Official policy might be to plan and budget for increased attendances at Ireland’s racecourses but the on-the-ground trend appears to be remorselessly pointing towards a future where most fixtures will be viewed as little more than television fodder.
Horse Racing Ireland understandably pushed the fifteen per cent increase in bloodstock sales last year when publishing their 2012 statistics but their figures also indicate how our racecourses are becoming increasingly peripheral in most things apart from the actual races.
The twenty one per cent slide in on-course bookmaker betting makes depressing reading, statistical confirmation of a near fifty per cent drop in turnover in just half a decade.
But a 7.2 per cent dip in average attendance is alarming too, considering the widespread belief that every set of feet, including the starter’s dog, is counted in such tots.
What would be really interesting is an analysis of actual gate receipts. It might reveal a reality even more depressing than is already the case.
In America the reality for years has been that significant crowds show up only for the big days: the rest of the time, the only people on-track are there professionally, serving up raw-material for millions of punters watching on telly, on-line, on-whatever your having yourself.
Substitute ‘festival’ for ‘big day’ and you are increasingly looking at the Irish reality, and it takes a real leap-of-faith to imagine this country being so radically different as to progress down a completely different sociological path to everyone else.
After all the old chestnut always was that what happens in America happens here a decade later.
Of course some radical moves might still make Ireland different. And those of us weaned on the buzz of actually going racing – especially when not having to cough up twenty quid each through the gates – will embrace anything that stops racetracks turning into barren echo-chambers.
But do we detect such radicalism at the top? Or is the focus still on making a good enough case to government for keeping the money-hose open?
It has been said to this corner that a model along the lines of what Bradford City football club does – dramatically reducing ticket prices in order to fill the stadium, and not losing out financially in the process – is a way for racing to go.
But there’s a fundamental difference – you can’t see Bradford every day on telly.
You certainly don’t see a horse like Hurricane Fly every day; not even every decade. Just the one Cheltenham festival success might mean he hasn’t quite yet captured the public imagination in the way Istabraq did but it is increasingly apt to use their names in the same breath.
They are now both on fourteen Grade 1 wins, and the potential for Hurricane Fly to improve on that tally, and seal his reputation with another Champion Hurdle win at Cheltenham, is obvious.
Not quite so obvious was the rationale behind Tony McCoy getting pulled by the stewards for his ride on Binocular on Sunday.
Yes, it was hardly a trademark energetic McCoy drive but in the gruelling conditions, and considering it was Binocular’s first start in over ten months, there can’t have been many expecting McCoy to batter the horse in what would surely have been a doomed attempt to keep tabs on the winner.
When you consider what officialdom can turn a blind-eye to, this looked a bit like going through the motions.
That can’t be said about the BHA investigation into corruption which resulted in jockey Andrew Heffernan effectively having his career finished by a fifteen year ban.
In total over seventy years worth of suspensions were handed out in a case which those far better qualified to assess the intricacies of such things seem to regard as being pretty amateurish in its intent.
The significance comes from how most of the suspicious activity again came in low-grade all-weather races, an arena seemingly wide-open to those who’d rather to play the exchanges rather than compete straight for meagre prizemoney in what is usually lowest-common-denominator betting-shop fodder.
There was a time when it was possible to get the scuttle-buck on such carve-ups by going racing. But even that isn’t the case anymore. These days a touch requires something a lot more touch-screen.