Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

A Moveable Feast

Mon 7th Aug 2017, 09:01

The Galway Betting ring
©Healy Racing Photos
There isn't a cow or a pig in this country that isn't traceable. And from disease control to EU payments there's self interest all round in making sure it's the case. The same can't be said for thoroughbreds. That's a root problem which has to be addressed in any new anti-doping strategy for the Irish bloodstock industry. Drawing up a framework for testing is one thing. But if you can't reliably know where horses are in the first place then activity risks being mistaken for achievement.

Considering the interminable delay in implementing recommendations from the Anti-Doping Task Force report released over 18 month ago, confirmation by Horse Racing Ireland's chief executive Brian Kavanagh that there's a proposal document on the table is a positive development. He expects responses from various different industry groups to these proposals before the end of this month.

Kavanagh is arguing the same system of announced and unannounced inspections which the Turf Club uses for licensed racing yards be adopted for stud farms as well even though the regulatory body has no powers over them.

The phrase 'announced inspection' has raised eyebrows. Turf Club officials usually show up at racing yards with no notice, a pretty basic requirement of any meaningful testing programme. On rare occasions though, say in relation to permit holders or trainers with one or two horses in isolated parts of the country, apparently a phone call is made beforehand to make sure somebody is going to be there and officials aren't wasting their time. It doesn't apply to operations of any significant size.

Apparently the aim is something similar for studs. Nevertheless even the term 'announced' will draw knowing looks from many in relation to this. So any potentially cosy relationship can't be seen to be facilitated. Banned substances can get flushed through a horse's system in just a few days.

A protocol between the Turf Club and the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders Association to allow testing was just one key recommendation of last year's Task Force report. Another was an increase in out of competition testing generally, including for horses entered for public sale. You would think this would be in the breeding industry's own self interest. But it has taken 18 months to even come up with a proposal document. People will inevitably read into the delay what they will.

It's far from a perfect scenario. From what can be gathered even if the ITBA as a body signs up to this, individual members can still refuse to play ball. So can breeders not in the ITBA. The Turf Club will still have no jurisdiction over studs and can be refused access. Only Department of Agriculture officials can raid. The status of intelligence led inspections is unclear and the big threat hanging over anyone choosing not to cooperate appears at this stage to be largely reputational.

Is reputational damage enough of a threat? If a breeder doesn't cooperate will it have an impact on animals offered at public auction? Or if they line up in a race? Such questions presumably have still to be thrashed out. But a vital step has to be the implementation of a traceability system for all thoroughbreds, either in or out of competition, that makes any testing programme even theoretically possible.

Horses get micro-chipped when registered as foals, and there's a technical requirement for a paper trail of every animal's movement, but the world and its mother knows the actual whereabouts of a horse can be a moveable feast. And that isn't good enough. If a bullock's movements can be accounted for it can hardly be too big a stretch for a billion Euro industry like racing to do the same.

Sceptics are itching to dismiss any anti-doping programme as an exercise in optics. And if reputation alone emerges as the big stick then they might have a point. So much will come down to political will within the industry. Investment in, and enforcement of, proper traceability will be a big test of how serious that will actually is.

If the various parties involved are serious about signing up to something, then now is the time to get this done. And get it done right.

There appears no absence of political will within HRI about encouraging the government to raise betting tax in October's budget from one per cent to 2.5 per cent, with punters picking up the hit. The estimate is that this will double the tax take and it seems the hope is this dividend can be ring-fenced for racing, presumably with a lot of it directed towards prizemoney.

Arguing for more tax is a tough pitch although it is one being pushed by on-course bookmakers as a potential help to a shrinking racecourse betting ring. HRI would be falling down on the job if it didn't push the state for resources. But one prominent racing luminary pointed out in Galway last week it sometimes runs the risk of appearing like a straightforward lobby group.

The sorry state of the betting ring was highlighted once again at Galway with an eight per cent drop in turnover compared to last year. That was despite a drop of less than one per cent in attendances. Bookmakers handled just over €7.3 million for the week. The Tote traded just over a million Euro less. That would have been hard to imagine even five years ago.

Despite the slight drop in overall attendance - probably attributable to the Galway hurling team's appearance in Croke Park on Sunday - the festival seemed as bustling as ever. What's becoming more noticeable with each year is the growing popularity of the Friday evening meeting. A crowd of 29,421 is significant by any standard, and just behind the Galway Hurdle 'Ladies Day' tally.

Finally those embedded in racing might take note of a letter to the Irish Times last week from the esteemed Stewart Kenny in relation to the issue of problem gambling.

He wrote: "The proposal that a portion of the betting duty be allocated to services which deal with gambling addiction makes a lot more sense than giving over €50 million a year to subsidise prizemoney for horse racing.

"In the past 20 years in the region of a billion Euro of taxpayers' money has been ring-fenced by successive government for the Horse Racing & Greyhound Fund. One might question why exchequer funds have been used to line the pockets of impoverished millionaire (and billionaire) racehorse owners. What next...state grants for owners of super yachts?

"I would urge the Minister for Finance to consider diverting some of the betting duty fund from those who need it least to those who need it most"

No doubt those inside racing will automatically dismiss a millionaire bookie fretting about problem gambling. But Mr Kenny 's view on the overall direction of exchequer money probably chimes with the general public a lot more than they might wish.

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THE IRISH TIMES