On 14 September 2023, the House of Lords is due to consider the following question for short debate:

Lord Herbert of South Downs (Conservative) to ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have to support the horseracing and bloodstock industries.

1. Background

The British Horseracing Authority (BHA) is the regulatory body for horseracing in Britain. In 2020 the BHA stated that horseracing was the “second largest sport behind football in respect of attendances, employment and revenues generated annually”. It said that in 2019 “5.62 million people attended over 1,500 individual race meetings” across the UK. The BHA estimated that the sport generated “£4.1bn in direct, indirect and associated expenditure annually for the British economy”. It said that much of that value was in rural areas, with “20,000 people directly employed” across racecourses, training yards and breeding operations.

Funding to support the grassroots of the horseracing industry is provided by the horserace betting levy. The levy was introduced in the 1960s amid concerns that the legalisation of betting shops could negatively impact racecourse attendance. The levy is administered by the Horserace Betting Levy Board. The board receives no government funding or national lottery funding. Income is derived from bookmakers as a percentage of the gross profit on their British horserace betting business. The board has a statutory duty to collect the levy and use it for the “improvement of horseracing”. Levy income was £97.6mn in 2021–22, an increase from £82mn the previous year when the sport was impacted by Covid restrictions.

The levy was last reviewed in 2017. At that point it was extended to cover overseas bookmakers, when offering bets on racing in Great Britain, and a fixed rate of 10% was set on the profits of leviable operator bets. The levy is due to be reviewed in 2024. Further information can be found in the House of Commons Library briefing on the levy.

Like other sports, horseracing attendance was impacted by the Covid pandemic. Attendance statistics from the Horserace Betting Levy Board showed that 4.8 million people attended racing events in 2022. This was close to pre-Covid attendance levels in 2019. However, concerns have been raised that race attendances were declining even before the pandemic. In 2020, the Racing Post noted that attendances had been on a “downward trend” since 2015. It also reported on the issue of prize money, stating that it compared unfavourably with other countries and that this may impact UK horseracing’s competitiveness. There have been reports of some British trainers targeting other markets, such as Saudi Arabia, due to the higher prizes on offer.

2. Government support for horseracing

In November 2022, the House of Lords had a debate on the horseracing industry. During the debate the government minister at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), Lord Parkinson of Whitley Bay, acknowledged the “significant contribution” horseracing makes to the economy, particularly in rural areas. He said that racing had benefitted from the government’s “economy-wide support for jobs and rates relief” during the Covid pandemic. He stated that government support had also been provided through the sport survival package, which financed loans to live sports events impacted by Covid restrictions. The minister said that a “£21.5mn loan has been made to the levy board to enable it to provide extra support” to racecourses. He said that the government “remain committed to supporting British horseracing and related businesses”.

In January 2023, the government was asked in a written question what steps it was taking to promote horseracing and breeding internationally. The DCMS minister, Paul Scully, referred to the upcoming review of the betting levy in 2024 and said the government would engage with stakeholders to ensure the “benefits of the horserace betting levy are maximised” for the industry. Mr Scully also said that the sports economy team within the Department for Trade and Industry was “actively engaging” with the industry to target international markets and to attract “international investors into the British thoroughbred market”.

3. Recent developments

3.1 Gambling white paper

Horseracing has a long association with betting. As a result, there is concern in the industry about the potential impact of any reforms to UK gambling laws.

Gambling in the UK is regulated through the Gambling Act 2005. In recent years there have been increasing concerns about the rise in online gambling and related issues of problem gambling and gambling harms. In 2020, Boris Johnson’s government launched a review of the 2005 act. The current government responded to the review in a gambling white paper in April 2023, making some proposals for gambling reform.

Announcing the publication of the white paper in the House of Commons, Lucy Frazer, secretary of state for culture, media and sport, said that the internet and smartphones had “transformed” gambling and the temptation to gamble was now “everywhere in society”. She acknowledged that gambling was a “hugely popular pastime” and that the “overwhelming majority” of people did it safely. However, for some people it could lead to addiction and other harms. The white paper therefore set out a range of reforms in the following areas:

  • online gambling
  • marketing, advertising, and sponsorship
  • the Gambling Commission’s powers and resources
  • dispute resolution and consumer redress
  • children and young adults
  • land-based gambling (eg casinos and the availability of gaming machines)

