We lost a queen and gained a pawn.
It is just over a fortnight since Towcester went into administration but they have been two of the most significant weeks in the media rights battle between ARC and SIS.
Because make no mistake, the signing up of Pelaw Grange to TRP this week and the loss of racing’s crown jewels, will be part of the battle history.
Now I would like to make it clear that I am delighted for Jeff McKenna and family. They have landed a deal that helps ensure the future of a track that I have dealt with going back to the flapping days under Jeff’s greatly respected dad, Joe.
Indeed, my writing career as born as a result of my passion for the ‘permits’, ‘shantys’, or ‘flapping shitholes’ as they were once described by a former racing manager/semi-retired Racing Post journalist.
Pelaw had acted as a reluctant feeder track for Newcastle and Sunderland long before ARC arrived on the scene and they have already announced significant prize money increases and trainer benefits.
A lot of good dog men and woman will stay in the game because of this deal.
But nobody can persuade me that the loss of Towcester was a good thing for the greyhound industry as a whole.
They basically closed because they had another 16 months of a low paying contract with ARC, and their board of directors weren’t prepared to keep losing money until December 2019.
Since my last column, Lord Hesketh has been in touch to dispute my take on his track’s role in originally rejecting SIS, though I have agreed not to expand on that at this stage.
The fact remains however, but for that legal binding contract, Towcester would be in the SIS camp now, almost certainly with five very lucrative meetings per week, plus the English Derby, Puppy Derby, Oaks, TV Trophy etc etc.
Did ARC expect Towcester to fold so, comparatively, unexpectedly?
I can’t believe they did. But the results have been an absolute bonanza for their media rights rivals SIS.
Henlow have been the biggest beneficiaries by far. They now have probably, second only to Romford, the strongest kennel strength in the country, headed by champion trainer Mark Wallis.
Who would have believed it? – Henlow! My local track and the shantiest of the shanties!!
Elsewhere, Crayford have almost filled a massive hole caused by the loss of Gemma Davidson and Barry O’Sullivan by recruiting Jim Reynolds. Hove have gained Richard Yeates.
Monmore have gained massively, both in the higher grades and opens, by the arrival of Kevin Hutton.
So we are two thirds of the way through the Media Rights War (2018-).
However, it actually started more than a year ago when trainers at many GMG tracks were handed contracts to sign (really quickly!).
It happened virtually overnight and the ink was dry before many asked, ‘have I done the right thing?’
Any of those who asked me first were told ‘Don’t be rushed into signing anything yet. You are not about to be kicked out’ or ‘Take the money but only if you are convinced you want to stay anyway’
Trainers rep Pete Harnden gave the same advice. Or to those who had already signed, the message was ‘now hand in your notice’.
The contracts, for a one-off payment, ensured that the trainers were required to give 18 months notice before quitting.
A number took Pete’s advice, are running down their contracts, and are expected to jump to SIS ships in early 2019. Others simply wanted to unburden themselves but remain happy where they are.
The tracks themselves are also bound in five year deals. But I understand that unlike the trainers, they have a clause which means they remain tied to their contracts in perpetuity – if ARC are prepared to match a rival offer.
With no sign, as far as we are aware, that the big prize chains of Ladbrokes Coral and Betfred, are about to commit to ARC, they are currently – by far – the less happy group.
They are still to hear the size of next year’s funding pot from which they must all be fed – presumably around £13m. But without the two major bookie chains, it will be another year of belt tightening.
Their unhappy trainers will continue to bang on the GMs doors wanting to know why they are missing out and waiting for their contracts to expire.
It is a horrible situation but most GMG promoters will argue that they had no choice but to sign a ‘jam tomorrow’ long term ARC deal, given that they had no guarantees of being handed one by SIS. Without a contract from somebody, closure is inevitable.
Effectively, but for the media rights battle and ARC’s intervention, at least half of them would probably be closed by now.
So although a few are still looking for a file, or keys, for their golden handcuffs, they remain convinced they have chosen the right side.
So where does this go from here?
That is the multi million pound question.
Certainly there are no signs of SIS weakening. They are undoubtedly better organised than a year ago and will no doubt be strengthened further by the recent arrival of former Ladbrokes Head of Stadia Richard Brankley.
Indeed, the whole balance of racing has tilted in the last year. Of the 21 remaining tracks, only Shawfield, almost certainly at Billy King’s insistence, are not contracted to one side or the other.
But whereas the ARC/GMG side had a surplus of tracks/trainers/dogs, and were looking for more fixtures, that has virtually disappeared.
SIS have taken on some Irish racing content, but thanks to their prize money and bonus structure, have massively reinforced their number of available UK runners.
There are widespread concerns – either real or imaginary, I truly don’t know – over the future of at least two GMG tracks.
Should even one crumble in the next year, then ARC too will struggle to match their commitments.
When the queen was lost, or allowed to be lost, the whole game changed
I conclude with two lots of good news.
The first is that we continue to smash all previous visitor records having gone through the ’20,000 individual monthly users’ mark since the last Editors Chair.
(Remember – each visitor is recorded only once, even if they log on every day)
That would be more than double the highest number of Star newspapers ever sold in a month – and you would have to go back more than 25 years to find those figures.
As always, thanks for your support.
Secondly – and I am genuinely thrilled about this – we are about to welcome a new regular columnist to the site.
The legend that is Gary Wiltshire has agreed to produce regular pieces on the Star site, hopefully starting next week.
The TV pundit, who sold 28,000 copies of his first book, has another one lined up.
But the British library wouldn’t have enough room for his fascinating tales of dog racing and punting over the years.
A huge boost for the site and our readers.