International incentives - how racecourses attract owners and trainers

Every racing authority and every racecourse must offer incentives if they have any particular ambitions. Appearance money, owners' premiums, breeders' premiums, travel allowances and all manner of special offers are either tried out or made a basic part of policy.

The question always is whether they have the intended result. If so, then the offerers must ask if the money was well spent and whether the chosen policy will produce a satisfactory result in the longer term. As for the owners and trainers who are the beneficiaries, their job is to keep themselves informed and pick up whatever they can. However successful, incentives remain extras. They have little point if a strong programme, which should lead horses up a ladder of opportunity, does not back them. Any weaknesses should be filled, as European authorities are currently attempting by offering more chances for fillies and mares. The lack of conditions and Listed events for two-year-olds, which leads so many trainers to step directly from winning a maiden into Group 3 class, may be just as undesirable a gap.

These gaps are among the reasons why our horses, and European ones in general, are so attractive to American agents and owners. American racetracks offer an extensive programme of allowances (conditions events)while their practice of keeping the sexes separate, at all stages of a horse's career, provides even more opportunities. European horses may have shown plenty of ability but can still have won only once or twice when they are sold. They are then able to make almost a fresh start, beginning at a relatively low point on the ladder, when they reappear in the United States.

A Listed race winner in Britain, France or Ireland has an excellent chance of winning an American Graded race. Add to that the greater economic strength of American buyers - even with the current weak dollar - and it is obvious that any changes designed to strengthen competition for horses, close to Pattern race level but not quite good enough, can only ever be partially successful at best. It should all start with that objective nevertheless, backed up by as many incentives as available funds will allow.

France has offered the most generous rewards ever since the sport was reorganized by Jean Romanet in the 1950s. The yields from the pari-mutuel monopoly are not as handsome as in the past but still support some amazing extra rewards. Owners of a French-bred receive a premium of 75 percent on all prizes in two-year-old races and of 63 percent in those for three-year-olds. There is an additional ten percent on offer in Listed and Group 3 events. Prizes and premiums go down to seventh in tierce handicaps and to fifth place in everything else. Owners receive no extra premium in races restricted to French-breds nor in many races for older horses however. Breeders are just as handsomely compensated, even in races for French-breds, in which they receive at least 19 percent of the prize in juvenile events. Roseanna, a daughter of Anabaa trained by Criquette Head-Maarek, which won the Listed Prix Yacowlef for Peter Savill at Deauville last August, earned her breeders a 25.9 percent premium.

Savill, who picked up an extra 85 percent of his £13,312 first prize, is far from the only British owner attracted to France although the number of British-owned horses in training there is well down on the level in the early 1970s. Most owners want to see their horses in action whenever possible and sending them to another country decreases that chance. Other considerations come into play for breeders as well.

The Niarchos Family picked up a prize of €199,990 when Six Perfections won the race which they sponsor, the Prix Jacques Le Marois, at Deauville. In addition, the French-bred daughter of Celtic Swing earned them premiums of €125,993(63 percent) as owners and €45,637(22.8 percent) as breeders, plus a special prize of €85,710 (42.86 percent) from the EBF. Yet the Niarchos operation, although based at the Haras de Fresnay le Buffard in Normandy, has always relied on the horses which it breeds in Kentucky and which are not qualified for any of these incentives. Similarly, the Aga Khan has always been happy to breed in Ireland and race in France.

Such owners breed and raise their horses where they are most likely to achieve classic success. Incentives, even ones as generous as those in France, are more important to people operating on a smaller scale. But by how much do they promote the buying and racing of French horses, how much do they encourage the raising of standards and how much are they simply a reward for the continuation of mediocrity? These are questions which have been debated for years.

Some British trainers have made effective use of the premiums, as Brian Meehan did with the likes of Brief Encounta and Challenges in 1998-99, but the experiment was not continued. Success abroad is counterbalanced by the heavy demands which regular foreign ventures make on the way a stable operates.