The white paper’s proposals for reform of online gambling included new obligations on operators to perform financial risk checks “if a customer’s gambling is likely to be unaffordable and harmful”. The document stated that this would target three types of risk: “binge gambling, significant unaffordable losses over time, and financially vulnerable customers”. The details of the policy would be finalised following consultations carried out by the Gambling Commission. However, the white paper proposed the following system of checks:

Firstly, background checks at moderate levels of spend, to check for financial vulnerability indicators such as county court judgments. We propose these should take place at £125 net loss within a month or £500 within a year. Second, at higher levels of spend which may indicate harmful binge gambling or sustained unaffordable losses (we propose thresholds of £1,000 net loss within 24 hours or £2,000 within 90 days), there should be a more detailed consideration of a customer’s financial position.

The white paper stated that the government recognised the “significant contribution that horseracing makes to British sporting culture” and that it would ensure that measures “such as financial risk checks do not adversely affect the sector”.

The white paper included estimates of the financial impact of its proposals on the horseracing sector. It estimated a £5–£8mn (6–11%) reduction in the online element of the horserace betting levy. It also estimated a potential reduction in “gambling sponsorship and media rights, as operators’ income is reduced”. The horseracing industry had provided the gambling review with an estimate of total annual income of £1.47bn in 2022. The white paper stated that the proposed reforms would amount to “between 0.5% and 1% of total racing industry income”.

Responding to the white paper, the BHA welcomed its publication, but it said that the structure of the affordability checks could be “critical” for the horseracing industry. It warned the government that “sweeping blanket checks on affordability are not appropriate” and any new measures should be “proportionate and targeted”.

In June 2023, the government addressed an oral question in the House of Commons about the specific impact of the white paper on the horseracing industry. DCMS minister Stuart Andrew stated that the overall impact on the horseracing industry would be “minimal in the context of its overall income”. Edward Leigh (Conservative MP for Gainsborough) said the “sweeping blanket checks envisaged in the white paper are neither advisable nor appropriate”. Mr Andrew said that the financial checks would be “designed so that they are frictionless”. He continued:

The majority of people who enjoy a flutter and for whom it causes no harm whatsoever will not notice any difference, but hopefully this will identify much earlier on those who are getting into an area where this is causing harm.

3.2 Protests at horseracing events

Over recent months there have been several protests at racecourses organised by animal rights groups such as Animal Aid and Animal Rising. Protestors have raised concerns about animal welfare in the horseracing industry, including the deaths of horses during races and jockeys’ use of the whip. Animal Rising says it has a campaign strategy of “disrupting cruel and outdated animal racing events”. The BHA has said that it is “proud of the high welfare standards” that racehorses receive on and off the racecourse. It said the industry was full of people who are “passionate about horses and racing” and who “dedicate their lives, daily, to caring for the 20,000+ horses who race across a year”.

In April 2023, the start of the Grand National was delayed when protestors invaded the course at Aintree. Over 100 protestors were arrested. Three horses died over the three days of the Grand National events in 2023. The BHA said in a statement:

We respect the right of anyone to hold views about our sport, but we robustly condemn the reckless and potentially harmful actions of a handful of people in disrupting the race at a time when horses were in the parade ring.

In June 2023, the Epsom Derby was disrupted by Animal Rising protestors who ran onto the track after the race had started. The BHA condemned the “reckless and dangerous” protest which it said could have jeopardised the “safety of horses and riders”.

Following the Epsom Derby disruption, Animal Rising said it would pause its protests at horseracing events if representatives from the sport agreed to take part in a televised debate on the “ethics of horseracing”. The BHA said in a statement that it refused to take part and that the horseracing industry would not be “coerced into any activity by threats of protests”. The BHA reiterated its view that horseracing has high welfare standards and it called on Animal Rising to “end their reckless acts against a sport legally enjoyed by millions of people every year”.

The government has also condemned protests at sporting events. In July 2023, the home secretary, Suella Braverman, convened a meeting with the police and sports bodies following a series of protests at sporting events over the summer of 2023. Some of the protests, such as disruption at the world snooker championships and the Wimbledon tennis championships, were organised by climate change activists such as Just Stop Oil. Suella Braverman said the government would be “uncompromisingly tough on the selfish protesters intent on spoiling our world-class sporting occasions this summer”. The government highlighted the measures it has taken to deal with public order offences, such as controversial reforms to redefine ‘serious disruption’ and the new criminal offence of ‘locking on’ in the Public Order Act 2023.

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Cover image by Peter W from Pixabay.