Talking Horses: tracks cash spat takes another twist with Newbury switch

<span>Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian</span>
Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

With plotlines that involve huge sums of money, deep-rooted suspicions and thinly veiled antipathy, racing’s continuing squabble over how much the tracks are trousering from media rights payments – and, by extension, how much they are giving back in prize money – has many of the elements of a Netflix potboiler, and last week, one of the leading players added some punchy dialogue to match.

In an interview with the Racing Post’s industry editor, Bill Barber, Martin Cruddace, the chief executive of Arena Racing Company (Arc), offered a robust response to those – including Julie Harrington, the British Horseracing Authority’s chief executive – that have called for more “transparency” about Arc’s media rights income, from online betting in particular.

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“It’s very difficult to argue with people who leave rational thought at the door and are not prepared to change their view no matter what you say and I won’t engage with those people,” Cruddace said.

“We run 586 fixtures and all but 100 make a substantial loss without media rights so that’s our business model. This fixation on one income line is economically illiterate. What I am not ever going to allow is for a trainer or an owner to tell this company how it should be run and what it should spend money on.”

The interview was published two days after a pledge by Nevin Truesdale, the Jockey Club’s chief executive, to provide at least some of the “greater transparency” over its tracks’ finances that the Thoroughbred Group (TG) – representing owners, trainers, jockeys and stable staff – has long been demanding. Cruddace, it seems, is highly unlikely to follow suit and that, in turn, is only likely to fuel the TG’s belief that there is something he is eager to hide.

Cruddace and Truesdale are the public faces of the two main groups selling the racecourse’s media rights. Arc’s 16 tracks, along with four smaller independents, pool their rights via The Racing Partnership (TRP), while the Jockey Club’s subsidiary, Jockey Club Racecourses (JCR), which includes Cheltenham, Aintree, Epsom and Newmarket, is a member of Racecourse Media Group (RMG), alongside some of the bigger independents including Goodwood and York.

Both TRP and RMG have struck media rights deals with the big off-course betting operators based on the payment of a fixed percentage of the turnover – rather than profit, as is the case with Levy payments – on their races. As things stand, however, the precise percentage involved is a closely guarded secret, and everyone privy to the information will have signed a contract that requires them to keep it that way.

But that, of course, only encourages speculation and rumour, and one persistent suggestion – as has been mentioned in this column in the past – is that Cruddace has secured a significantly higher slice of online turnover for TRP tracks than those with RMG. More than double, in fact, according to some sources.

If this is indeed the case, and became public knowledge, it would pose some difficult questions for both sides. Cruddace and Arc would come under renewed pressure to justify the current levels of prize-money at their tracks, while the RMG side could stand accused of woefully underselling some of the sport’s biggest events, including the Grand National and the Cheltenham Festival.

It could also be argued, of course, that Cruddace is simply doing his job and securing the best possible return on investment for his shareholders. If his commercial nous and instincts have indeed led him to strike a much better deal than his JCR counterparts, then in a dog-eat-dog capitalist world, fair play to him, and his comments about telling owners and trainers where to go if they want to interfere in Arc’s business still stand.

Constitution Hill, the unbeaten reigning Champion Hurdle winner, will miss his intended target at Cheltenham on 27 January after returning an unsatisfactory scope and is now likely to defend his title at Cheltenham’s Festival meeting in March without another run, following his successful seasonal debut in the Christmas Hurdle at Kempton last month.

Nicky Henderson, Constitution Hill’s trainer, said in a statement on Monday that it had been “reluctantly decided” that the seven-year-old would miss the International Hurdle as “a routine scope last week wasn’t entirely satisfactory and a follow-up this morning shows the issue hasn’t resolved”.

Henderson added: “He will continue with light exercise, be rescoped in a fortnight’s time and then start his preparation for March. Both Michael [Buckley, Constitution Hill’s owner] and I had very much hoped for a better result this morning so that we could run on Saturday week but in the horse’s and indeed everyone’s interests, it would be foolish to do so and this does not affect any future plans.”

But it is an argument too that he would surely prefer to leave for another day (or, ideally, a different decade). Whether that will be a sustainable tactic, though, is unclear, not least as a result of Newbury’s decision to jump ship from RMG to TRP from the start of this year.

Weather permitting, Wednesday’s meeting at the Berkshire track will mark its debut on Sky Sports Racing, which broadcasts the action from TRP courses, and the track announced on Monday that its prize money in 2024 will rise to a record £7m, which is “a 13% like-on-like increase on 2023”.

The 2023 figure, meanwhile, was up 16% on 2022, as a result of the anticipated boost in media rights income from this year, and Newbury confirmed on Monday that “the rise in prize money has come about as a direct result of the increased media income Newbury anticipates earning from the move to Sky”.

Plumpton 12.45 Fakir 1.15 Doc McCoy 1.50 Copshill Lad 2.25 Trincomalee 3.00 Tregele 3.35 Sanitiser 4.05 Ferrybridge

Chepstow 12.55 Easy To Follow 1.30 Ballycamus 2.05 Cooleenymore 2.35 Lowry’s Bar 3.10 Broughshane 3.45 Livin On Luco 4.15 Call Me Arthur

Wolverhampton 1.25 Beauzon 2.00 Alghazaal 2.30 Jaunty Dancer 3.05 Laura’s Breeze (nb) 3.40 Inexplicable 4.10 Kemerton

Newcastle 3.55 Belle Of Annandale 4.25 Marcello Si 5.00 Hale End (nap) 5.30 Better 6.00 Tournelle 6.30 Our Absent Friends 7.00 The Caltonian 7.30 Urban Dandy

Helpfully for those seeking greater transparency on revenue streams, Newbury is an independent track which publishes its accounts in considerable detail each year. The full accounts for 2024 will arrive in May 2025 but its interim results are normally published in September, when it should be possible to gain much better idea of precisely how much of a boost its media rights income has received and whether the rumoured disparity between the two groups’ respective slices of the turnover pie is indeed the case.

Cruddace’s fighting talk over media rights income is no more or less than you would expect from one of the sport’s brightest and sharpest operators. Whether it is a line that can hold forever, though, remains to be seen.