Horse racing is one of the world’s oldest sports. With the sport trapped inside its conventional framework and developing laws and values, it is clear that this sector is increasingly struggling to adapt, flourish, and progress. What are the horse racing industry’s strengths and weaknesses?
A tainted image due to a poor reputation
Animal welfare issues
The debate on animal rights is not new. Indeed, Pythagoras emerged as a philosopher of animal rights in the 19th century. The first animal protection law appeared in the United Kingdom in 1822, and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (SPCA) was founded in France in 1845. However, it was not until 1978 that the Universal Declaration of Animal Rights was proclaimed at the UNESCO headquarters.
The end of the 20th century marked a turning point, particularly in the horse racing sector. The concept of equine ethics emerged in the 1970s in Anglo-Saxon countries. This field of philosophical reflection on horses questions human behavior toward these animals. It raises concerns about breeding choices, custody, sports use, and end-of-life decisions, which are closely related to notions of respect and the well-being of the horse. Thus, some condemn the exploitation of horses for the pleasure of bettors, trainers, spectators, and, more generally, humans. There is a notable division in the perception of horse racing. For example, in an Australian study conducted by Iris M. Bergmann, the same photos of racehorses at the racetrack were shown to industry professionals and animal activists. The results show that while racing industry leaders may consider it natural for a horse to appear impatient when excitedly moving away from a rider holding the reins, with no cause for concern, animal advocates disagree. For them, the horse’s behavior is indicative of unnatural conditions and a manifestation of stress or pain. As long as the nature of the horse is not taken into account, they believe that horse racing lacks respect for the animals and significantly jeopardizes their well-being.
Moreover, horse racing can be perceived as a brutal sport by the general public. Lola Quitard, Director of the Conseil des Chevaux de Normandie, testifies: “The use of the whip and training aids gives a harsh image. I invite any defender of the whip to bring 30 children to the finish line. I wish them good luck explaining that it is not wrong. Even if it were scientifically justified, it is not easily communicable; we would never have time to explain and deconstruct that image.” In addition to this violent image, there are controversies surrounding doping, questions about the young age at which racehorses start training, the confinement of horses in boxes despite their natural inclination to live in herds and outdoors, and the number of deaths on racetracks.
All these elements tarnish the image of the sport, and there are increasing doubts, especially due to the rise of veganism and anti-speciesist demands. In one of the interviews we conducted, Olivier Delloye, CEO of France Galop since 2016, confirmed the threat to the future of racing: “This image is likely to become more problematic in the coming years. There is clearly a huge issue concerning the well-being and the image of our sport from that perspective.“
Betting, tarnished by an image of dependence and addiction
Regarding betting, Olivier Delloye also points out that “The image that can somewhat harm us among a wide, family-oriented audience is the association with gambling, which can provoke a real rejection from a certain part of the population.” Despite their popularity, horse racing bets have a somewhat negative reputation worldwide.
Firstly, gambling is culturally unacceptable in many religions. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religions perceive making money through chance without putting in real effort as a sin. For instance, in 2009, Malian striker Frédéric Kanouté, who played for FC Seville, refused to wear his team’s jersey due to the sponsor displayed on it. As a Muslim, he deemed the sponsorship of games of chance and sports betting incompatible with his religious beliefs. Thus, there is an initial cultural rejection of gambling.
The second rejection is ethical in nature. The risks of addiction are often highlighted. Addiction to sports betting refers to a situation in which a person cannot refrain from betting money, and the consequences are dangerous to their health. Gambling addiction is recognized as a disease by the World Health Organization (WHO). The French Monitoring Centre for Drugs and Drug Addiction (OFDT) emphasizes that in 2019, 4.2% of French horse racing bettors had developed an addiction to this practice.
An exclusive world for a privileged group of people
Since Homeric times, owning, riding, and training horses has been a distinctive sign of belonging to the political and economic elite of Greek cities. In art, statues, cinema, and everywhere else, the racetrack is associated with aristocratic culture.
