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Vincent Finegan

Vincent Finegan

Five year plan

A higher proportion of all-weather racing is planned for IrelandA higher proportion of all-weather racing is planned for Ireland
© Photo Healy Racing

As the National Hunt season was wrapping up at Punchestown I headed away for a few weeks to Spain to recharge the batteries and take a short break from the sport.

The region of Spain I was in has no horse racing and no betting offices, but that doesn’t stop the population from gambling. Lottery is the primary form of gambling with kiosks and shops dedicated to these numbers games dotted around every town and uniformed ticket sellers manning the entrances to most big grocery stores to ensure those looking for their punting fix are well catered for.

Many bars now also have betting machines where bets can be placed on a wide range of sports including Irish and UK horse racing. The maximum payout is capped at €50,000, racing bets are settled at SP, and any wins of €1,000 or more must be collected at a different location.

Online gambling is strictly controlled in Spain and a series of Royal Decrees have already implemented many of the changes the Irish Government is currently proposing in the Gambling Regulation Bill. Staking limits, advertising bans and protections for younger gamblers (18 - 25 year olds) are already the norm in Spain.

It will be interesting to see what effect similar measures will have on the Irish gambling landscape in the coming year, but racecourses must be breathing a sigh of relief that the proposed advertising watershed ban between the hours of 5.30am and 9pm will not now include on-course bookmaker signage.

This already lucrative revenue stream for many racecourses could become an even more significant earner for the tracks when it becomes the only legitimate place the bookmakers can advertise each day.

While I was away Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) launched a new 5-year plan. It sets out a number of ambitious aspirations and targets for the sport between now and the end of 2028 and is an impressive body of work.

The key elements relate to building structures to retain and train staff to work in the industry and to improve the safety of its human and equine participants. These are two areas crying out for attention and it is positive to see HRI making real efforts to tackle them.

As is the norm for horse racing in Ireland most of these plans and forecasts are based on the assumption that the industry will receive increased money from the Government. The Government currently supports the industry with a direct contribution of €62m a year. If HRI is to realise its targets over the next five years it will need that figure to reach €77.4m per annum (a 20% increase) by 2028.

In the S.W.O.T analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats) of the industry included in the five year plan this reliance on handouts from Government is cited as one of its weaknesses. The “consistent Government support” is also seen as a strength.

The S.W.O.T table also affords us a rare opportunity to see how HRI sees the state of the industry and its own role within it. I suppose it is unsurprising that it sees itself as a strength, but a little more surprising is its view of “increasing competition from other racing jurisdictions” which it sees as a threat. I would have thought that the success of horse racing in other jurisdictions would present an opportunity for the industry here - not only in terms of bloodstock sales and increased opportunities for Irish-trained horses to fly the flag abroad, particularly as “consistently delivering worldwide sporting success” is seen as one of Irish racing’s strengths, but also as a rising tide tends to raise all boats.

Considering the smallest column in the S.W.O.T. analysis is devoted to weaknesses, it seems odd that “reliance on a single racecourse to provide all-weather racing” is one of just seven weak points they could come up with regarding the entire industry. Dundalk has always been underutilised and in reality could race 365 days a year if required. Not exactly a weak point in my opinion.

HRI Chairman Nick Hartrey says in his opening statement: “We remain committed to a move towards a greater proportion of all-weather racing as it aligns us with the international racing world. This enhances our trading opportunities.” If the industry requires more all-weather racing, why wait years until a second track is built in Tipperary before implementing it?

Over the next five years HRI is planning on increasing the number of annual fixtures from 395 to 430 and increasing the prize money from €69.4m to €80m annually. Both of these goals are dependent on HRI securing increased Government funding, which is not a given with a General Election looming.

Leopardstown gets special mention in the plan as a racecourse and events venue (owned by HRI) with the potential to significantly grow current revenues. HRI intends to “implement a transformative masterplan for Leopardstown Racecourse that introduces new and enhanced revenue streams” maximising the return on the entire campus.

Somewhat surprisingly there is no mention of the Tote as a potential source of additional revenue. With World Pool races in Ireland being added annually (including two at the Curragh last Sunday) it would seem logical that there will be a significant increase in Tote’s turnover over the next five years. Then again we don’t know the arrangement HRI has struck with Tote UK to manage the online betting and whether or not any of this increased betting will result in increased revenue for HRI.

As usual there is scant mention of racing’s dirty little secret, gambling, in the document. The only mention it gets is in the S.W.O.T analysis where the “increasing negativity towards gambling industry” is cited as a threat. Considering almost every facet of the sport and the majority of revenue streams are tied in with gambling it’s amazing that HRI continue to pretend it doesn’t exist.

Overall HRI has set a number of benchmarks and key performance indicators (KPI’s) to keep track of how their performance is progressing on each element of the plan on an annual basis and it will be most interesting to follow their progress.