Irish racing needs more winter all-weather racing
While the reopening of Dundalk racecourse with a new all-weather track in 2007 was greeted with scepticism in some quarters, one would have to search long and hard to find anyone that would question what a success it has been for Irish racing. In particular, the commencement of a full winter season at Dundalk in 2011/12 has transformed the game for many Flat trainers.
From March to November, there is no longer any such thing as a soft touch to be found in Irish Flat racing. While once-upon-a-time, the top trainers wouldn’t have had too many runners at the country tracks, this has now become commonplace.
The only place where trainers can turn up without too much fear of bumping into runners from top yards is at Dundalk during the winter season. From mid-November up to the backend of March, powerhouse trainers such as Aidan O’Brien, Dermot Weld, Jim Bolger and Ger Lyons tend to have very small numbers of runners at Dundalk.
This reality has proven to be a lifeline for many Irish trainers and has resulted in quite a few of them targeting horses at the winter season.
However, while the winter season at Dundalk is so important to so many, it remains notably underdeveloped. From the end of the turf season in early-November to the beginning of the new campaign on turf in late-March, there are just 22 scheduled fixtures at Dundalk.
As one can imagine, with only seven or eight races on each card coupled with the need for the programme to cater for everything from maidens to basement-level handicappers up to horses rated 100+, suitable opportunities for any one horse can be very limited throughout the winter season.
Many horses would be adequately catered for if they were guaranteed a run in every suitable race that was programmed for them, but such is the popularity of the winter season at Dundalk, balloting has become a major issue.
Since the beginning of the winter season, between 50 and 85 horses have been balloted out at over half of the meetings at Dundalk. With the programme itself being so limited, this causes a huge amount of headaches for trainers and owners as being balloted out often means that there isn’t a suitable alternative race for a number of weeks.
This frustration has boiled over into the public sphere in recent weeks with more than a couple of trainers going public to express their understandable hunger for more winter racing at Dundalk.
A knock-on effect of this situation has been that many Irish trainers have been sending runners across to the all-weather tracks in England. Given the transportation and staff costs of these ventures coupled with the lower levels of prize money over there, these trips are generally not made on the promise of profit; Irish trainers and owners simply want to give their horse an opportunity to race and hopefully compete while they are fit and well rather than sitting on their hands waiting to see if they get a run at Dundalk.
With all of this in mind, the obvious question is why can’t HRI put on more fixtures at Dundalk to service the demand that is clearly there for it right now? Not only would more races better serve those that are already targeting the winter season, given that the current thread-bare winter programme isn’t the most appealing of advertisements for trainers and owners to keep their horses going throughout the winter, if more fixtures were added to the programme I would be certain that many more horses would be targeted at the winter season well in advance of it rather than it being an afterthought.
While HRI did yield to the demand for more fixtures at Dundalk by putting on an additional meeting there on December 22nd, they said at the time that more fixtures wouldn’t be put on as the prize money budget had been exhausted for 2017.
This is something that needs to be rectified going forward. It seems to have been an ongoing policy of HRI to top-load the prize money structure in Ireland, with prize funds for Group races and premier handicaps having been boosted significantly in recent years.
While the minimum value for the lower class races has also been boosted to more than satisfactory levels, one can’t help but wonder if the balance is right when HRI are not in a position to put on extra fixtures that are so clearly needed by so many trainers during the winter season.
Surely the benefits of funding additional fixtures during the winter season would be far greater for the many than any drawbacks of shaving the value of already very lucrative premier handicaps in particular?
Given that there has been so much talk in Irish racing in recent seasons about how it is becoming more and more difficult for all bar the trainers at the top table to make a living, a workable solution for the Flat side of the game seems very straightforward here.
An expansion of the winter programme will give more trainers and owners the chance to win races without having to compete day-in day-out with the very top-end trainers. There is no charity or discriminatory race conditions involved in this suggestion as there has been in many of the proposed measures to address the gap between top and bottom in Irish racing, it is simply a case of giving more opportunities to connections who are willing to take them.
On a related note, while there seems to be significant support for more racing at Dundalk, recent seasons have also seen increasing calls from trainers and jockeys for the track at Dundalk to be resurfaced.
It was “flipped” in the summer of 2015 in an effort to replenish it, but there have been persistent murmurings within the industry that the surface isn’t riding as well as it used to and that it needs to be replaced.
This will obviously be a big investment for Dundalk, but there would be no greater motivation for them to undertake the work than if HRI agreed to expand their winter programme for 2018/19. A combination of those two actions would be of significant benefit to the entire Irish racing industry.
While on the subject of all-weather racing in Ireland, over five years have passed since I first proposed the addition of an all-weather track to Tipperary Racecourse and nothing that has happened in the meantime has put me off the validity of the proposal.
Tipperary is very well located for most of the major racehorse population centres in Ireland and an all-weather track there would be a tremendous facility for the southern half of the country in particular.
Not only would it be an important racing facility, just as significant would be its value as a training facility. There is a huge demand for racecourse gallops in this country and the consistency and versatility of an all-weather surface makes it very appealing for such a function.
One can be sure that an all-weather track at Tipperary would be in constant demand from trainers willing to pay to gallop there. The fact that Tipperary also has a straight five-furlong track would be a significant selling point too and would be a valuable all-weather asset for Irish racing.
One would think that the fact that Tipperary is owned by HRI would only help such a proposal to come to fruition, but it has been quite a while since one of their representatives have mentioned the possibility of a second all-weather track in public comment. Hopefully we won’t have to wait much longer for an update.