West Suffolk MP Matt Hancock reflects on the importance of horseracing to the area
With the sun setting over Aintree, and a fairytale Grand National, we wait in anticipation of the flat season, set to kick off in full as it does every year at the Guineas here in Suffolk’s Newmarket.
Established by The Jockey Club, under the stewardship of Sir Charles Bunbury, the 2000 Guineas was first run in 1809, followed by the 1000 Guineas five years later in 1814.
Both races were named according to their original prize funds. By the mid-1860s, the 1000 and 2000 Guineas were regarded as two of Britain’s most prestigious races, which soon became part of ‘the Classics’ along with the Derby, the Oaks and the St Ledger. ‘The Classics’ form the bedrock of the British Flat Racing season and are the benchmark in which legends are made, comparable to Majors in golf or Grand Slams in tennis.
The prize money nowadays is slightly more than it was back then. Yet the level of prize money in racing is a critical point – and a point of increasing concern.
Because ‘the Classics’ are supported by thousands of races and not just in prestigious venues like Newmarket but at racecourses countrywide, the attraction of racing – as the second most-watched live sport in the country – is about its breadth as much as its glamour.
In recent years, the UK has not remained as competitive on prize money as other countries. Racing in neighbouring countries like France and Ireland has seen the value of prize money increase, even before spectacular new competitions globally, like the Dubai World Cup began to up the standards in the size of the winner’s pot.
The UK, especially Newmarket and its surrounding areas, are the flat racing nursery to the world. Here we breed some of the finest foals in the world. They are trained here, cared for here by our world-class vets, bought and sold here at the world’s premier auctions, and then, for the very best, stand at stud here to breed the next generation.
Building this global centre has been the incredible work of many people over decades and we must cherish this extraordinary yet fragile ecosystem.
Building and sustaining an ecosystem is important in many walks of life. It requires a focus and a plan – there is no one decision or policy that is make or break but painstaking work.
For example, we must encourage and support trainers, jockeys, and all the many professions who are an integral part of the sport. We must support our beautiful racecourses.
This much is obvious.
But there’s subtlety too. For example, being the nursery of the world has its risks. Because, in increasing numbers, these future winners are being sold abroad, meaning less winners and less prize money for British trainers to buy the top horses and the future winners.
It’s a cycle which if left unchecked will threaten to leave the UK without a key part of its sporting heritage.
We must not take our local prize for granted.
One of the things we must do to ensure that the rewards for investing in racing remains strong, is to increase prize pots and ensure the betting levy works in the modern world. The levy currently requires bookmakers to give 10 per cent of profits back to the sport for investment in the future. This helps but is small compared to the support given in other countries, hence the seepage abroad. The reason the prize money matters is because that’s the return – the hope, the promise – from owning and training a racehorse. We ignore its relative decline at our peril.
And, of course, we must protect the physical environment. We must ensure Newmarket is fit for this unique industry. The planning rules must take into account the fact that horses in training cross its broad streets daily, not just for pleasure but as its main industry and employer. Local planning must take this into account, as national one-size-fits-all rules cannot possibly work for a town that works differently to all others.
Horseracing is part of our heritage here in Suffolk and across the UK, but we do not have the luxury of keeping it without a conscious decision to protect the ecosystem that has been developed here over generations. Get this right and horseracing will have not just a place in our gilded history, but also, much loved at the heart of our prosperous future.
-- Matt Hancock is MP for West Suffolk