The 2017 fixtures debate begins

Six weeks into the new year and thoughts are already turning to the 2017 fixture list. In fact, RCA Racing Director Claire Sheppard and Analyst Ben Cook have been focusing on the future ever since the 2016 programme was published in the middle of August last year.

Sheppard explains: “Ben and I started looking at 2017 almost as soon as the 2016 list came out, because there are some opportunities to make changes next year and as racecourses we need to be fully prepared. We have surveyed courses, discussed the issues at the members’ forums and undertaken a project looking at the health of the sport, alongside the BHA, whereby we compiled a data pack that will be the basis for discussions around key issues for the sport to address.  With the new tripartite Members’ Agreement in place, and a collaborative approach being taken, there is even more incentive for the RCA to come to a consensus view and play a leading role in the 2017 fixture list process.

“The Fixture List forms the bedrock of racecourses’ business models, and without some continuity, it would be very difficult for them to invest in facilities, prizemoney and the raceday experience. The fixture list could however potentially assist more with achieving the industry strategy for growth and targets for attendance, betting and ownership. The challenge with any change to fixtures is determining the balance between the various customer groups for racing, to get a fixture list that’s as effective as possible in all areas. Saturdays are a prime example. Data from the betting industry suggest that four afternoon fixtures is the optimum, but there are a number of Saturdays when there are five, and the fifth works for attendances and enables a good spread of fixtures across the country.”

Among the general principles expected to be adopted for 2017 is a strengthening of the pattern of fixtures by removing recognised geographical clashes.

Sheppard says: “We made progress last year for 2016, particularly with jump racing in the North, where, for example, there were two fixtures on one day and it was better to split them for the horse population. The RCA and racecourses are taking the lead in this area again, on the basis that racecourses will help to identify where there are issues and resolve them. Northern jumping will remain a priority and we also have been asked to look at summer jumping, where there are a number of clashes and clusters. In some cases we’ll have to look at criteria that has been used in the past.

We’re looking at a new definition for clashes and clusters of fixtures, taking into account where horses are trained and population catchment as well as the distance between courses. Clusters can also be causing an issue, such as in the south west, where there was racing at Wincanton, Exeter, Newton Abbot and Taunton all within a short time of each other, which almost certainly affected attendances and field sizes. One of the pluses of having the RCA central office look at these issues, especially for independent courses, is that we are talking to everyone, gauging where there are problems, and seeing whether we can deliver a solution by co-ordinating discussions.”

The ending of various three-year arrangements that ran from 2014, including those covering Levy Board expenditure and prize-money agreements between the Horsemen’s Group, BHA and individual racecourses, provides opportunities to make changes, because previous constraints may no longer apply, Sheppard points out “Levy Board funding can be a lever for change, and over the next couple of months the principles behind the board’s expenditure, including prize-money, fixture incentive funding, incentives to ensure the appropriate race programme is put on, and integrity funding will undergo a full review, taking into account the board’s objectives and what’s in the best interests of the sport.

“One area for discussion will be the balance of prize-money funding between Flat and jump racing, which came out of last year’s jump review, on which the BHA led. At the moment funding is based on betting turnover, so that what jump and Flat racing generates for the levy determines what each gets back. We’ll be looking at whether that’s still appropriate, or whether there’s a specific need to support jump racing over the Flat, or even vice versa.

“As far as the prize-money agreements are concerned, everyone appreciates their benefits, given that the balance of funding to racecourses has changed dramatically in the last five years, with media rights becoming a more significant proportion of revenue. The RCA isn’t directly involved here but we assist in the process where necessary, and we expect the agreements will be renewed, and new ideas possibly introduced.”

New opportunities are also likely to be explored, especially following up recommendations from the wide-ranging BHA jump review, Sheppard says.

“Racecourses believe there is scope for a possible extension of fixtures on Good Friday, because the current agreement for two meetings is coming up for discussion. There may be demand for that number to increase, given how well they have performed for betting and attendances, which could possibly help to deliver industry growth targets.”

Taking the fixture-list timetable forward, two RCA members’ forums, one in the North and one in the South, have been arranged for the next couple of weeks.

“There, we will be discussing with the racecourses the objectives for 2017 and the areas on which we’ll be focusing,” Sheppard explains. “They will be signed off early next month, ready to start consultations with the BHA and the Horsemen’s Group that will run through to the end of April. Then it’s a case of pushing on with the exact details. Plenty of work to do but, hopefully, we’ll be in a position to publish the list in a similar timeframe to last year, which was very well received by racecourses and the sport.”