Brian O'Connor

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Failure To Communicate

The first Classic of the season is scheduled for May 23 at the Curragh
© Photo Healy Racing

Should signs about the fight against Covid-19 continue to be encouraging it would be foolish to cancel Irish racing until the end of June. As things stand that would make for a resumption behind closed doors almost 50 days later than France. There is optimism British racing might start later this month too. All this prompts questions such as how is Irish racing facing into such a scenario? How was it allowed happen? And how come no one can say if it's actually true or not?

The latter is easiest to answer. No one seems to know, which, in the midst of global pandemic, is an unsettling insight into how the country's administration appears to be winging things as they go along.

Horse Racing Ireland has said nothing publicly in over two days apart from how it is seeking clarification from the Department of Agriculture, Food & Marine about where racing here actually figures on the government's five-phase plan for a relaxation of social restrictions.

On Friday, An Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar revealed how a phased reopening of different sectors in the economy - starting on May 18 and extending until August - will take place. Later this month (May 18) some outdoor activities, including sports such as tennis and golf, will see easing of restrictions that allow them resume in some form. However a section in phase three indicates no sport behind closed doors will be allowed until June 29 at the earliest.

Racing is an outdoor activity. But it's a sport that takes place behind closed doors. So that would seem to be that. Except racing also comes under the administrative wing of the Department of Agriculture. So there is a grey area about which category it comes under. Sport in France is shut down until September but racing goes ahead next week because it comes under the agriculture brief. HRI immediately said it was awaiting clarification. It seems to be still waiting.

And while it waits we have a situation where an industry employing almost 15,000 people, and worth up to €2 billion to the economy, has had no official confirmation of its situation more than 48 hours later. Will it resume on May 18, as would make sense, considering a timeline a week after France, or is a resumption really going to be pushed out until June 29 which is potentially disastrous?

Over two days after the Taoiseach's speech no official answers to those vital questions have come - why not?

HRI has said nothing, presumably because it's got nothing to say. They're probably frantically chasing the department looking for answers, the same department that usually refers questions about racing to HRI. By not even issuing a holding statement though they are encouraging different kinds of speculation. What there is near consensus about though is that HRI was caught on the hop by Friday's events and that a Bank Holiday weekend isn't helping the clean-up process.

There also appears to be a view growing that the chief medical officer Dr Tony Holohan and the National Public Health Emergency Team are running the national show rather than the government. It's surely an exaggeration of sorts although considering the circumstances, the NPHET naturally hold a lot of clout. When it comes to steering a course through a lethal virus no one can really want expert vote-grabbers holding sway over medical expertise.

Dr Holohan & Co might be closet racing fans or they might not. Either way they have a lot on their plate right now. So when helping to put together this five-phase plan they could hardly be expected to start distinguishing the nuances of each individual sector and their departmental delineations. In the circumstances it's not unreasonable to presume the wheels of bureaucracy would help steer them through such details.

The department of agriculture doesn't seem to have done that. Neither does it seem to have supplied any clarity on the matter. The NPHET can hardly be expected to look out for racing's little corner. It is HRI's job to do that and communicate effectively with the department. But there appears to be a serious failure to communicate in this instance.

It seems every trainer and jockey in the country was waiting for a green light this month. Plenty privately say they were assured this was the case and plenty are growing more angry at HRI for allowing a potentially very different scenario to unfold. Maybe that's unfair. But when there's so much riding on obscure bureaucratic definitions of what might or might not constitute a sport or an industry, patience is bound to wear thin.

All things being equal it would be a blunder for the government to insist on racing staying in Phase Three while the sport takes place behind closed doors in France and England. It has never stopped taking place behind closed doors in Hong Kong and Australia. It's starting again in Kentucky next week. Some of these jurisdictions have been affected by Coronavirus worse than here. None of them are as dependant on the thoroughbred sector as here. And racing has already operated relatively smoothly in ten fixtures behind closed doors here prior to lockdown on March 24.

So how come this argument appears not to be getting across. Maybe clarification will eventually come and work in racing's favour with its inclusion in an earlier phase, maybe even May 18. But this might also be a case of reputational chickens coming home to roost with a vengeance.

There is a theory out there that racing has provoked enough headaches for department officials over various issues in recent years - such as the Workplace Relations Commission on working hours - that the sector mightn't be among it's Group One list of priorities. Considering the news emerging from meat plants, focus might understandably be elsewhere. This corresponds too to a suspicion that racing doesn't have quite the ministerial enthusiasm on its side that it used to enjoy.

There is also the fact that racing's name has hardly been flavour of the last couple of months. Often that has been through little fault of its own but there's no doubt mud has stuck. Ordinarily the sector here has little problem shrugging off such criticism. But public perception counts big time now. Politicians may be very wary indeed of special pleading for racing in this case even though it's justified in a particular case such as this.

Whatever is the case however what's surely needed first and foremost right now is clarity.

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