This week brought the announcement that many in the racing world had been waiting for, as the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) revealed their plans for the 2024 Fixture List. Whilst the BHA announces the fixtures for the upcoming season every year, things are a little different in 2023. The latest fixture list is the first to be announced as part of the BHA’s project to overhaul a sport which, in the eyes of many, is showing signs of deterioration.
Why The Need For Change?
Simply put, horse racing must be proactive in order to secure its future. The Sport of Kings may have been an integral part of the British sporting landscape for centuries, but rarely has it come under such pressure.
Never has the entertainment industry been so competitive as in the 21st Century, with horse racing up against the other major sports, particularly football, in addition to the exploding digital entertainment sector. With so much choice out there, the BHA needs to provide a reason for punters to engage with the sport and come racing. However, the signs are that horse racing is struggling to keep pace, with the past year seeing:
- Falling attendances at racecourses
- A decrease in betting turnover
- The lowest average field sizes in 30 years
- An increasing number of owners and horses heading overseas, notably to Ireland and France
Time To Take Action
Encouragingly, those charged with running the sport are keen to take the bull by the horns to improve the situation. The new fixture list, which is just one aspect of a more all-encompassing strategy, comes backed by a cross-industry commercial committee and has now been officially approved by the BHA board. Crucially, the plan has also received the support of the Levy Board, who have agreed to a £3.2m increase in prize money funding – rising from £67.3m in 2023 to £70.5m in 2024.
Under the new system, 300 jumps races across 20 fixtures have been stripped from the programme, whilst several summertime flat events have switched to the spring and autumn months. This concentration of jumping contests and reshuffling of flat races is expected to increase the average field size across the sport.
New Premier Race Days the Headline Act
The most eye-catching innovation of the new fixture list is the introduction of new Premier Race Days. Designed to showcase the very best that the sport has to offer, 170 Premier Race Days – spread over 30 racecourses – are scheduled to take place in 2024. These upgraded fixtures aim to place the standout events front and centre with increased promotion, media focus, and prize money.
Premier Race Days on the flat taking place on a Saturday or midweek afternoon, will all have minimum total prize money of £250,000, with no race worth less than £20,000. Over jumps, the respective figures are £200,000 and £15,000. For Sunday and midweek Premier Race Days, the minimum total prize money values for the flat and jumps are £225,000 and £180,000, with the £20,000 and £15,000 minimum values per race remaining in place.
Saturday and midweek Premier Race Days will all receive terrestrial TV coverage. In addition, Saturday afternoon Premier meetings will benefit from a protected window between 2 pm and 4 pm. Only a limited number of other meetings may take place during this window. Under the previous system, Saturday afternoons tended to produce an overload of racing. It is predicted that this focused approach on the very best action will increase media attention and overall betting turnover.
All New Saturday Morning and Sunday Evening Racing
One of the knock-on effects of the 2 pm to 4 pm protected window is that fixtures, which ordinarily would have taken place during this period, have been allocated alternative slots. 35 fixtures will now be held in an unusual Saturday late afternoon slot – beginning no earlier than 4 pm. More intriguing are the new Saturday morning and Sunday evening fixtures.
Saturday Morning Fixtures
Those seeking a bet on a Saturday morning generally face a selection of greyhound racing or overseas horse racing action. In 2024, live UK horse racing will be added into that mix – at least on six Saturdays of the year – with the following Saturday morning fixtures announced:
- Lingfield – 20th January 2024
- Chelmsford – 13th April 2024
- Catterick – 19th October 2024
- Kelso – 9th November 2024
- Kelso – 30th November 2024
- Wetherby – 7th December 2024
Sunday Evening Fixtures
Despite being one of the prime recreational days of the week, Sunday has historically been underused in British racing. Things look set to improve on that score in 2024, with 29 Sunday Premier Race Days scheduled. Not only that, but we will now have racing in the traditionally blank Sunday evening slot, with the following six meetings announced for the first quarter of 2024:
- Wolverhampton – 7th January 2024
- Chelmsford – 21st January 2024
- Newcastle – 4th February 2024
- Kempton – 18th February 2024
- Newcastle – 3rd March 2024
- Southwell – 10th March 2024
How Will Success Be Measured?
Initially scheduled for a two-year test period, it is hoped that the new structure of the fixture list will contribute towards:
- Attracting new people to the sport
- Improving overall revenues
- Increasing racecourse attendance
- Recruiting and retaining owners
- Encouraging the best horses to train and race in Britain
If all goes to plan, the new proposals are predicted to inspire a £90m increase in racing revenues over the 2024 to 2028 period when compared with the expected outcome should no changes be made.
To keep track of the impact of the changes and make any necessary alterations, the BHA and Levy Board will review monthly reports detailing figures relating to racecourse attendance, ownership levels, and betting turnover. Only time will tell whether this change represents a false dawn or the beginning of a bold new racing world. All concerned will be hoping for the latter.