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Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog


Cheltenham Cheltenham
© Photo Healy Racing

In the overall context of Covid-19 it means little but one home truth this emergency has made plain is just how instinctively hostile public attitudes can be to racing in this country. What might have been once regarded as indifference has been revealed to be something much more vehement. This has long-term implications. In the short-term though it means racing needs to play its hand very subtly when it comes to resuming the sport.

Any form-guide to the likelihood of such a nuanced approach isn't very encouraging. Whatever the rights and wrongs, and whoever was responsible for individual decisions, the tin-eared expediency that allowed Cheltenham go ahead unaltered continues to have a particularly bitter after-taste among wider public sentiment in these islands.

That so many within Irish racing seem surprised only suggests just how deaf to public opinion the industry here can be. Apart from official lip-service the idea of a sector in receipt of public money actually taking into account public considerations has always seemed to be an optional exercise too often manifested in a regrettable attitude of give us the money and stay out of our way.

Since the money kept flowing such presumption was hardly going to stop. It already seems in another era but it's only at the start of last month that Horse Racing Ireland's strategic plan included provision for state funding to increase to €98 million by 2024. Given the stricken economic outlook that ambition looks like holding curio status for some time to come.

It's not just the economic element though. Political considerations are always at play too. Very close attention indeed is inevitably paid to the public temperature in that sphere because the consequences for not doing so can be disastrous. For its own sake those at the helm of Irish racing need to start do the same.

Apart from the tone-deaf decision to keep racing behind closed doors for almost a week after racing stopped in Britain, there is wide consensus within the game that HRI has done a fine job in terms of the day to day practicalities of steering a path through the minefield in this unprecedented public health emergency. The problem is that only the big decisions that register beyond racing.

There's been some soul-searching about why so much negativity has been trained on racing. There's hardly a definitive answer. As with so many things, it basically boils down to some people just not getting the sport full stop. But many of us don't get lots of other things without leaping to condemn them so enthusiastically.

Some of that at least comes down to broad stereotypical brushstrokes that are easy to make and do resonate. Even in Ireland there seems to be a view that racing is full of Hooray hunting types blowing their own trumpets while after the fox. There's also particular resentment here about the close link between the thoroughbred industry and state money. It can all feel just that little bit too cosy.

Like it or not but growing unease about racing's link with gambling, and how ruthlessly the big bookmaker corporations pursue the bottom line, also come into the equation. It might even contain something as imprecise as a primal instinctive antipathy to having to look up at someone on a horse. But whatever the motivation there's no getting away from many people's instinctive reaction.

Racing is likely to be the first major sport to resume in some form after any relaxation of restrictions. It's mechanics allow that. There is also global evidence that it can be carried out in certain circumstances. The ten meetings held behind closed doors prior to shutdown also indicate the practicalities are doable. The politics of how they're done will be crucial to racing's image.

There will be those who dismiss that as just optics and undue preoccupation with perception, an issue that conjures such ire over issues such as the whip. That attitude always betrays a certain self-defeating insularity. But in these circumstances it would be just plain dense. The perception of how and when racing returns is vital.

Any resumption would be a welcome sign of some sort of normality returning. But it is still sport. It is trivial at a time when people are dying from this horrible disease and normal everyday life has been turned on its head. Sure racing is also an industry. But much bigger and more valuable industries are on hold too and not expecting things to change any time soon.

Inevitably in the eyes of wider society racing is sport. Pushing for it to start again when people are dying and so many are out of work could be construed as a jarringly counter-productive move.

Certainly any perception that medical resources were being diverted to facilitate it, including Order of Malta ambulances and personnel, would be a dreadful own-goal. It would be pounced upon as more evidence of an elitist, entitled sector suiting itself once again. Whatever about the accuracy of such a line, having to justify it means the argument is probably lost already.

Getting the tone right is all-important. Any inkling of the sector getting pushy will be pounced upon in such a fraught climate. This time public sentiment has to be a vital consideration for Irish racing, Bucking that trace will be an expensive error that could reverberate to its cost long after the immediate coronarvirus threat has faded.

Britain's racing authorities appear to have allowed for that by pushing out resumption plans. Of course circumstances are different there in terms of the scale of Covid-19 and the sport's reliance on the NHS. But after their Cheltenham gaffe it appears to be an acknowledgement of how the broader perspective will count.

The prospects for a re-start here sometime in May look brighter with official indictors of a relaxation of some restrictions. However it's worth keeping in mind any government stamp of approval isn't some sort of impregnable armour. Official green lights can turn red again very quickly. HRI's former chairman, Joe Keeling, might testify to that.

The Keelings fruit firm has been uncomfortable headline news in recent days for flying in Bulgarian workers to pick fruit on its farm. That decision had official approval with all health measures undertaken and the logic behind it of not having enough domestic workers to do the job. Nevertheless public criticism led to Leo Varadkar declaring himself uncomfortable with the situation.

When the Taoiseach pronounces himself 'uncomfortable' the message is clear to everyone. So in the coming weeks it's in racing's best interests to get the right message out,and be seen to do so, in order that everyone can be comfortable with a resumption when it happens.