OK, OK, so taking part is what matters. But it is medals the viewers want out of the Olympics, lots of them, and for once there is the expectation there will be plenty, perhaps nearly 50, from our cyclists, swimmers, sailors, athletes and the rest. Since the Atlanta Games of 1996, when Britain returned, to the nation’s horror, with just one gold medal (courtesy of Redgrave and Pinsent) and finished 36th in the medals table behind such major sporting nations as Belgium, Algeria and Kazakhstan, expectations have been transformed. It has happened — thank you, John Major’s government — because the National Lottery has produced funding and UK Sport has directed the money, plus the top coaches and the back-up science, to our potential sporting elites.
Ten years ago the thought of an Englishman backed by a British-managed team triumphing in the Tour de France would have had tears of laughter running down French cheeks. This year few doubted from halfway that Bradley Wiggins was going to win this year’s Tour, and victory for ‘Le Gentleman’ who had respected the Tour’s traditions and shown true sportsmanship along the way was actually acclaimed by the French. But it wasn’t just the yellow-jerseyed Wiggo’s leg-pumping ability, relentless training and will to win that did it. It was the fact that Team Sky had put in enough money and professional management to mount a Classic tour-winning operation.
It wasn’t therefore just the eight consecutive losers I had backed there and at York (three of them touched off in photo-finishes) that depressed me as I returned from Ascot on Saturday. It was the contrast between what we in racing still like to refer to as ‘our sport’ and the Olympics and the Tour de France. While we celebrated Wiggins’s achievement and anticipated the golds to come, what was in racing’s headlines that day: the announcement by the Reuben Brothers’ Northern Racing that it intends later this year to close two of its tracks at Hereford and Folkestone. Coming soon after a race at Worcester had to be abandoned because leading trainers participated in a boycott over the low prize money on offer, it was a salutary reminder that by contrast with so many other sports racing has a completely outdated financial model.
Not to worry, say some: racecourse attendances are rising and the number of racehorses in training is not declining nearly as fast as you would expect in a double-dip recession. I beg to differ. Like any other sport racing needs bums on seats. Folkestone and Hereford are not exactly jewels in the crown of British racing, but every course that closes means one more group of potential customers is further removed geographically from the chance of those first crucial habit-forming experiences of going racing.
Looking at the latest figures produced by the Racehorse Owners Association I have to wonder, too, how many people are going to be able to continue owning racehorses in Double-Dip Osborne’s Britain. The latest figures available show the average cost of keeping a horse in training as £20,264 on the Flat and £16,128 over jumps. The average Flat horse will run 6.7 times a year, the average jumper 5.1 so the cost per run is working out at something over £3,000. And that is before your losing bets, a little something for the stable lad and the consolation drinks for friends when you have just missed third place.
To set against that there is a net return on costs of about 21 per cent from prize money won. Not so bad on the surface, but it is the comparatives that matter. In France you can expect to get back 54 per cent of your costs on average, in Japan it is 63 per cent.
There is another worrying set of figures too. Jockeys receive around 7 per cent of the first-place prize money as their reward for steering home a winner and 3.5 per cent of the place prize money. But so low are the prizes at some of our lesser tracks that, as champion jump jockey Tony McCoy has pointed out, jockeys are getting more money for riding a horse than they are for winning a race. It is easy to see how that becomes a threat to the integrity of the sport.
It is also leading to a decline in quality: with prize money low, more and more owners are tempted to sell abroad to Hong Kong, Australia, Dubai or elsewhere any horse that has made its mark on the British racing scene.
The problem with racing is that we simply do not have the option of tearing up the plans and starting again. The separate vested interests of the racecourses, the Horsemen’s Group (comprising the owners, trainers, riders and stable staff) and the bookmakers whose interest is largely in the quantity rather than the quality of racing ensure that agreement on any new blueprint is virtually impossible. Maybe after we have lost a dozen racecourses a few minds will be concentrated and racing, too, will have its Atlanta moment.