Owners might also be tempted by the rewards for purchasing Italian-breds to race in that country, starting with an extra 50 percent on all two-year-old winners, except in sellers and claimers, in all other flat races worth more than 8,800 euros in total (which means about £2,800 to the winner), and in all jumps races and amateur events. These premiums increase by stages in more valuable races, and in Listed and Pattern events, until you double your money if you can win a Group 1 with an Italian-bred. Prize money itself is excellent by any European standard, and racing has grown steadily more competitive, but there has been no real move by foreign owners to take advantage. Italian breeders are also well rewarded, receiving premiums in every race and special prizes for the first ones home in major events, wherever they finish. Owners of British-breds now receive premiums of 25 percent in most races for two to four-year-olds on the flat and for the majority of jumps races, with a maximum payout of £25,000 for a winner and £10,000 for a placed horse. More questionably, the premium increases to 50 percent for fillies & mares competing over jumps. The BHB has budgeted £1.1m for this year but estimates that the scheme, which is intended to increase the demand for British-breds at the sales, will cost £3.5m in 2005 and £7.2m by 2011. It was intended to supplant breeders' premiums but they will continue for this year at least.

One significant difference between Britain and Ireland and other major racing countries is the much smaller proportion of horses raced by their breeders. Premiums might have a more certain effect if there were more owner-breeders. There is little public sympathy for commercial breeders because it is so easy to point to the apparently rich gains they can make at the Sales.

However, for each example of that type, there is at least another like the story of the American filly You. Now five, You won nine of her 23 races, including four Grade 1 events, and earned $2,101,353. She was bred by Dolphus Morrison, who sold her privately after she had finished second and won a maiden in his colours. But he had already given away her dam, Our Dani, to the University of Louisiana. You won her first Grade 1 in the Frizette Stakes at Belmont in October 2001. Three months later, the University sold Our Dani, in foal to the virtually unknown In a Walk, sire of 98 foals from his first five crops, for $625,000 at Keeneland.

The most successful trainers are those who take advantage of the current situation and adapt most rapidly to any changes, either in the programme or in the way incentives are offered. If there is extra money on offer, take it. It is for others to worry over the effects and to make changes as necessary. When Haydock Park tried to make its chases more competitive by offering a prize to trainers, Martin Pipe sent well-laden horseboxes up the motorways and swamped the opposition. When Ascot offered a prize to trainers, in an attempt to increase the fields for its jumping, it used a combination of success in the races and the number of runners supplied. Michael Chapman saddled enough horses from his Market Rasen stables to win the money.

Much the same happened when appearance money was introduced for runners in conditions events in July 2000. Rank horses were soon working overtime, particularly on Sundays, which carried extra bonuses. Four Men and Time For The Clan each ran 35 times in 2001. The only occasion on which either won a prize was when Four Men was second of three behind a 1-40 shot. Yet both horses earned their keep, which is something, many much superior animals could not do.

Offer an attractive prize and some smart trainer will step up to bid for and probably win it. When Kempton offered £50,000 in 1987, backed by an insurance policy, to the first horse to win three handicaps at the course, Gerald Cottrell soon snapped it up with Stock Hill Lass. When the Bank of Montreal put up a bonus of $1,000,000 for a Canadian Triple Crown winner starting in 1989, no horse had done the treble since Canebora in 1963. Yet With Approval, Izvestia and Dance Smartly did so in the first three years and the Bank cried enough. Only the $US5,000,000 Visa Triple Crown Challenge bonus, first offered in 1987, has remained out of reach. Plenty of horses have won two of the races but there has been no Triple Crown hero in America since Affirmed in 1978. Travel allowances, which were backed in Britain by the Tote from its earliest years, were one of the first incentives. Again they were exploited, or abused, depending on your point of view, by enterprising trainers. They are a matter of particular rather than general policy nowadays, paid by courses seeking to maintain or improve their position rather than by the overall authorities. Goodwood offers £1,000 for any foreign-trained runner, including Irish ones, in its 11 Group races and an additional £1,000 to any of them, which have won a Group 1 or Group 2 during the current season. Punchestown pays travel allowances and other expenses for overseas runners at its Festival meeting and was rewarded with its first French-trainer runner, admittedly Irish-owned, when First Gold won the Heineken Gold Cup last April. Horse Racing Ireland pays a travel allowance of €1,000 to any overseas raider, which finishes out of the money in Group or Listed races.

