LONDON (Reuters) - British horse racing will not suffer commercial damage from recent doping scandals if it shows it can handle them effectively, the head of the sport's governing body said on Tuesday.
But given the very challenging economic environment the sport does need more money from Britain's bookmakers to sustain the number and quality of races, British Horseracing Authority (BHA) Chief Executive Paul Bittar said.
Britain's second largest sport after football in terms of revenue and spectator numbers, horse racing has been hit by a series of scandals in recent months.
Last month trainer Mahmood Al Zarooni was banned for eight years for doping racehorses. Al Zarooni worked in Newmarket in eastern England, the home of British flat racing, for Dubai ruler Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, one of the sport's biggest financial backers.
Two other Newmarket trainers have since said they treated some of their horses with a medication containing a banned steroid.
The BHA has won plaudits for dealing promptly with Al Zarooni but the case inevitably raises questions about the extent of doping in the sport.
"I have spoken to a number of major sponsors and other investors in the sport over the last six weeks and for them ultimately it comes down to a confidence in the sport itself," Bittar told a news conference.
"If they have that confidence then I think their investment is certainly sustainable," added Bittar, an Australian, who described British horse racing as the best in the world.
The sport's recent problems extend to the riders too: Late last year, British-based Italian jockey Frankie Dettori, one of the most charismatic figures in the sport, was banned for six months after failing a dope test in France.
Dettori said he taken cocaine but has now returned to racing.
BETTER DEAL FROM BOOKMAKERS
So far British horse racing has weathered the impact of recession and reduced payments from the betting industry thanks to an increase in the value of media rights, the BHA and business services group Deloitte said in a report published on Tuesday.
The sport had a total value to the UK economy of 3.45 billion pounds ($5.36 billion) in 2012, according to the report. That was slightly higher than the figure from 2008, the last time it was calculated.
However there are tensions over how much money bookmakers including William Hill and Ladbrokes put into the sport.
Horse racing has long been at the heart of Britain's big betting industry but funding via an annual levy on racing profits has fallen to some 75 million pounds from over 100 million in the last decade after many bookmakers moved online operations offshore, out of the reach of the British authorities.
"The economics of the sport in Britain are very challenging and our key focus is around ensuring appropriate returns to the sport through all channels of betting," said Bittar.
The racing industry would like to move away from the annual levy and strike longer-term commercial deals with bookmakers to put on meetings. A 40 million pound agreement with exchange operator Betfair struck last year is a model they are keen to replicate.
(Editing by Sophie Walker)