Stephen Atkin talks Levy Reform and Racing Authority

EAGER anticipation and pride, mixed with an element of relief, are the strongest emotions that RCA chief executive Stephen Atkin immediately brings to mind as he reflects on the initial conclusion of racing’s search for reform of the sport’s central funding mechanism through a levy on betting operators’ gross profits.

“It’s been a very long process, and there’s definitely a relief factor about the outcome,” says Atkin, who played an integral part in racing’s negotiations with government.

“The sport was facing a major problem, with the likelihood of significant cuts in central expenditure this year. Now, with any luck, that won’t be necessary.”

Notwithstanding the possibility of a legal challenge, he regards the general outcome as a success. “The extension of the levy to include overseas operators is excellent news,” he says, “and as a result the outlook for future prize-money growth is very positive. That a significant part of the additional monies will be focused at the grass roots has full racecourse support, and central funding will be matched by racecourse investment in these tiers.

“Racecourses make considerable contributions to the economy and community in general, and the RCA has worked together with the BHA and the Horsemen’s Group to explain this to government and stakeholders.

“We are grateful to the government and for all-party parliamentary support, particularly from those MPs in racecourse constituencies.”

Looking back on the process, Atkin believes the key to success was in gaining the ear of government and parliamentarians. “We started to learn that lesson quite a long time ago,” he explains, “during the time of Nic Coward at the BHB, actually, when we recognised that we were perceived as being a disunited industry.

“We were definitely in a better position when the prime minister called a general election at short notice, because it didn’t stop the government from unlocking the new stream of revenue. It may affect the procedure, although I don’t expect any problems there, even if the next government has a new programme. But that might not have been the case had an election been called last summer or autumn, because the legislation had not been advanced as much.”

Work is proceeding on the basis of implementing the new system on 1 January, starting with discussions on the legislative framework and creation of the Racing Authority, for which a shadow board will examine the process of identifying expenditure priorities and how they interface with other parts of racing’s central structure.

Atkin says: “It’s a little like a merger and acquisition process, with the transfer of staff, assets, liabilities and obligations. The big advantage is that racing has a lot of in-house knowledge, including from accountants and lawyers.

“Then there will be the question of engaging with the betting industry by means of a forum. We definitely welcome the opportunity of working with betting to further the mutual interests of both great industries.”

Looking to the immediate future, Atkin adds: “Even after the set-up, the acid test of what this means, particularly with the regard to government and parliament, is making a success of it. My first priority is to make sure it does work, and I’m very optimistic.

“There will be challenges and different views on the best way of spending the money, and some people will be disappointed along the way, but we do have to spend it to best effect for the whole of racing.”

Consideration has already been given to extra expenditure on prize-money.

“One area of qualitative work concerns the Fixture List, where we will be looking to deploy an extra £7-8m along the lines that have already been indicated by the BHA chief excutive Nick Rust,” Atkin says.

“We won’t be redirecting money at the top end but channelling it to the lower end, although not right to the bottom.

“Areas being considered include the Race Incentive Fund, for higher-class conditions races, which at the moment provides a disproportionate amount to the bigger events, so there will be chance to introduce a second Race Incentive Fund, where courses will need to make a contribution themselves.

“There will also be an opportunity to create an appearance money scheme that would be a refinement of the existing arrangements. Together these two streams would provide a significant boost to prize-money.

“This approach has been agreed because there has been a strong concern about sole ownership. There has been growth at the top end but we don’t want to be over-reliant on that. While it may make only a marginal difference, I’m also keen that we encourage people to run their horses more often. One more run, or a fraction of a run across the board, would result in a considerable increase in the total number of runners, which is important for growth.

“Essentially, we – the Racing Authority – are saying that when we actually spend the money, we should look at the Levy Board’s expenditure and improve on it. We want to be clear about the expected impact of the spending and see how successful that is.

“The real question is to recognise the priorities, and that will start to happen quite soon.”

Summing up, Atkin says: “This is a new chapter in the sport and a very important one.

“A lot of people deserve credit for us having got this far. I’ve already mentioned Nic Coward, but also more lately of course Steve Harman, Nick Rust and Will Lambe deserve a huge amount of praise as well as people such as John Penrose and Gerry Sutcliffe from government. A whole lot of people have been involved along the way, and I hope they won’t be forgotten.

“At times success looked a long way off, but when I look back on the process, I do so with pride and satisfaction on behalf of the sport. It’s the right outcome, and total justification of the very strong case we put forward.”