Point-to-Point Authority is looking to extend the season, starting earlier in October, in order to stretch out the horse population further. This is to be encouraged in any circumstances, removing fixtures from the congested month of April.
There are wider issues around Race Planning that would stretch resources more efficiently. Fixture secretaries currently design their own race programmes with little or no consultation with neighbouring fixtures. Some co-ordination of this on a regional level would ensure that runners one weekend for a Men's Open are not faced with a choice of 3 races within 60 miles of each other.
It's unlikely that the British Horseracing Authority would countenance a rise in the maximum weight carried, but Eventing and Team Chasing are sports bursting at the seams with aspirant riders, where the weight restrictions dot not prevent all but those with the slightest of builds from participating. Maybe a limited series of races with a higher weight range could be permitted as a pilot?
It's likely that everyone will need to share the pain; to that end, participants can expect to see a modest rise in entry fees for races, even if, counter-intuitively, a fall would in theory illicit more entries. And those courses that have low admission prices may need to compensate for lower income from other sources by raising the admission price, often for the first time in 10 years.
On a practical fixture-centric level, organisers need to start building a profile of their customers too. In five years, 50 of the more forward-thinking fixtures have adopted digital ticketing to cut print and mailing costs and to encourage a culture of pre-purchase. Yet more than half the fixtures in the calendar still don't even have a web site to promote themselves; when this sort of basic marketing costs less than £200 to create, there's little excuse. The expenditure could be financed by the savings on going paperless.
The more progressive courses have now built customer databases in excess of 2,000 spectators, from whom they are winning several thousand £ in ticket sales. And one way to bridge the admission price rise is to offer early bird admission at 2020 prices.
Organising hunts should encourage more of their young riders to take up Pointing. The link between Hunting and the Point-to-Points it sustains has rarely been weaker, yet support for Hunting is as strong as it has ever been. How can we capitalize on that?
Point-to-Point races are a unique facet of British racing's varied kaleidoscope. The job ahead, in both the short and medium term, to sustain the sport, is no mean task. And the sooner it starts, the better.