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Brian O'Connor

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Michael D's Sure Thing

President Michael D Higgins is welcomed to Kilbeggan by racetrack Manager Paddy Dunican President Michael D Higgins is welcomed to Kilbeggan by racetrack Manager Paddy Dunican
© Photo Healy Racing

The race is on towards next month's Presidential election and Michael D Higgins is a heavy odds-on favourite to win a second term in the Aras. He has been widely praised for his first term in the largely ceremonial and constitutional role. However from a purely parochial point of view it's unsettling that a rare venture into policy territory occurred during the summer when the President declared his distaste for gambling and gambling advertising in particular.

With the wait on a Gambling Control Bill on-going, Higgins's blunt views on the dangers of gambling in general, and of gambling advertising in particular, generated plenty comment. But it's safe to say the President must have felt sure of himself to go on such a solo.

Higgins is a vastly experienced politician used to judging the popular mood. Not only that but in his former professional life he was a university lecturer in sociology, that study of human society beloved of all Arts degree students keen to graduate without exerting themselves too much.

So I reckon Higgins felt himself on a winner by recounting a trip to an addiction treatment clinic and commenting that both people and sport in general need to be protected more from gambling. "If I had my way I wouldn't have advertising or any access to gambling platforms in sport at all, I really worry when I read the cases," he said.

This is a man used to reading popular temper. And I reckon this rare Presidential foray into politics was based on an assumption that whatever flak there might be for the constitutional implications of his statement he was on pretty safe ground when it came to the actual message about gambling's social impact.

Betting is ingrained across society to an unprecedented extent. But awareness of, and commentary on, the societal dangers of a betting industry transformed by digital technology is increasing too. And with health and social concerns only likely to increase it's no stretch to suspect that perceptions of gambling generally aren't going to veer more towards the wholesome any time soon.

A range of sports organisations, including the most popular of all, the GAA, have pointedly moved to disassociate themselves from gambling, particularly in relation to sponsorship. Advertising is all about association. With cigarettes in the past, and more recently with alcohol, being associated with something potentially harmful has become anything but a good look.

That's a fundamental problem for Irish racing as a sport. As an industry its finances are bound up with gambling through betting tax turnover and the sale of media rights pictures to betting shops. That's all fine and dandy in balance-sheet terms. But of all sports racing is perceived as being joined at the hip to gambling: how long before that perception turns more and more socially distasteful?

It's the sort of question that keeps sociology lecturers in notes for a term, nice and vague and with no clear-cut answers. It's nothing to do with legality. Cigarettes are legal but no one thinks smoking's a good idea. Alcohol is legal but no pretends it doesn't produce casualties. So it can't be good for any sport's long-term health to be widely viewed as little more than some glorified slot machine.

Of course the reality is more nuanced. For instance football in particular is catching up with racing in terms of betting generated on it. Gambling turnover on all popular sports is on the increase. But another reality is that none of them are perceived as being a gambling medium to the extent racing is. And that's a fundamental threat to its long-term well-being.

It's what the Hong Kong Jockey Club's chief executive Winfried Engelbrecht- Besges referred to earlier this year when warning of the dangers of racing being viewed as purely a gambling vehicle. "We have to broaden our fan base and to do that we clearly have to shift from gambling as the main brand to leisure and entertainment. Racing must be positioned as a world class sport," he said.

Hong Kong's long-term objective is to sell the sport on its actual sporting merits through a narrative of horses, jockey and trainers. If that's the plan in a jurisdiction as famous for its regulatory foresight as its betting turnover then it's surely not unreasonable to consider the implications elsewhere.

However it's also hard not to think such an objective cuts to an underlying crisis of confidence in this part of the world. Because so much of the way racing is promoted here indicates a fear that its central sporting attraction of horses, jockeys and trainers simply won't cut it in terms of popular appeal. So we continue to get a lot of surface tat varnished onto a remunerative betting model.

It pays off too. And in many ways it always will. Betting is a pretty primeval urge that a massive global gambling industry is built on. Racing is an industry too although one fundamentally rooted in its status as a sport. However if a savvy operator like Higgins feels the sociological tide is turning then one inextricably linked to the other doesn't represent a promising outlook.

The news that seminars are going to be held over the next month to educate trainers, vets and stable staff on the dangers of using prohibited substances is welcome. Even a casual eye could establish in recent months that positive tests for pain-killers, anti-inflammatory products and supplements had increased significantly.

In the whole of 2017 there were half a dozen positive tests. There have been seven already in 2018 with an even greater number of cases pending. The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Body is confident the spike is due to bad practise rather than anything more sinister although the head of Anti-Doping, Lynn Hillyer, has conceded its "a broad church" in terms of the range of drugs, horses and trainers.

What the matter highlights once again though is the urgent need for the racing and breeding industries to formalise an overall Anti-Drugs system. And to be seen to do everything to boost public trust in such a valuable sector. Perception matters and even if positive drug test stories revolve around relatively minor substances they still get factored into public confidence and prejudices.

It's now over six months since the IHRB's long-standing link to its old laboratory ended controversially on the back of a false positive case involving an anabolic steroid. Since then samples have been sent on an interim basis to a lab in England for testing. Testing on B-Samples have been sent to France in the same time-period.

All the while an evaluation process on appointing an new official testing lab for racing here is continuing. This is no straightforward operation. But it's not long since the sport in Ireland was embroiled in controversy over positives for a lot more sinister substances than painkillers which don't clear a horse's system in time.

This has to be a priority. It has to be seen to be a priority. Because the alternative is dangerous rather than merely distasteful.

Finally the British Horseracing Authority has been accused of fudging original proposals for all-professional stewards. Instead it is introducing a reduced role for voluntary officials with one serving on every panel. But looking at the planned new regulatory racecourse set up in Britain, particularly in relation to numbers of personnel, it's still radical stuff compared to here.

Apparently some feelings have been considerably bruised in Britain over all this. The outcome though looks to be greater professionalism and the message of intent that sends out to the racing public.

Any ambition towards that shouldn't diminish recognition of the vital role volunteerism has in racing administration. It's a role and a spirit that was epitomised by the former Turf Club Senior Steward Neville O'Byrne who sadly passed away at the weekend. He was an understated gentlemanly presence that will be missed by many.