EXCLUSIVE: Battling for National Hunt’s future amid funding crisis

HARVEY SMITH is in a contemplative mood. He would love to have been at Wetherby racecourse this week. It is a second home to him. His local course is where he and wife Sue have enjoyed many of their finest triumphs in horse racing.

Mister McGoldrick, Royal Emperor, The Last Fling and many others.

Horses that epitomise National Hunt racing, they have all been a sight to behold, jumping with exuberance and aplomb up the home straight to the acclaim of punters.

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But the Smiths – and Yorkshire’s other top National Hunt trainers – were all absent after boycotting the West Yorkshire track on Tuesday in protest over “paltry” prize money that would not have covered their entry fees, travel costs and other expenses.

The decision was taken with a heavy heart. Smith, the former showjumper, does not want to fall out with the horse racing fraternity. Quite the opposite. A proud Yorkshireman, he wants the region’s racecourses to flourish. And he wants to be part of that success story. But, at present, he feels that Wetherby – and the other venues now under scrutiny – are ill-serving the sport.

His criticisms are two-fold. He accuses the British Horseracing Authority, the sport’s governing body, of being run by “accountants” rather than people steeped in racing, and racecourses, like Wetherby, of prioritising low-grade racing to satisfy the bookmakers.

If he, and his wife, were in charge, the outlook would be very different – and far more optimistic.

“It is very, very easy to lower standards but it is very, very difficult to raise them,” said Smith, 72, in a rare interview.

“There should be a minimum prize fund of £50,000 across the country for every race meeting, even if this means cutting back on the value of the very top races to achieve it.

“If a course can’t do this, they should give up the fixture. At the present time, we are sponsoring racing.

“The only two people making money out of racing are the bookmakers and the racecourses.”

Smith, whose moorland farm at High Eldwick near Bingley overlooks Leeds, is warming to his theme.

The boycott stemmed from Wetherby’s meeting having little more than £21,000 of prize money and falling short of tariffs proposed by The Horsemen’s Group, a campaign organisation which is fighting for fairer funding to ensure the sport’s grass-roots survival.

While many smaller courses have complied with the criteria by utilising alternative funding streams and revenue from media rights, Wetherby appears reluctant to do so – despite its prestige – and officials have no plans to significantly raise the prize fund for this season’s remaining five fixtures.

While other tracks, including Catterick, have funding issues that might warrant boycott action, it is the decline of Wetherby – a premier Grade One track – which has attracted the most anger.

“We’re not trying to condemn or criticise anyone,” says Smith, who pauses momentarily while he chooses his words with particular care.

“All we are making is constructive criticism to improve the sport overall. No-one can take offence to that, can they?”

The Smiths, whose stable includes the record-breaking Wetherby winner Mister McGoldrick, are emerging from “the worst winter” since they became involved in horse racing 20 years ago.

Having volunteered to train the horses owned by Sue’s father, their 60-horse stable has particularly suffered because of the lack of prize money, and the abandonment of so many fixtures.

There are various reasons for the sport’s funding crisis. They include the decline of the betting levy and the advent of all-weather tracks – “sand racing” to quote Smith – that has seen the quality of horse racing, and prize money, decline. A consequence is too much “bad racing” and a spectacle that is difficult to sell to race sponsors in these austere times.

Smith is speaking from experience. He witnessed showjumping fall from the public consciousness because the competition became diluted. He does not want it to happen to racing.

“I have seen the best of showjumping and I have seen the best of racing,” he points out.

“Unless they get their act together, we will lose National Hunt racing. National Hunt racing is the flagship of our racing. Run properly, it is the finest sport in the world.”

As the couple talk in their living room, the conversation pauses as Keith Reveley’s veteran chaser Rambling Minster lands an emotional victory at Doncaster to end his career on a winning high.

At 13 years of age, Saltburn-based Reveley does not want his horse to be punished by the handicapper. The Smiths have a similar dilemma with Mister McGoldrick, now 14, who continues to be punished for his Cheltenham Festival triumph three years ago. The horse is well enough to run, but not with a punishing handicap mark.

This concern also explains why their promising hurdler Lackamon, a recent Wetherby winner, is due to bypass next month’s National Hunt Festival. A modest race, with even more modest prize money, is no preparation, they say, for their sport’s greatest stage. They do not want to ruin their horse’s career.

“You can’t make horses go to Cheltenham if you don’t have competitive racing,” says Mrs Smith. “Lackamon is a nice horse, he might have run a creditable race, but you only want to take on the best if you, too, have had a fair crack of the whip – and we’ve not had that.”

It should not be like this, says Smith. Funding can be secured, he maintains, by taxing bookmakers on a percentage of their turnover rather than their profits. “They make millions on every football match. One bookie was bragging that they turn over a billion. They say more is bet on other sports, but horse racing gets people through their doors.”

He also says far more needs to be done to “market” the sport.

“Quite a few racecourses have an end-of-season meeting in which they invite local trainers to discuss next year’s racing and the way ahead,” says Smith. “This is an opportunity for us to help Wetherby – but they might not want to cough up for their refreshments!”

There is an element of mischief in Smith’s voice as his wife’s 63rd birthday celebrations are put on hold so the couple can outline their concerns. This is how much racing matters to them.

Yet they, and other trainers like West Witton’s Ferdy Murphy, are frustrated that their concerns have not been taken sufficiently seriously by both Wetherby or the BHA which remains inherently bias, they maintain, towards the South.

“Every Friday, Saturday and Sunday, you have big meetings in the South. There should be big meetings in the North,” says Smith.

“Split the country in two – Kempton, Newbury, Ascot, Sandown and Cheltenham down there, Aintree, Haydock, Doncaster, Wetherby and Newcastle up here. It’s not difficult. It’s about quality. We can’t sit here moaning, we have to do something.

“Too much bad racing is bad for the sport.

“They (the BHA) can find a lot of money for ‘sand racing’ which was only supposed to be a substitute when normal fixtures got called off. There’s no crowd.

“No people there. Up here, we have good crowds and very poor prize money. More money and the crowds would be even better – like the first meeting at Wetherby this month when they nearly had £50,000 of prize money. Good racing which people paid to watch.

“However, people will not pay to see the rubbish that was staged on Tuesday.

“Wetherby is a Grade One track. How can it lower itself and put on such lowly racing? It is not that the executive cannot afford to put their hands in their pocket and support the sport; they do not want to do so.”

His wife concurs and then adds: “We love Wetherby and we all want to support it. But it will not happen when there are not the incentives there for owners and trainers.”

Then Smith pipes up: “Aye – and we’ll be there. £50,000 a meeting, though.”