Sorry story of platers being sold down the river

Once well-loved type of race harder to find

What’s happening to the good old-fashioned British ‘seller’? A race once beloved by small owners and trainers now appears to be in terminal decline.

Although selling races have always been synonymous with low-class, midweek racing, they have invariably attracted the older type of horse that is well-known to the everyday follower of racing.

There was often a fondness for horses referred to as ‘platers’ and, despite their mediocrity, they invariably produced competitive fields that made for good betting races. ‘Sellers’ that were weight-for age contests were also attractive to trainers as alternative races for horses that had become too high in the handicap.

The scale of the decline is very significant. On the Flat in 2008 and 2009 there were more than 250 selling races a year, against 105 in 2017. Similarly, in the same period, jump-race ‘sellers’ have decreased from more than 100 races to fewer than 50, with only two selling chases in the whole calendar being run in 2017.

Yet this decline has not made the remaining races any more popular. It seems horses who were once aimed at ‘sellers’ are simply finding other opportunities.

In selling races, the winner of the race is auctioned, with the minimum auction price specified in the race conditions and set by the racecourses. Every other horse in the race is also eligible to be claimed for a higher price, which is generally double the starting auction price.

So why are ‘sellers’ in such decline? It surely has much to do with the size of the commission deducted by most racecourses when a horse is sold in post-race auctions. In almost all cases, this is now an astonishing 50% of the sale price of the horse above the minimum auction price.

This means that where a race has a minimum auction price of £3,000 and the horse is sold for, say, £10,000, the racecourse takes 50% of the £7,000 difference. Imagine how off-putting this is for the winning owner who has probably won less than £2,000 in prize-money. Even more so, if he or she wants to buy back their horse and then discovers they will also have to pay the same amount just to keep it.

With this level of commission charged by racecourses, it is no wonder that owners and trainers have been increasingly put off running their horses in ‘sellers’. One man who is sure this is the case is Bill Farnsworth, Chief Executive of Musselburgh racecourse.

Several years ago, Farnsworth viewed racecourses’ auction commission on selling races as unacceptably high and introduced a policy whereby Musselburgh would apply a much lower 5% commission to the auction price – to align with the percentage charged by auction houses – and 15% on horses being bought back by connections. But when most racecourses refused to follow this example, an exasperated Musselburgh management dropped them from their programme.

In these days of huge media rights payments being made to racecourses, it is hardly credible that the big racecourses groups, among others, continue to pursue a selling-race policy that allows them to extract relatively small sums of money from owners’ pockets. Worse still, is the fact that owners often don’t become aware of these conditions until it’s too late. And once they do, it is understandably a case of once bitten, twice shy.

Since selling races have traditionally attracted good field sizes and media rights payments are adversely affected by small fields, you could easily argue that racecourses should reverse this counter-productive and downright mean selling race policy, if only for themselves.

And if they don’t, it will be the ROA’s duty to ensure all owners know what they’re getting into when they enter a horse in a selling race. This might hasten the race’s total demise or might just persuade racecourses to bring their commission rates down to acceptable levels, thereby revitalising a type of race that has been an important part of the racing programme for many years.

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