(From the Daily Telegraph)
The Maktoum family left the racing world in no doubt about how much terrestrial television coverage should be valued following Tuesday's annual Gimcrack Dinner at York. But, there was also a cautionary call for breeders to avoid flooding the market with moderate produce.
It fell to John Ferguson, head of Darley Stud management and the man responsible for the bloodstock side of Sheikh Mohammed's vast empire, to deliver the speech on behalf of Sheikh Ahmed al Maktoum, owner of the Gimcrack winner Shaweel.
This is a traditional occasion for the winning owner to air his views on racing and Ferguson was expressing opinions endorsed by his employer, who made members of this ancient club (founded in 1767) choke on their dinner when he hinted a few years ago that he might pull out of British racing if prize money did not increase.
Thankfully, such drastic measures were never taken (prize money is even lower, by the way), but it is interesting to see Sheikh Mohammed so passionate about keeping terrestrial coverage, which he recognises as oxygen to the promotion of the industry.
“Terrestrial television and daily newspaper coverage [in Britain] are truly unique," Ferguson said. "Racing provides great television. Also we mustn't forget that television ensures that racing remains part of the very fabric of British sport and culture.
“You all know what happened in the U.S.A in the 1950s. Horse racing was America’s No 1 sport, but decided to shun television. Now, with the exception of one race, tiddlywinks is more popular. There are examples in Britain. Talk to followers of showjumping and speedway."
The comments take on a greater relevance in the wake of the BBC's recent dramatic, and unjustified, scaling down of their coverage and Channel 4's insistence that any racing output is fully sponsored.
The Maktoums also called for new owners to be made welcome and appreciated. “Sponsorship is vital, but remember that when owners write a cheque, they are also usually sponsoring racing," Ferguson said. "And we must do everything we can to help terrestrial television and the media to promote racing, increase attendances and betting turnover.”
Another important issue addressed was concerns about overproduction of horses without regard for the costs and the relatively low levels of prize money. “Naturally there are those who can afford the luxury of ownership without concerns of financial return, but racing cannot go back to being solely a sport of Kings [and Sheikhs] if it is to thrive in the long term," Ferguson said.
"We, as have others, have reduced stud fees significantly in order to help breeders. But breeding is like any business and the breeders themselves need to think carefully and make sound business decisions before covering their mares."
Outside the dining room, Ferguson said the speech did not necessarily guarantee the continued sponsorship of Channel 4 Racing by Dubai Holdings – though that must have been the heartening conclusion most gained.