Thus, the traditionally aristocratic ownership of horses and governance of institutions characterize the world of racing and foster exclusivity. This image is even more pronounced as it continues to be depicted through events: champagne, elegant attire, and VIP boxes are still a part of the scene at the ParisLongchamp racetrack for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Therefore, ownership is not perceived as a status accessible to everyone; the financial investment associated with the racing world contributes to creating the image of a “sport for the bourgeois.”
A declining influence
This negative image of horse racing undermines the sector’s attractiveness, and one of its major weaknesses is its struggle to attract a larger audience.
Lack of communication and transparency damaging the popularity of horse racing
Despite significant revenues, horse racing is losing popularity, as evidenced by a decrease in betting volume and a decline in racetrack attendance. One of the main reasons for this lack of appeal lies in the discipline’s lack of visibility. Horse racing is generally a sport that is little known or misunderstood. For example, it is easy to name a tennis or football star even if you are not a follower of those sports, but it remains difficult for someone unfamiliar with horse racing to name a well-known jockey or horse. There are no celebrities to identify with.
This situation is not only the result of a past that the industry struggles to overcome but also due to an inadequate strategy. Media visibility is limited, but this is also due to a lack of modernity in the organization of horse racing events. Didier Krainc, creator and owner of Vivaldi Stables, points out, “It is a world that has not embraced modernity; it is very traditional (…). There is no modern treatment of the spectacle.” While sports increasingly strive for spectacle and adapt to “better meet television requirements” (Le Monde, December 6-7, 1998), such as implementing regulation uniforms for aesthetic purposes (colored kimonos in judo, bodysuits for volleyball players) or revising the rules of the game (shortening the duration of matches in volleyball and pentathlon), horse racing has focused on speed at the expense of endurance since World War II. As a result, races last only a few minutes, and a significant portion of the race takes place out of sight of spectators at the racetrack. This is compounded by a nearly neglected strategy of outreach: industry media are inward-focused and create little content accessible to novices.
Nicholas Nugent, CEO of Goffs, says, “The problem is that it is a sport that plays out for two minutes, then there is a 28-minute intermission, then another two minutes, followed by another intermission. (…) So, we really need to think about how to manage our audience and the time between races; the experience of live racing is very important.“
Declining professional attractiveness
The industry also suffers from a lack of attractiveness from a human resources perspective. In France, 25% of job offers for gallop trainers fail to find suitable candidates, compared to 11% in 2017. The industry faces a labor shortage due to the demanding nature of the work and the lack of recognition. Days start early; working in a racing stable requires physical resources and leads to significant fatigue. Additionally, salaries are not attractive.
Freddy Powell, CEO of Arqana, states, “The weakness of racing today, and its greatest danger, is the difficulty of recruiting personnel due to the demanding nature of the work. (…) We often talk about equine welfare, and it is important to take care of them, but if we want to start by treating our horses well, we need to treat our staff well. The more personnel we have who want to work with horses, the better our horses will be treated.“
Attracting racehorse owners is also becoming increasingly challenging due to the declining popularity of the sport and the decreasing prize money. In the past, horse racing offered substantial prize funds, sometimes exceeding $50 million. For example, winners of the Epsom Derby would walk away with the equivalent of $371,792. In 2020 (also due to COVID), the total prize money for the top 10 flat races was reduced by almost $6 million.
Lack of accessibility, both externally and internally
Due to its complexity, the general public struggles to engage with this world. There are different types of races (claiming races, handicap races, group races, etc.), a multitude of races with a packed calendar, numerous horses, tracks, jockeys, regulations, and racetracks. It can be difficult to follow the sport, despite expressed interest. The same applies to betting, with various types of bets and multiple operators. A minimum level of knowledge is recommended to place bets. This can be very daunting for a novice.
“The horse world is a closed world, turned inward in its internal organization. For the general public, there is a sympathetic image associated with horses, but there is also an image of horse racing where people don’t really know what is going on. It’s a somewhat mysterious world. To me, it’s a significant weakness” said Didier Budka, former director of AFASEC for 19 years.