This method of rewarding foreign participation is gaining popularity with other promoters of international races, like Arlington, Hollywood Park and Woodbine, all of which also offer a generous welcome to owners. Cagnes-sur-Mer and Pau offer travel allowances, graduated according to the distance covered, and subsidised stabling to attract runners, most of which come from the Paris area, where racing shuts down for the best part of three months. As in the United States, where subsidised stabling is an important part of the sport, they do not look kindly on those who take up box space without running their horses. Deauville paid travel allowances in 1962 at a time when competition was weak. They attracted a lot of runners, including eight English winners and three from Ireland. When the scheme was repeated the following year, however, it began to attract the equivalents of Four Men and Time For The Clan and was abandoned.

Travel allowances are at their most important in international races these days. The Breeders' Cup considers its prizes sufficient inducement to contest the so-called World Thoroughbred Championships. But it loses runners as a result to the Japan Cup and the four rich events at Sha Tin in mid-December, for each of which all expenses are paid. Equally generous incentives are offered in the spring, when horses can follow an international trail through the Dubai World Cup meeting, the Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup and the Singapore Airlines International Cup. Of course, your horse still has to be good enough to receive an invitation but big money is not a enough on its own. In addition to the excellent prize money, the new Dubai International Racing Carnival at Nad al Sheba offered free transport and stabling, provided the horses run twice or more at the carnival. Dubai also paid what the Japanese call 'participation incentive money' of $2,000 to horses finishing from fifth to tenth in races with total prize money of $75,000 or more.

The Japanese themselves have been gradually opening up their big races to international competition. The number of open events has reached 23 this year. You might think that the gigantic prizes would be enough but that is not the case. There is no entry fee and it costs only about £520 to run in the Grade 2 Yomiuri Milers Cup at Hanshin on April 17. The winner is guaranteed over £313,000 and even the eighth will earn £18,765 yet there will be few if any international entries, let alone runners. Dumaani, owned by Hamdan al Maktoum and trained by Kiaran McLaughlin in Dubai, was a 56-1 winner of the £392,466 Keio Hai Spring Cup at Tokyo Racecourse in April 1995. Heart Lake, who ran fifth in that race for Godolphin and Saeed bin Suroor, went on to lift the £670,840 Yasuda Kinen the following month. Godolphin did it again with Heart Lake in the 1996 Keio Hai Spring Cup and added another huge prize when Annus Mirabilis, ridden by Darryll Holland, took the £405,308 Mainichi Okan that October. Annus Mirabilis returned to Japan in June 1998 to finish third in the Group 2 Naruo Kinen at Hanshin. But his connections lost interest while most others are more conscious of the certain expense rather than the possible gains. At the time of Maktoum interest, there were no travel allowances except in the Japan Cup. But the Japanese now pay the expenses of horses, which are sufficiently highly-rated, as Tout Seul and the French-trained Special Kaldoun were when they contested the Grade 1 Mile Championship at Kyoto last November.

None of this will stop racecourses from offering incentives to attract big names, as Ascot did so successfully with Choisir. Ascot has now established a formal link with Racing Victoria, by way of the newly-established Silver Arrow Sprint Challenge at the Melbourne tracks. Choisir won and then finished third and sixth in the first three legs of this four race series last year. The Challenge offers a bonus of $AUS500,000 to any horse which can win three out of four, a prize which would have been claimed by Placid Ark in 1987 and Schillaci in 1992. In addition it guarantees an expenses paid trip to the big Royal Ascot sprints for the horse, which does best in the series. Everyone wants the best horses.

The Challenge is just the latest device to promote international competition. If it works, everyone will be happy: if not, they will try something else. Most incentives only have a brief life and, if you have the chance, you should take advantage of them while you can.