Attempts to avert a potential boycott of tracks owned by the Arena Racing Company (ARC) next week appear to have failed with Lingfield’s Wednesday meeting in danger of featuring the poorest turnout of runners at the course for many years.
Four races at the fixture have been re-opened to allow more entries before 10am on Friday morning after failing to attract sufficient runners. It follows leading handler Ralph Beckett’s decision to email 500 fellow trainers proposing the boycott of ARC racecourses from Wednesday to Friday in an argument over prize money.
The support for Beckett’s call came despite an attempt by ARC on Thursday to avert a threatened strike by ‘unlocking’ extra prize money until 31 March to allow time for talks with trainers and owners.
The continuing protest aimed at a cut of nearly £3m in the prize money at ARC tracks in 2019 has already resulted last weekend in one ‘walkover’, a ‘race’ featuring one horse, and one race with no entries at all on Lingfield’s high-profile Winter Derby card.
ARC announced the cut in prize money before Christmas, claiming that it expects a sharp fall in its media rights income following the government’s decision to cut the maximum stake on betting-shop gaming machines to £2 from 1 April.
While the company has not committed any fresh funding to prizes, a deal brokered by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) on Thursday means it will shift around £235,000 from better-quality events to races at the lower end of the scale, thereby ‘unlocking’ additional funding from the Levy Board. BHA chief executive Nick Rust had said in the wake of the meeting: “I’m pleased at the commitment from all to work together on this, which has to be in the long-term interests of the sport.
“We know there are difficult times ahead, and a common approach is the best way to respond. I believe we can achieve that over the next four weeks if we can maintain the spirit of the agreement we’re announcing today.”
With media rights income expected to fall as a result of fewer shops, more talks are planned between the BHA, the Racecourse Association, the NTF, racecourses and the Horsemen’s Group to try to find a solution to the funding issue.
The various parties agreed “unilateral action” was not in the best interests of the sport at Wednesday’s meeting, although that appears to have been ignored by trainers.
The total number of runners on a Flat card at Lingfield has dipped below 30 only once in the last decade, on 1 February this year, when seven non-runners reduced an initial total of 36 declared runners to just 29 starters.
Entries are also due on Friday for next Thursday’s all-weather card at Southwell, another ARC-owned course which Beckett suggested should be the target for a boycott.
Simon Munir and Isaac Souede, whose jumps horses have already won nearly £750,000 this season, are among the owners supporting a boycott of ARC courses. Via the Twitter feed of Highflyer Bloodstock, which buys many of their runners, the owners stated on Thursday that they wanted to ensure that “their trainers do not enter for ARC meetings next week” as ‚“they are in full support of the boycott over what is clearly a premature reduction of prize money.”
Newmarket trainer Stuart Williams was another who made his feelings clear on Twitter.
He wrote: “We cannot as an industry put up with the scandalous returns to owners from the ARC courses. It is time to stand up and say this is not a fair return for them or trainers and staff that work so hard to put the show on the road – if they don’t fund them better, maybe they should lose them.”