Talking Horses: Baaeed trainer’s plan for fixture cull would be a reckless one

The exceptional and unbeaten Baaeed will face six rivals – including two stable companions at the William Haggas yard – in his much-anticipated step up to a mile-and-a-quarter in the Group One International Stakes at York on WednesdayA 10th career success for the four-year-old would put his Yorkshire-born trainer alongside Charlie Appleby, the defending champion, in the title race.

Baaeed is the best horse to set foot on a track in Britain since Frankel a decade ago and like Sir Henry Cecil’s flawless champion, he will set off at long odds-on for the feature event on the first day of York’s Ebor festival. Mishriff, last year’s winner for the John and Thady Gosden stable, and the Appleby-trained Native Mission, 2021’s champion juvenile and the Irish 2,000 Guineas winner this year, are his most serious opponents on paper, but both should have plenty to find with the favourite if his stamina lasts out over the extended 10-furlong trip.

It promises to be a memorable afternoon for Yorkshire-born Haggas, who will be hoping to win a fifth Group One in a single season for the first time in his 35-year career. The longtime stalwart of the National Trainers’ Federation has also found time to emerge as a key campaigner for a big reduction in British racing’s fixture list, in an attempt to address falling field sizes and improve competitiveness.

A modest plan to cut 300 races from next year’s schedule fell through this year after opposition from Arena Racing Company (ARC), which operates 16 tracks and would have been expected to take most of the cut. In Haggas’s view, however, this would not have been nearly enough.

“We as a body, the National Trainers’ Federation, were very much in favour of cancelling 300 races,” he told Sky Sports Racing last week, “and I would cancel 300 fixtures and make the pool of races smaller.

“If the same amount of money is available, then [prize money] would go up. We have an issue at the moment with too much racing, there’s no doubt, and it’s only the trainers that are saying this and the trainers are the ones who benefit from too much racing.”

The steady decline in field sizes is undoubtedly something that needs to be addressed. In the peak-season months from May to August, the average number of runners in turf handicaps on the Flat has dropped from 9.35 in 2019 – the last pre-pandemic season – to 8.37 in 2022. One horse per race, in other words, and the latest figure is disturbingly close to the eight runners required for three places each-way.

But 300 fixtures is just over 20% of the 1,482 meetings on the 2022 schedule, which would be an immense and unprecedented cut to the calendar. It would almost certainly lead to the closure of several tracks and since the high-volume all-weather courses will not be among them the much-cherished spread and variety of British turf courses could be permanently diminished. When a track goes, it goes, and there will be no way to resurrect it 10 years down the line if everyone suddenly agrees it was all a terrible mistake.

The “if” in Haggas’s interview also deserves close inspection, because as big ifs go, it’s a doozy. “If the same amount of money is available …” seems to assume that about 1,200 meetings with (slightly) more competitive field sizes will generate the same turnover and profit for the betting industry as approximately 1,500 at present. Since it would be an unprecedented move to cut 300 fixtures, there is no worthwhile evidence this would indeed be the case.

And which 300 fixtures and – by extension – which courses should we cut? How can we be sure that we are axing the right ones?

This question brings us back to a fundamental issue Haggas also highlighted in his interview: that much of the detail of the sport’s financing remains shrouded in secrecy.

“I feel very sorry for the BHA,” Haggas said. “They come under the cosh and get blamed for everything. The long and short of it is they don’t have the funding that the racecourses have. They get the media rights money direct to them, to do with it what they please. It’s up to the rest of the industry to put pressure on them as much as possible.”

Racecourses sell their media rights directly to betting firms, in the retail and increasingly dominant online sectors. How much they get for those rights and, crucially, what proportion is diverted to prize money, is, from the tracks’ point of view, no one’s business but their own.

This, inevitably, leads to suspicion and speculation among owners, trainers and other professionals they are not getting their fair share in prize money. But it could obscure serious issues for the sport on the racecourse side too.

What, for instance, about the persistent industry rumours – highlighted in this column last month – that ARC has secured a significantly bigger slice of online turnover for its tracks than those – including the high-profile Jockey Club-owned tracks like Cheltenham and Aintree – which sell their rights via Racecourse Media Group (RMG)? If the online betting rights to many of the sport’s most high-profile events have effectively been undersold, why should ARC tracks face cuts or even potential closure?

Fundamental and irreversible change on the scale Haggas suggests would be a big gamble with the future of the sport in any instance. Without far more transparency about who gets what right now, it would be a reckless one too.