Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake talks about the battle Horse Racing Ireland had on their hands to get Irish racing back after the Covid-19-enforced break.

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Finally, the Irish horse racing industry has clarity. Since the last race was run in Ireland at Clonmel on March 24th, the racing industry was plunged into an uncertain future that threatened to bring it to its knees. After what seemed an eternity, the road back to something approaching normality became clearer and shorter last Friday when it was confirmed that Irish racing will return behind closed doors on June 8th rather than June 29th.  

The response to this news and indeed how Horse Racing Ireland have handled this whole situation has been mixed to say the least. HRI and Brian Kavanagh have come in for a great amount of criticism in the last month both for their communications strategy and their failure to secure an earlier restart date than June 8th for Irish racing. It has also been widely expressed that this crisis has showcased how far HRI and the Irish horse racing industry as a whole has fallen down the priority list of the Irish government.  

I disagree with all of that analysis.  

Regarding HRI’s communications strategy, was it ideal that they didn’t make any public comment to clarify what the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business meant for Irish racing from its unveiling on May 1st until the evening of May 7th? Of course not. However, there was a reason why it panned out like that.  

HRI had a statement ready to publish on the morning of May 2nd. However, what were very sensitive negotiations with government had already commenced and it wasn’t clear to those involved when a conclusion would be reached. It was feared that releasing a statement without the clarity that the industry was clamouring for would have risked fanning flames of debate that may have been unhelpful to the intensive behind-the-scenes efforts that were being made.  

Transparent communications are very important, but given the stakes were so high for Irish racing in this situation, I have no doubt that HRI acted with only the best interests of our industry in mind.  

In terms of what was achieved in getting the restart date brought forward from June 29th to June 8th, it is important to analyse this in the context of the challenge that HRI faced. In contrast with much of the analysis of this situation, the struggle to secure an earlier start date was not a consequence of lack of political support for the horse racing industry. 

Indeed, all indications are that the intensive lobbying process by the horse racing industry throughout this crisis was notably successful, with racing securing support right across the political spectrum which will very much stand to it going forward.  

If this had been purely a case of needing political support to get the desired result, Irish racing would almost certainly already have restarted. However, that isn’t the reality. The real challenge that racing and indeed any other sector seeking an earlier resumption faces is that what is a caretaker Irish government is proving reluctant to depart from the guidance of Dr Tony Holohan and NPHET which has been very cautious in nature throughout this crisis.  

As frustrating as this safety-first approach has been for so many Irish people and industries, there is little doubt that history will record that this approach saved Ireland and its health service from the worst ravages of the virus. For this, we should be very thankful. With that in mind, it would be hypocritical to applaud the Irish government’s safety-first approach in a broad sense, only to be critical of it in a specific case such as horse racing restarting later than hoped.  

While there was a very clear common-sense case and international precedents for Irish horse racing to resume much earlier than it eventually will, the restart date has to be weighed up solely within the context of the other decisions being made by the Irish government. In that context, that the Irish government and NPHET have agreed to allow it to restart earlier than its initial June 29th slot is a colossal endorsement for the racing industry, as they have not been making many exceptions to what was originally laid out in the Roadmap for Reopening Society and Business. Indeed, the likes of homeware shops such as IKEA have had their reopening date moved back rather than forward.  

Perhaps the starkest example of how fortunate horse racing is to have its restart date moved forward is that of greyhound racing. Horse racing and greyhound racing are joined at the hip in legislative terms by the structure of the Horse & Greyhound Fund that funds both industries.

In common with horse racing, greyhound racing is a substantial source of rural employment and economic activity. It could also readily be argued that greyhound racing is even better suited than horse racing to being run behind closed doors and adhering to social distancing protocols. Yet, the date for resumption of greyhound racing has been left as June 29th.  

So, while some racing people have been frustrated by a later-than-expected resumption, they would be well advised to take stock of the bigger picture and realise how fortunate we are to be starting on June 8th rather than June 29th.  

It should also be remembered that June 8th is all-but guaranteed to see the resumption of Irish racing, with the only real threat to it being an escalation in virus cases. This contrasts with the situation in Britain where their planned resumption date of June 1st seems far more vulnerable to change than is widely being considered.  

By the time racing restarts in Ireland on June 8th, it will have been one day short of 11 weeks since the last race was run in Ireland. This must surely be one of if not the longest period without racing in the centuries-long history of the sport in Ireland. Such a prolonged enforced break would have previously been unimaginable.  

Jobs have been lost, horses have been moved away, businesses have been put under immense pressure and so many people in our industry have been put on the backfoot. The resumption of racing won’t spell the end of this pressure by any means. There will be more pain yet to come, particularly for those with horses to sell at auction into what is likely to be a much-weakened market in the coming months.  

Yet, we as an industry will get through this. In Irish racing, we do what we do better than anyone in the world. Better days will return to us. The light at the end of the tunnel is getting brighter. Hang in there.

Kevin Blake
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