8th June. It took much longer than initially expected but eventually word filtered through that this would be the magic date that Irish Racing would resume. At last trainers had a date they could work towards preparing their horses for and owners could see some light at the end of the tunnel and justify parting with their hard earned cash for what is essentially their hobby. The mood was beginning to lift after a few days of deep unease and frustration among many stakeholders with Horse Racing Ireland and the Irish government. Many believe it is the first step in the right direction and I tend to agree, however I also believe it has the potential to be the beginning of the end for the sport if it continues for longer than the initial couple of weeks behind closed doors. I hope Horse Racing Ireland realises this and don’t get caught up in the euphoria of the magic date of 8th June. The real work starts now but if they don’t move heaven and earth to get people back to their racecourses very soon I believe the racing game in Ireland will be dead and buried for a very long time.
Having a horse in training is an expensive pastime. Most people involved in ownership have horses in training to enjoy a day out at the races with family and friends. Irish racing has now told owners they cannot attend the meeting their horse runs at but the same owner will still have to pay full training fees as the cost of training horses has not decreased, they still have to be exercised, groomed, fed and watered etc. As I mentioned above this is a pastime for these owners, it doesn’t seem like much fun to me in this format. Remember, the majority of these horses are of limited ability, only very few make the top grade. If an owner can’t attend, what’s the point in having them?
Irish breeders are renowned all over the world for producing top class horses. It’s the one thing we truly are world leaders in. It’s a massive employer in rural Ireland which generates a small fortune for the Irish exchequer. The Irish breeding industry is resilient as it has shown by it’s remarkable recovery from the financial crash a decade ago but I believe running racing behind closed doors for any period of time longer than a few weeks has the potential to wipe the industry out. The major national hunt store sales in Ireland are the Derby sale held in Tattersalls and the Land Rover sale held in Goffs. These two sales have the cream of the crop of Irish 3 year old national hunt horses. The sales record and past graduates speak for themselves, future Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle and National winners will be sold at these sales. The flat yearling sales in the UK kick off in early Autumn and Ireland’s Premier flat sale is the Orby sale in Goffs which is held in October. When selling racehorses we are selling a dream, this is the entertainment industry. This is not a quantifiable product like milk which has a price per litre or beef which is sold by the kilo. These animals are a pipe dream for people to enjoy for entertainment purposes. Nobody is going to want them if they can’t enjoy the ownership experience. Having a Galway festival winner is every small owner/syndicates dream, having one this year will be a damp squib. I’m not sure it’ll be enticing them back to purchase another horse anyway that’s for sure. These sales are only a few short months away. Time is ticking.
Trainers over 70 years old have been told they cannot attend a race meeting in its current format. Dermot Weld, Kevin Prendergast, Jim Bolger and Jessica Harrington will not be welcome to attend the first classics of the year at the Curragh. This is a disgrace. They can go to a packed supermarket but not their place of work. What have we turned into? Surely it should be up to themselves whether they attend or not? If they feel safe and happy to attend then that should be that.
I’ve been racing in Auteuil for the French champion hurdle. The racing was top class, the experience was not. Nobody there, no atmosphere, frankly I’d rather watch paint dry than repeat the experience. If people get out of the habit of going racing it will be very hard to get them back. They will find new things to do. Punchestown festival with a handful of people would be a sorry sight. I don’t think there would be too many organisations lining up to sign sponsorship deals.
The rhetoric coming from the top brass of Irish racing is that we will be behind closed doors until August/September at least. I can’t for one minute fathom how or why. They have got to lobby the government and highlight the drastic consequences that await the industry if it remains behind closed doors for a long period of time. I’m not suggesting we pack 35,000 people into Listowel on the Friday this year. I don’t think it would be likely anyway considering how petrified people have become of this virus. I believe we should have a pre booked system where people purchase entry tickets in advance with contact details on them. This would help with contact tracing if a second wave of corona virus does arrive. Temperature checks could also be put in place on all general admission patrons. Betting facilities could be spread throughout the enclosures to avoid a bottle neck of people and dining facilities could do likewise with extra seating in various locations. We have got to get the show back on the road.
Public perception is very important, especially when the sport receives 67 million euro per year of public funds, but standing up for one’s own self- interest is also important. Racing always has people taking a cheap shot at it but now is not the time to bow to it. I’m not a doctor or scientist but the Chief Medical Officer in Ireland this week said in Dail Eireann ‘the community transmission of Covid 19 has been effectively extinguished.’ There is no reason 5,000 people shouldn’t be able to attend a race meeting at a vast venue like the Curragh or Leopardstown. 3,000 people should be able to be outdoors at a racemeeting at Ballinrobe or Roscommon or Limerick.
It’s time for racing to be strong, bold and brave. The whole industry is in trouble if it’s not. We can’t hide behind politicians or NPHET any longer. We need to present our case and ensure it’s listened to. Racing can lead the way and I’m sure many other sports will follow once one takes that first step. It’s time for those at the top to earn their oats.