Gosden: Racing must find a way to end destructive factionalism

John Gosden at the 2010 Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs. Photo: Pat Healy/RacingFotos.com

In the second part of his question-and-answer session with TRC, trainer John Gosden addresses a number of key issues, including the role of the Breeders’ Cup, British racing’s financial plight, and the importance of international racing to the long-term health of the sport.

Read part I of Julian Muscat's interview with John Gosden.

You have had consistent success since you moved to Britain but have attained a higher level of achievement over the past few seasons. Is that partly down to your move to Newmarket in 2007, and if so, what are the advantages?

“I am now at Clarehaven Stables, which are my own stables, and I run my own business, so I am a public trainer. When I trained at Stanley House [in Newmarket, from 1990-1999] I was largely under the Darley banner and their breeding operation was in its infancy. There wasn’t the consistent quality of home-bred horses that you would have hoped for, but these things come with time. No breeding operation can build itself up overnight. After that, I trained at Manton [in Wiltshire] for Robert Sangster, and at that time he was racing a lot of his better horses in Ireland, where they were bred.

“When I moved to Clarehaven seven years ago, it was a matter of establishing my clientele, getting to know my owners well, and getting a lot of homebred horses from people whose breeding operations are mature. That makes a huge difference. And I have also supplemented my intake at the yearling sales.” 

Do you enjoy campaigning horses internationally? With prize money in Britain significantly behind other leading jurisdictions, are you tempted to race abroad even more than you do at present?

“I very much like to race internationally with the right kind of horse. You’re mostly talking horses that are 4 years old or older. I very much feel that the more we internationalize the business, the better it is for horse racing and breeding. The more we open our borders and drop our restrictions, the healthier it will be. And if you’re going to claim to be a top, major sport, you’d better be international. So yes, international racing very much has its place.” 

If you had a horse able to compete at G1 level in Britain, would prize money alone ever tempt you to run that horse abroad instead?

“No. If you’re making a stallion you’d stay in Britain through the spring and summer. You’d only go abroad in the autumn. For 25 to 30 years, all the good racehorses went to stand as stallions in Kentucky, but now they stay in Britain and Ireland. It’s slightly shocking they don’t stay in France. Intello [winner of the 2013 Prix du Jockey-Club], for instance, is standing his first three seasons in Britain, but the tax implications in France are a barrier.

“So consequently, the best stallions now for turf racing, which is about 80 percent of racing in the world, are in Europe. And if you’re trying to make a top stallion in Europe, you have to race in the Group 1s in Britain. You’ve got to win those to put yourself at the top of the mountain. There’s no point ducking and diving somewhere else in what is a Group 1 race by name but a Group 2 in quality. Nobody is fooled; those races won’t help you make a stallion.

“It is also very noticeable now that the best broodmares in the world are being attracted to Europe because the stallion gene pool is the best for turf racing over one mile-plus. It’s very important to make that point, distance-wise. That’s been a big sea-change in recent years.”

What is your take on the proliferation of international championship meetings around the world? Are they a positive step? Do you think there are too many, leading to clashes?

“I think it’s a positive development. Let’s look at America. To me, the race that generates the greatest public interest in America is the Kentucky Derby, but you have to be aware that by the first Saturday in May you have sacrificed a great deal of the 3-year-old crop on the altar of the Triple Crown. It all comes so quickly; when you get to the Belmont Stakes, that’s it. That in itself is not good, and therefore the Breeders’ Cup added balance to the American programme.

“Similarly, in Europe, by the end of Royal Ascot, which is officially the end of spring racing, you had already run four of the five classics and all the major 3-year-old races except the St Leger. Yes, the 3-year-olds had been sorted, so they could run against the older horses, but it was all loaded towards the front end of the season.

“So the development of championship races in the autumn is positive. It also makes the sport properly international. It’s getting a little difficult to call the Breeders’ Cup the world championships because horses don’t really come from all over the world. Some come from Europe, the odd one from Japan, and that’s about it. Conversely, the development of racing in Australia, Hong Kong, and Japan, which is increasingly opening up, is a highly international thing. I welcome that.

“As for the scene in Europe, at the moment we have Irish Champions Weekend, French champions weekend, which is the Arc meeting, and British Champions weekend, which closes the sequence in the third week of October. In my opinion, timing-wise, that is beginning to hurt the Breeders’ Cup.

“If the will was there to move Ireland and the Arc back one week, you’d be able to programme a three-week gap from Ireland to the Arc weekend, and have another three-week gap between the Arc and British Champions weekend. Even then, that’s a pretty arduous schedule for a top-class horse, so if you wanted to run after that sequence, you’re probably going to think about the Far East and Hong Kong in December, rather than the Breeders’ Cup."

“Technically, in Europe, you could run 10 furlongs, 12 furlongs, and back at 10 furlongs at the three big festivals if you wanted to. They have set up these three championship pillars during autumn [Irish Champion Stakes in mid-September, the Arc in early October, followed by the Champion Stakes at Ascot]. Against that, all of these international meetings have to compete for the same pool of horses and there aren’t that many of them. How many horses rated over 120 are sound and healthy at that time of year?

“The Breeders’ Cup used to be the be-all and end-all for European trainers. Now it’s not quite the same because there are alternatives.”

Which is your favourite racecourse, and your favourite race meeting?

“If you want the spectacle of a wonderful day’s racing on a beautiful track, in the middle of arguably the most beautiful city in the world, then you can’t top Longchamp in the autumn. Paris is an endlessly fascinating city with all those museums and art galleries, and in the middle of it you have those seven Group 1 races on Arc day in October. Longchamp is also one of the most difficult tracks in the world to ride. It is incredibly challenging because the changes of pace in races creates a rhythm unique to French racing.