Even within the horse industry itself, horse racing maintains an image of being inaccessible. The population of race enthusiasts is radically different from that of equestrian enthusiasts (higher socioeconomic categories among the latter, strong feminization, especially among those under 25, and a focus on the relationship with the animal). The divide between these two disciplines demonstrates that within the equine world, where a passion for horses is shared, there is still difficulty accessing the world of horse racing. The boundary between traditional horsemanship and horse racing remains present.
Furthermore, within the racing industry, there is a significant divide between the worlds of thoroughbred racing and harness racing. Thoroughbred racing originated in the aristocratic circles of England, while harness racing has peasant origins. The latter emerged during village festivities during donkey races. Moreover, the structure of these two disciplines differs greatly. Thoroughbred racing is characterized by a hierarchically structured socio-professional system with well-defined positions (breeders, owners, trainers, jockeys), while harness racing is primarily rural and popular, consisting of small, family-run, multi-functional enterprises. In harness racing, the owner may also be the breeder, trainer, and driver of the horses. These historical, cultural, and socio-professional divisions persist to this day. “Unfortunately, the poor image of horse racing is not only present in the general public but also within the sports and leisure sectors of the industry. There is a great lack of knowledge, and even within the disciplines, you can hear detrimental remarks about harness racing from a thoroughbred professional” says Lola Quitard, director of the Conseil des Chevaux de Normandie.
In addition to these differences, there are also geographical and cultural disparities. As mentioned earlier, each country has its own rules, and there is no international unity or standardization in terms of the sport or betting. Freddy Powell emphasizes that to work on the sustainability of racing, “Institutions in France and institutions in different countries need to connect to understand what can be done. (…) I think finding common solutions across all countries is vital.“
Thus, it is possible to be a player in the industry without being fully integrated into this complex world, which differs according to discipline, geography and culture.
Comparison by country
While some weaknesses may be generalized to the global horse racing industry, there are also regionalized weaknesses that can be identified. For example, the entire French horse racing industry relies on horse betting. In 2020, the total amount of registered bets reached 7,801.7 million euros (IFCE, ECUS directory, 2021). 930.7 million euros go to the parent companies to contribute to the financing of the industry and the actions taken to maintain its attractiveness. There is, therefore, a strong financial dependence. The number of registered bets fell by 14.5% between 2019 and 2020, indicating that these funding sources are becoming more brittle.
Furthermore, the culture of horse racing is less prominent in France compared to other countries. Owning a horse is not common and is often synonymous with wealth in France, whereas this practice is much more democratized in Australia or the United States, where multi-ownership is more prevalent.
In the United Kingdom, race prize money represents the most significant weakness. The sport is not financially lucrative. As a result, it is challenging to attract owners, and many trainers run their horses in France to earn more money. In terms of betting, the sector is fairly unregulated due to bookmakers.
Dr. Newland, a top 20 trainer in the UK, states, “The biggest weakness is our difficulty in making the activity economically healthy and profitable. We know that the average British owner achieves a return of about 50% on owning a racehorse, which does not encourage investment. In comparison, the return is 90% in France. The main difference comes from betting, where in France, you have an institution that can offer as much as it wants, while in the UK, there is a tax, and our bookmakers are outside British jurisdiction and do not reinvest the money.“
The Irish horse racing industry is heavily dependent on the UK in terms of exports and racing. However, Brexit has brought significant changes at all levels, including administrative and logistical processes that complicate transportation, breeding, and the recruitment of labor.
In the United States, the horse racing industry is even more complex due to the lack of uniformity in rules across states. This affects the attractiveness of the product and complicates processes for industry stakeholders. Jim Gagliano, president of the Jockey Club USA, emphasizes, “The challenge we face in the United States, unlike France, where the sport is regulated by a single organization, is that each state where there is racing, which is 38 states, has its own legislation, authority, and responsibility for regulation.”
Additionally, the country is highly impacted by the negative image of horse racing. The public’s interest is decreasing due to scandals related to doping, whipping, and horse fatalities. In 2022, an article from NBC News cited the near end of greyhound racing in the United States due to numerous concerns.
Key words: horse racing, horse industry, betting, lack of appeal, etc.