Kevin Blake

With horse racing in Ireland - at the moment - set to resume on June 29th, leading racing writer Kevin Blake once again puts forward the case for the industry starting significantly earlier.

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The last week has been a challenging one for the tens of thousands of people in Ireland that depend on horse racing for their living and the many thousands more that support it. With the Department of Agriculture having confirmed that racing is currently pencilled in to return on June 29th, this unexpected delay to its resumption has been received with anguish and fear in the industry.  

It goes without saying that horse racing is far from the only victim in these unprecedented times. The Covid-19 crisis has affected almost every aspect of our lives and a huge amount of people and businesses are struggling. However, that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be asking for horse racing to be examined and assessed on an objective, individual basis with a view to it resuming earlier than currently planned.  

When one collates all the evidence and information relating to this question, it is very difficult to conclude anything other than the current position of stopping racing from resuming until June 29th doesn’t make any sense.  

It seems to have flown under the radar for many, but a salient point in this debate is that the vast majority of the activities of the horse racing industry have been deemed as essential since the very beginning of this crisis and haven’t been interrupted at any stage. There has been somewhere in the region of 10,000 thoroughbreds ridden out every morning in Ireland during this crisis between horses in training, point-to-point yards, pre-training yards, breaking yards and breeze-up operations.  

The staff that look after those horses have been permitted to travel as far as necessary to get to their work. Similarly, broodmares have been allowed to be transported all over Ireland to be covered by stallions as long as the people dealing with them adhere to agreed strict social distancing protocols.  

It is very difficult to rationalise why all these related activities are considered essential and have continued throughout the crisis, yet the racing itself which is the end product of it all isn’t permitted. It would be akin to the government allowing a manufacturing industry to continue producing their products, incurring all of the expenses related to production, but then not allowing them to sell their products.  

That would never happen as it wouldn’t make sense. Yet, that is comparable to what is currently playing out in Irish horse racing.  

What makes the current situation with Irish horse racing even more bamboozling is that if racing was allowed to resume behind closed doors it would without question be the most publicly visible and scrutinised activity in the country in terms of its adherence to social distancing protocols.  

The protocols that HRI put in place for the 10 race meetings that took place behind closed doors in March were very heavily scrutinised at the time. There are cameras everywhere on racecourses and all of the main activities were broadcast to an international audience. Everyone involved knew that every step they took was being watched, so they went above and beyond what was expected of them to adhere to the safety protocols.  

Since the lockdown, the protocols that HRI have proposed to put in place for the resumption of behind-closed-doors racing are said to have grown to over 50 pages in depth. Even with the initial protocols having functioned so well, everyone involved wants to leave absolutely nothing to chance and are prepared to do absolutely everything they can to ensure the safety of all involved in racing.  

Given the sheer volume of racing-related activity that is taking place every day all over Ireland, allowing racing to take place behind closed doors under the proposed safety protocols would only add a relatively tiny amount of additional risk into the equation within the racing industry.  

In return for taking this tiny risk, the restarting of racing will save rural jobs and immediately generate a huge amount of economic activity that this country so desperately needs to help it back to its feet. Even in these testing times when safety-first approaches are understandably the order of the day, risk-reward ratios don’t get much more attractive than what horse racing represents.  

Thus, for Dr Tony Holohan and the National Public Health Emergency Team to deem that such in-depth protocols, which will be subject to the highest levels of public visibility and scrutiny, do not make racing safe enough to commence until Phase 3 of the Roadmap for Reopening Society & Business just doesn’t make sense. Especially when one considers all of the aforementioned essential racing-related activities that they have allowed to take place in the horse racing industry throughout the lockdown.  

To make another comparison, non-essential construction work will be permitted to restart across Ireland from May 18th. How NPHET can conclude that sector is so much less of a risk and so much more likely to adhere to social distancing protocols on private construction sites around the country that it is allowing it to resume a full six weeks before horse racing is hard to fathom.  

It isn’t as though there isn’t international precedent for what is being requested by the Irish horse racing industry either. Great Britain, France and Germany, all which have been far more deeply affected by the Covid-19 crisis than Ireland has, have either resumed racing or have plans in place to resume in the coming days. Indeed, behind-closed-doors racing continued uninterrupted during the crisis in countries such as Australia, Hong Kong, Japan and in some states in America.  

It should also be emphasised once again that Irish horse racing is not asking for special treatment. Some will always seek to characterise the annual funding that the Irish government provides to Irish horse racing (€67.2m in 2020) as a handout, but it most certainly isn’t that. It is an investment in an Irish industry that is a global leader.  

Indeed, the Irish government doesn’t get many better returns than what they get from Irish horse racing, with each Euro of that funding being estimated to generate a €30 return to the Irish economy, of which details can be seen here, mostly in rural Ireland.  

The sheer level of rural employment and economic activity that the horse racing industry generates was mentioned in this space last week and was broken down in much more detail by Deloitte in their report on the industry’s contribution to the Irish economy in 2017.  

As much as anything else, in an age where every nation and its people want to be competitive on a global stage, horse racing is the only pursuit of any sort of worldwide scale that the Irish are considered world leaders in. Irish trainers, jockeys, stable staff and horses are widely considered to be the best in the world.  

When an Irish horseperson walks into a racing yard anywhere on the planet, there is a level of expectation of their abilities that can only be compared to when a New Zealander walks onto a rugby field anywhere in the world. Such is the reputation of their nation in that pursuit, they are expected to be the business. This is an industry that the Irish government should be very proud of.  

Now, the Irish horse racing industry needs their government to trust them. The industry is not seeking special treatment or an unreasonable favour. All it wants is for the case for it to be allowed function behind closed doors under what are the most stringent safety protocols imaginable to be judged on its merits and for the dire consequences of a decision not to do that to be fully considered. Those consequences include and are not limited to job losses, business closures and a loss of international competitiveness.  

It goes without saying that the Irish government have a huge amount on their plate in navigating the country out of this crisis. No one will knock them for not having being able to consider each industry on an individual basis when releasing their Roadmap for Reopening Society & Business just over a week ago.  

However, one can only hope that when they do get the chance to fully assess the Irish horse racing industry and its ability to function safely on its individual merits, they will see it for what it is, a no-brainer decision. As risk-reward ratios go in these unprecedented times, backing the Irish horse racing industry must surely be a better bet than most for the Irish government right now. 

May 18th is the right date for the resumption of Irish horse racing.

Kevin Blake
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