Coronavirus-related restrictions are driving down prize money in British horseracing, raising concerns that horse owners will look past the prestige built up over centuries of competition to race overseas.
The British horseracing industry, worth an estimated £4bn to the economy every year, is seeking a bailout from the UK government and reforms to reverse its financial flight, as it fights to survive rules that mean spectators remain barred from meetings.
“Covid has resulted in an accelerated reduction in prize money which has exacerbated the problem,” said Nick Smith, director of racing and communications for Ascot racecourse. “If you don’t address the toothache early it’ll become agony.”
Prize money at Britain’s top 10 flat races this summer fell to just £3.8m, according to data provided by the British Horseracing Authority, the industry regulator, a 63 per cent fall from the £10.3m offered at the same races last year.
Owners of horses running at this year’s Investec Derby, one of the top flat races in the world, were offered just £491,850, down from £1.6m last year. The Juddmonte International at York is ordinarily billed as a £1m race, yet the prize fund fell to £266,805 this year.
Not even Ascot was immune: the King George VI Stakes put up £400,000 versus £1.25m last year, while the British Champion Stakes reduced its purse to £750,000 from almost £1.4m.
Britain’s racing industry has struggled to keep pace with the prize money on offer overseas. Average prize money per flat race was lower in Britain than in any of the big seven racing nations, according to the BHA, with Hong Kong in the lead.
Industry figures say this is primarily because British racing does not have the luxury of controlling the gambling companies that profit from its events.
While the British industry benefits from a 10 per cent levy on bookmakers’ gross profits, the Hong Kong Jockey Club, for example, has a legal monopoly on gambling, while France Galop co-owns PMU, the betting operator.
The BHA has already told the government that reforming the levy could alleviate the effect of the pandemic on the industry.
Ruth Quinn, director of international racing and racing development at the BHA, warned of a “spiral of decline” if Britain fails to offer competitive prize money.
The pandemic could give further momentum to the rising number of exports of high quality flat horses from Britain, which increased from 116 in 2015 to 163 last year. The top five destinations were the United Arab Emirates, the US, Saudi Arabia, Australia and Hong Kong.
Ms Quinn said it would be “no surprise” to see a leap in those figures this year.