Is Covid a chance to re-set Pointing's calendar?
Many who follow Point-to-Point racing bemoan the poor prize money compared to our professional sibling. After all, to all intents and purposes, the sport is the same throughout. I wonder though if that isn't precisely our sport's leading issue. The sport has been forced to mimic racing under Rules and lost its points of difference.
I believe we are headed for a reckoning as a result of the Covid crisis. Pointing's fixture list has been on a steady downward trend over many years, as hunts discover that the extra effort required to win big competitive fields, that were there as a given 20 years ago, does not equate to a sensible risk. The running costs of a fixture now are very high, and the size of the prize fund is both a low priority, and also often in inverse relation to the number of entries.
As professional racing has also expanded, racecourses and the BHA have colluded to encroach upon the sort of horses that would hitherto have dropped naturally into the Point-to-Point scene at the start and end of their careers. Mix this with the changing dynamic of farming, where fewer and fewer farmers can afford the time to keep a horse to race for the Spring, and strong competition not just from professional racing , but from other sports, whether other equestrian sport or past-times like shooting, each of which impinges on Pointing's turf and consumers' time. The horse population is smaller, but stretched over too many fixtures.
A fixture secretary from Sussex rang me this week to bemoan the fact that his hunt has opted to cease staging a Point-to-Point in favour of a selection of fun rides and a hunt scurry - the modern day version of the cross-country steeplechase. And a simple glance at the growing number of team chases (pictured below) would have you believe that plenty of weekend riders are happy to hunt across country, whether to hounds, or in competition, rather than in the refined environment of Point-to-Point racing. Aside from the lower level of regulation, there is no upper weight limit to restrict the choice of rider, and the variety of obstacle is more akin to the original idea of a steeplechase.
We need our sport to move with the audience if it is to survive. And for the most part, Pointing's audience is nearer to a team chase or one day event than to the punters that now frequent Cheltenham or Aintree.
And yet the top flight of the sport continues to show its worth as a stepping stone to the professional sport, both in terms of the number of horses coming through, but equally importantly, in terms of the riders and trainers too. The exclusion of amateur riders from the sport through Covid is to misunderstand where a majority of our riders start their careers, and if maintained for any length of time, will have long term harmful effects.
I believe it may be the time for organising hunts to decide for themselves whether they have enough of a following for racing to support a fully licensed fixture, or whether they should focus on a more social and less regulated version which might not be carried out under BHA rules. You only have to look at the popularity of the Ledbury's Golden Button to know there is a demand for this type of event. A trimmed down fixture list concentrated in areas of the country with a strong following for racing could actually rejuvenate the sport. And as my Sussex chum remarked, once lost, a Point-to-Point is unlikely to be resuscitated.
The levy board grant that sustains the sport, originated from betting revenue, could be divided among a lesser group of fixtures that more readily matched the horse population. It's a constant source of irritation that the mainstream of the sport does not truly recognize the value of the academy set up that is Pointing, and will be the poorer when it is gone, despite feeding the betting monolith that is Jump racing at large. Supporting a smaller group of Point-to-Point fixtures with a meaningful amount could be the difference between profit and loss.
Not that Pointing is a betting medium in itself. Populated for the most part by owners and small stakes punters, this is no place to keep a record of your betting history. For the most part, it would be a series of odds-on chances in small fields, and very likely a loss to a £1 stake even so at the end of a season. And sad to say, bookmakers are unlikely supporters of a sport where a lack of live betting and pictures could convert occasional bettors into regulars. Whilst 48hr declarations to combat Covid have added a certain professionalism to our recent cards, live streaming has had to be delayed 5 minutes at least in order not to create integrity issues that could compromise the sport's wider appeal.
The Coronvirus crisis has forced businesses of all sizes and descriptions to reposition themselves in a fight for survival. This may well be Pointing's opportunity to do the same, and the sport should embrace that change with alacrity.