“My favourite race meeting is Royal Ascot. It comes at the height of the British summer season, which includes Wimbledon, and people go there from all round the world. Believe it or not, a lot of people enjoy dressing up in morning suits and ladies’ finery once a year. It’s rather fun, and it’s different. Royal Ascot kicks off on the first day [of five] with three Group 1 races; it’s as good a purist day as it gets. There is also a big handicap over two-and-a-half miles and the 5-furlong races for 2-year-olds. That, to me, is the most exciting day’s racing.”

John Gosden-trained Kingman wins the 2014 St James Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot. Photo: Healy Racing/RacingFotos.com

In 2009 you were critical of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA), saying it was out of touch. Fixtures were increasing, prize-money was in decline, the bookmaker levy was falling, and public interest in the sport needed to be stimulated. Since then the BHA has launched a number of key initiatives. How much has the situation improved?

“Let’s go back to the beginning. In 1993, the Jockey Club under [senior steward] Lord Hartington created the British Horseracing Board. Then, in 2001, the board came pretty close to taking us to the promised land in terms of addressing the funding problem, but factional differences, namely the racecourses, undermined [Chairman] Peter Savill’s plan. His blueprint fell at the final hurdle when it was challenged by bookmakers in the European Court, which was the last legal port of call.

“We as an industry then tried to be more collaborative, but a lot of people wouldn’t play ball. You only have to look at the politics of racing in America to see that factionalism destroys everything. It’s incredibly frustrating when people want to guard their own little patch without thinking about the bigger picture. That’s the problem we faced.

“Now the BHA is taking a different tack. It has recently appointed a new chief executive in Nick Rust [previously retail director at Ladbrokes, the bookmakers] who knows the betting industry well but is also a horse owner. He is passionate about horse racing, so he covers those bases.

“The board under Steve Harman’s chairmanship has also appointed a raft of independent directors in an effort to dismantle the factionalism that has plagued progress. So the BHA is trying to find a way forward, and it has taken a lot of advice. And while progress on that front appears to have been made, some big issues have yet to be tackled.

“The one thing that worries me – and this applies to any racing administration set-up, anywhere in the world – is that the term “Thoroughbred” very rarely comes up in what they discuss. That is a problem. People talk about attendances and betting turnover, but the key thing is not to forget the horse. That’s what this game is about. If you have the nicest theatre in the world but no decent actors or a decent playwright, you’re in trouble. But there’s a lot happening with the UK government at the moment. We have a levy system which is outmoded and outdated. The chance to change it once and for all is now heading for the statute book.

“We have also lost valuable revenues through internet and telephone betting. Everyone in America and Hong Kong knows that the internet gives punters the ability to bet outside of a jurisdiction, both legally and illegally. Here in Britain, that has been happening via bookmakers registered in Gibraltar, which allows bookmakers to legally avoid paying tax and levy. That’s no good to the government, or to racing. It is basically taking a domestic product offshore and not paying the proper price. It breaks all rules of business from our point of view, so this issue has to be addressed – and is being addressed.

“Also, the amount of betting on soccer in Britain is enormous. Racing somehow has to confront that issue as well. If you grow something, everyone should get their piece of the pie. But factionalism is still at work. Racecourses in England have acted entirely in their self-interest in recent years. The BHA board is designed to try to bring all those threads together, and try to get people to see common sense. It’s a brave move and has our full support.”

You were recently quoted as saying that the future of flat racing is in the East – Japan, Hong Kong, China, Australia. Can you elaborate on that?

“Well, they have just built two tracks in China, so we’ll probably be including them before too long. We have to be aware that in the Far East, gambling is part of their nature. Consequently you get massive crowds and a lot of interest. Secondly, there is massive wealth in that part of the world that wants to get involved with buying and breeding racehorses. A lot of farms are popping up all over the place.

“They were racing horses in China 6,000 years ago. It’s a major sport in Australia; the population is not huge but racing is in the news all the time, not just in Melbourne Cup week. In Japan, the Agriculture and Fisheries Department is responsible for racing. It is under the government’s wing and it is very big, as is racing in Hong Kong.

“If you win a decent race with a nice horse in England, the bids come ferociously from the East for it. When I was a young man I was told: “Go west.” Now it’s “Go east.” That’s where the future seems to rest: where the interest, the passion, the investment is coming from. It is on that side of the Pacific Ring.”

The public’s enthusiasm for racing in those countries is higher than in Europe and the U.S. They draw bigger crowds, which generate higher betting turnover, and thus higher prize money. It is also arguable that, since many of the best horses now race in the East, that region already leads the way. Does it have the capacity to become stronger still to the point where it becomes dominant?

“I don’t think you ever dominate anything. If people could dominate by what horses they buy, there would be grave implications for the gene pool. We in Europe probably have a little bit too much Northern Dancer blood and our gene pool is a little tight. But take the Sunday Silence-Deep Impact line in Japan -- that’s a complete breakout. I see that as something that will always occur, because it’s impossible to corner the market.

“So will the East dominate? No they won’t, but they will be very hard to beat on the racecourse. There was a time when we didn’t mind taking on Japanese horses, but what has happened there in the last 20 years has been amazing. If you look at the quality of broodmares they have bought and the stallions they have, it’s not surprising Japan has become a serious international competitor. That has to be healthy. The more we internationalize our racing and our breeding, the healthier longevity our great sport will have.”


Read part I of Julian Muscat's interview with John Gosden.

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