The going’s been better at Kelso

Scotland's Greig Laidlaw (right) in action against New Zealand
Scotland's Greig Laidlaw (right) in action against New Zealand

EVERYONE is aware that National Hunt racing is a high-risk sport – for the jockeys and for the horses participating in it.

However, this winter the sport has been high-risk for a completely different reason.

Kelso Racecourse is going through one of its toughest times in recent history.

The people involved in the day-to-day running of the course believe that this is down to bookmakers taking advantage of an outdated levy system and the unfavourable weather during what should have been the course’s most lucrative time of year.

“High-risk weather and high-risk racing just do not mix,” says Kelso’s managing director Richard Landale.

British Horse Racing is going through a transitional period, with funding to racecourses being cut by more than 57 per cent. Unique small courses like Kelso are struggling to maintain buoyancy within the turbulent state of economy and the implications of budget cuts.

Funding to enable courses like Kelso to exist is provided by the Levy Board which collects money from bookmakers and distributes a small proportion of it to all British racecourses.

With a decline in traditional on-course and shop gambling, there has been a shift towards online betting with an increasing number of bookmakers moving abroad to avoid paying tax.

This results in the money generated from bookmakers declining, in turn affecting the funding passed on by the levy to racecourses.

In addition, “Britain’s Friendliest Course” has suffered from the extreme cold snap that smothered the country throughout November and December, losing three scheduled meetings and one rearranged fixture.

“Normally losing four consecutive meetings in any season would be financially damaging, but this year on top of trying to cope with a 57 per cent drop in income from the Levy Board, the situation has been made significantly worse,” explained Mr Landale.

Kelso lost its most significant fixture of the late autumn campaign – Scottish Borders National Day – which offers an outstanding £40,000 to the winner of this prestigious race and acts as a stepping stone to the world-famous Aintree Grand National.

Louise Grey, who heads the marketing team at Kelso, told TheSouthern: “Losing the Scottish Borders National was a big blow, and that was just the start. The season has been extremely difficult for everyone – owners, trainers and racecourse staff.”

There is, however, a glimmer of light at the end of winter’s tunnel. With the snow gone and temperatures rising, the course is looking forward to a further seven days’ racing before the National Hunt season concludes.

Grey added: “We have a really exciting spring schedule, with highlights that include the Morebattle Hurdle, the Grade 2 Totepool Premier Hurdle, a Saturday Evening meeting – which will feature a post-racing party, and also Ladies’ Day on Sunday, May 22, the final meeting of the season.”

Whatever the current complications, however, the nature of the beast in racing is optimism. Owners are optimistic their horses are full of promise; trainers are optimistic their horses show promise; and now the racecourse is optimistic that with the arrival of spring will see a welcome turnaround in fortunes.

Mr Landale concluded: “We must make the best of what we are given, and with our new picture rights deal coming in April 2012, we are looking forward to replacing the lost revenue and improving the course, facilities and racing we already have.”

Meanwhile, the course is throwing its weight behind a worthy project.

Last season alone, hundreds of jockeys, including BBC Sports Personality of the Year A P McCoy, suffered a multitude of injuries.

The flagship facility of the Injured Jockeys Fund is the multi-million-pound centre in Lambourn, Oaksey House. This building has 12 homes for injured riders, respite accommodation, gyms, function rooms, sauna and physiotherapy room, together with specialist medical consultants.

Former trainer Jack Berry was an integral part in the formation of the IJF in 1964, and is now pressing ahead with a new crusade to build an ‘Oaksey House’ in the north. To help raise funds for ‘The House that Jack Built’ and The Injured Jockeys Fund, Kelso Racecourse has initiated a silent auction for the public to bid on a lifesize cardboard cutout of ‘The Champ’ – A P McCoy.

Bidders are asked to read the terms and conditions on the website, and send an email with their full name and bid louise@kelso-races.co.uk. The person with the highest bid will be announced at the next meeting on Thursday February 17. The daily highest bid will be published on Kelso Races’ Facebook page and www.kelso-races.co.uk