Point-to-point at risk without new support
The decision by eclectic businessman Trevor Hemmings to sell 50 of his active racehorses at Doncaster next month will have sent a shudder through the National Hunt world.
Hemmings is 85 years old, and has health issues that will prevent him from enjoying his days at the races in the near future. So, in that sense, a rationalisation of his stock count is not such a remarkable decision.
What is more significant, however, is that the perception of him racing such a big string of horses, when some of his businesses have been furloughing staff, was cited as another reason for his decision.
Hemmings will not be the only owner to take such a view. But racing is etched into our souls, and as long as there are two sound horses within hacking distance of each other, there will be horses and humans racing for whatever beans they have in their pockets.
Hence in Ireland last week, trainer Gordon Elliot’s supermarket sweep of the most expensive lots going through the ring this summer continued when he bought a €300,000 unbroken three-year-old sister to Altior.
She was acquired for David Page and David Rabson. They may never achieve what Hemmings has during his owning career, but they clearly intend to give it a good go. And buying fillies such as this will give them every chance.
But the challenges that racing, at all levels, faces as we go into the autumn was brought home to me last week when our local point-topoint committee discussed the prospects of our meeting at the end of January.
Normally, at this time of year, we would be going after sponsors for financial support because, however thriftily one cuts one’s cloth, it costs the best part of £20,000 to stage a point-to-point.
Without any revenue from media rights or the Levy Board (racing’s cut of the bookmakers’ profits), which mainstream National Hunt and Flat racing gets, point-to-pointing has to rely on sponsors and spectator entrance money to break even.
But there is obviously a fair chance that the Government will decree that the Covid-19 threat is too great to allow spectators to attend point-to-points. And so it feels wrong, knowing that, to be asking sponsors to commit now, even on an opt-out basis.
The Levy Board, however, is likely to pledge the same amount of money as it usually does to point-to-pointing. It may also be open to the concept of throwing more money at fewer fixtures in the hope that a skeleton fixture list could be salvaged.
If multiple fixtures could be staged at tracks such as Larkhill, Alnwick and Chaddesley Corbett, keeping their overheads down, while tracks which hold only one meeting a year are mothballed, some financial genius might be able to find a way through this turbulence. But I really struggle to see how that is going to be sufficient without the Government stepping in.
And why should it do that? Well the short answer is this would be a very different case from the request earlier in the year to effectively furlough the entire racehorse population. And its funding would not go into prize money. Point-to-pointers race for less than their transport expenses.
What such support would, however, be about is preserving the heart of the countryside.
The lads and lasses who only have a job because point-topointing keeps a few wheels turning will either leave the countryside forever or join the dole queue if the sport fails.
Point-to-pointing is also a skills nursery for mainstream racing, which already has to recruit personnel from abroad.
So offering support this winter would save the Government money in the medium term.
Such a move would usually have been unthinkable from a Conservative government, which could be expected to abide by market forces under normal circumstances, but there is nothing normal about the uncharted waters we are all sailing through.
The lads and lasses at the ‘nursery’ end of the racing industry could be lost forever
Cutting back: Trevor Hemmings (left), with Donald McCain Jnr (centre) and Ballabriggs, is selling 50 horses next month