London (AFP) -
Horse racing has been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic but is facing even tougher times ahead, according to a bleak assessment by Ascot' director of racing Nick Smith.
The British horse racing industry is worth an estimated £4 billion ($5.2 billion) to the economy every year, employing thousands of people in rural businesses.
Strong trade at the recent yearling sales at Europe's premier auction house Tattersalls offered a ray of hope in turbulent times.
'Remarkably good, as we were fearing the worst,' Tattersalls chairman Edmond Mahony told AFP.
But world-famous racecourses including Ascot, Newmarket and Goodwood are taking a battering, with spectators barred due to rules to limit the spread of coronavirus.
Owners can still attend but aside from seeing their horses run it is a no-frills experience, with bars and restaurants shut -- 70 percent of the revenue for major racecourses.
Prize money too has taken a huge hit.
The top 10 flat races suffered a precipitous fall of 63 percent from £10.3 million to £3.8 million, according to figures provided by the British Horseracing Authority.
Little wonder Ralph Beckett, the incoming chairman of the National Trainers Federation, fears 10 percent of the 500 members could be forced to hand in their licences.
Ascot director of racing Smith says it is frustrating to have no spectators and cannot offer any immediate fix to the prize money quandary, adding 'normality' will only return in 2022.
A major chunk of the prize money comes from a levy on betting but bookmakers themselves have been hit hard by Covid-19, with negative knock-on effects for the sport.
Live racing was suspended for months earlier this year and thousands of betting shops are currently shut under a new lockdown.
One recent boost for the industry is extra income from bookmakers, who now have to pay significantly more for results and TV images.
William Woodhams, CEO of bookmaker Fitzdares, said his media-rights costs had rocketed since the start of the year.
Smith, though, says that will not solve the overall financial problems next year.
'Best possible picture for 2021 is not good, in fact next year will be worse,' he said.
'The levy subsidies will only last so long, the media rights only go so far and we need to see crowds come back and the tills rolling to turn things round.'
- 'Not everyone has an oil well' -
Some in the industry favour a robust approach, pressing the bookmakers to contribute more.
'There is such a minute return of betting revenue being invested compared to abroad. We have to fix a broken model,' Qatar Racing manager David Redvers told AFP at last month's Tattersalls sales.
'If there is anything good to come out of this ridiculous, dreadful year it is that there is a genuine feeling of enough is enough.
'People (owners and breeders) are prepared to put money into legal fees, we have seen bookies have huge legal teams and will fight tooth and nail all the way.
'We have to ensure we fight the fight in a meaningful fashion so that a greater return comes back to racing.'
Redvers says even success in the courts would not come in time for some in the industry.
'Yes, there will be casualties,' he said. 'Trainers, breeders and dealers will go to the wall. The owners leaving will be the greatest catalyst for all those going to the wall.
'Not everyone has an oil well and those with a restaurant cannot be seen to be spending £30,000 on Lot 1377 when he is laying off staff.'
Training great John Gosden says the whole industry must pull together to get through the tough times.
'We have to be very aware of the community and be very conscious that people have got to put food on the table and look after their families,' he said.
'We have got to look out for young people who are trying to start their lives in incredibly difficult circumstances.'