It is now conceded by all-comers that not enough people are becoming owners of racehorses. What is not recognised is that the mighty leviathan that is Coolmore, and the wannabe mighty leviathans that are Godolphin, Prince Khalid Abdulla, Al Shaqab and Qatar Racing, are not necessarily good advertising material for a sport perceived by outsiders as entertainment for high society. No one can dispute the fact that the big owner/breeder operations invest huge amounts of money in the sport, employ thousands of people and deserve reward for their enthusiasm and outlay. But the downside of mega-bucks owners carving up the majority of the top races between them is that it gives the impression there is no place at the top table for anyone other than the fabulously wealthy.
It is said that the overriding reason for the low level of new people coming into the sport is the low levels of prize money. It is obviously a contributing factor but if the level of prize money was trebled or quadrupled overnight it would only mean the leviathans would still be taking home the largest proportion. If raising prize money was the answer why is there no campaign for what used to be termed ‘a Tote Monopoly’ as they have in France and other countries? It seems a no-brainer if greater prize money is the answer to all of racing’s ills.
If you research racing and equine related books published prior to the 2nd World War it is striking how diverse racehorse ownership actually was. Yes, the sport in its infancy was dominated by Kings and the aristocracy but as the sport developed those in the lower echelons of society became both owners and breeders, with racing having no long-term dominating force. Eclipse, for instance, was owned by someone who might either be termed a ‘chancer’ or a self-made man.
Now we seem to have come full circle, with the aristocracy of foreign countries ruling the winning posts. I am not xenophobic by nature, I am merely being factual; and having foreign royal families deeply interested in our racing can only be beneficial. But what is largely missing from the racing landscape are the John Hislops, the genuine horse people with a keen eye for the stud book and who keep a few mares in hope of one day breeding a champion, as John Hislop achieved with Brigadier Gerard, possibly the greatest flat racehorse of all time. And while syndicates are a boon and a blessing the people they attract will not necessarily take their new-found interest into the breeding barns.
There was a time, when perhaps the country was more affluent, when a farmer, landowner, people of rank or nobility, would keep a mare or two to breed to the local stallion in order to have a horse to race. Nowadays those who still keep a mare are more likely to breed to sell and this is where, I believe, lies the root of the problem. We need more people to be keeping mares. We need more small-scale owner/breeders. More small studs. We need more people like John Hislop; proper equestrian people.
Once upon a time there were races termed ‘Home Produce’ races, restricted to home-bred two-year-olds. This type of race should be revived. It is all very well pumping millions of pounds into sales races but what must not be ignored is the requirement to foster and encourage the increased involvement of those who are the very foundation of the sport, the small owner/breeder.
I recognise that in the beginning ‘Home Produce’ races will be relatively uncompetitive but they should be persevered with. If implemented ‘Home Produce’ races will give an incentive for people to keep the odd mare, to put its offspring into training. As it is in National Hunt with races restricted to mares. And these races must not be allowed to be dominated by the big owners but restricted to owners with less than, shall we say, five active broodmares and should have enhanced levels of prize-money. ‘Home Produce races should also be promoted and advertised throughout all sectors of the equestrian world, both at home and abroad, with a major race of great value to further encourage the keeping of thoroughbred broodmares.
And one further thought on encouraging people to actively engage in our sport. The owner of Diore Lia, the no-hoper filly that is to run in this year’s Derby, is hardly being smothered with love at present due to him having the audacity to want to mingle with the leviathans at Epsom. All he wants to do is raise awareness and money for Great Ormond Street Hospital. He is not a suffragette in want of causing trouble and disturbance. Racing is a rich man’s indulgence. Instead of trying to persuade him to go elsewhere with his no-hoper, why not encourage all the jockeys riding in the race to donate their riding fees to the charity, as is Gina Mangan, the lucky lady being given the opportunity to raise her own profile by riding in the Derby, perhaps the only time she will ever receive the opportunity.
Diore Lia running in the Derby is problematic on two fronts: that she will be a filly amongst so many impressionable young colts suggests she might inspire the growth many ‘extra legs’? And secondly, why are fillies allowed to run in the Derby in the first place? Seems anomalous, doesn’t it, a filly running in the supreme colt’s classic?
Keith Knight is a workaday writer of fiction, worker in the real world but foremost a horse racing fanatic. The joy of the sport is the horse - all horses.