Announcing the restriction on FOBT stakes in May 2018, then Culture Secretary and MP for the constituency which includes Newmarket, Matthew Hancock, piously stated that “horse racing should not be financed on the back of this [FOBT] misery”. He went on to claim that “horse racing is a wonderful sport than can, and will, pay for itself”. But words are cheap and in his political desire to appear virtuous Hancock did not say how racing would pay for itself. Some racing trainers are now finding that you can’t eat virtue.
Since the start of the year UK racing has turned on itself – trainers versus Arena Racing Company (ARC); trainers versus trainers; trainers versus journalists – in quite unseemly fashion.
The sequence of events that has led to this runs as follows:
*The DCMS restricted FOBT stakes to GB£ 2 (applies from 1 April 2019) because it needed to look tough on something.
*Some betting shops become unprofitable to run without the FOBT income.
*Bookmakers decide to begin a programme of shop closures – could be several thousand across the sector.
*Racing media rights are based on a per shop basis – fewer shops means less media income.
*ARC, as a rights holder, is anticipating the shop closures and the loss of income. It has cut prize money at some of its courses, particularly in lower grade races, and will not put the funding in to release further prize money.
*Trainers don’t believe ARC is as strapped for cash as it makes out.
The manifestation of the dispute is that some trainers have boycotted ARC races. This has resulted in some races being walkovers, whilst others have had only a few runners. Other trainers have continued to enter runners and have been criticised for doing so.
The boycott causes further funding damage because small fields generate less betting interest and less Levy, which is still an integral element of the funding of UK racing. In a year which has already seen a week’s abandonment because of equine flu, it is not helpful.
At the time of writing, there are discussions taking place about resolving the issue but nothing definitive has been announced.
For the betting shop staff faced with redundancy, the high street landlords losing tenants, racecourses losing income, and the trainers and owner competing for lower prizes, the political posturing over FOBTs has left a total mess. And neither Hancock nor former Sports Minister Tracey Crouch are in post to take responsibility.