Wetherby chief Jonjo Sanderson calls for new initiatives to revive racing industry

Wetherby Racecourse chief executive Jonjo Sanderson says the sport is working hard on new initiatives to breathe fresh life into the sport.

In recent months there has been criticism of many different aspects of racing, including the price of admission, expensive food and drink, small runner fields and the sale of top horses abroad as well as more familiar complaints about low prize money and owners or potential owners being driven away.

Speaking ahead of the West Yorkshire racetrack’s first National Hunt meeting of the season on Wednesday, Sanderson said: “As an industry we have been blighted by headlines about smaller fields and there’s an equine talent drain, certainly in flat racing which is not doing the sport any favours.”

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He was recently at a meeting in London attended by the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) and key stakeholders in the sport.

Wetherby racecourse Chief executive Jonjo Sanderson (Picture: Tony Johnson)Wetherby racecourse Chief executive Jonjo Sanderson (Picture: Tony Johnson)
Wetherby racecourse Chief executive Jonjo Sanderson (Picture: Tony Johnson)

“We all talked positively and collaboratively about how we can move the sport forward in order to try and remedy these problems and try and get the sport back on the back pages,” he said.

On the subject of small fields, Sanderson is adamant they need to go. “Over the next few years we need to get rid of two and three-runner races, they are not exciting for the customer at the track, or the bookmaker, unfortunately.

“That’s the sort of challenge we face at the minute and it is top of the agenda for the industry.”

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Two summer initiatives on the Flat were the Racing League – with one meeting held at Doncaster – and the Sunday Series - with the latter helping attract a big crowd to Pontefract on Father’s Day.

Sanderson said: “That meeting started about 4pm which is very unusual, but they had a fantastic crowd, and it helped boost coverage of the sport through the terrestrial TV coverage.

ITV on a Sunday night is a completely different demographic to the one on a Saturday afternoon, it was broadening the appeal of the sport to a whole new audience.”

Another proposal for reform of the sport came from Peter Savill, the former chair of the British Horseracing Board, who wants to change weighting bands to attract more horses to the Class 1, 2 and 3 races.

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“People think the easy answer to boost the number of horses in races is to get rid of some of the races, but that is not necessarily the case.

“It is about trying to get better quality races and increasing the quantity of the quality horses by letting more in at the top end.

“There are plenty wanting to be involved in syndicates and buy a horse for a bit of fun, it is that middle range where you get a good horse and the expectation level is it should be winning more prize money than it is and you suddenly get an offer from Hong Kong or the Middle East and it is too good to turn down.

“Horses are being taken out of the country to race elsewhere and what can we do to stop that happening? That’s where we need to focus.”

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But Sanderson, who is also clerk of the course at Wetherby, doesn’t believe going cap in hand to the bookmakers is feasible.

“The trouble is we get compared to France, Hong Kong or Australia where the betting model is totally different.

"They are 100 per cent pool betting systems where the money goes back into the sport whereas our Tote system - while significant - has got major bookmakers to compete with.

“So we are never going to be able to provide the same level of prize money.

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“The answer often is ‘we need the bookmakers to pay more money’ but they are paying a reasonable amount at the moment and it would be unreasonable to expect them to pay more for no change.

"We need to present a business case where we say ‘this is how we can improve your product through our product’ and collectively we all win if we can do this and make them want to invest more with us.

“The BHA are now going to look at some of the ideas that might have a positive effect and maybe focus on a few of them and move forward.”