Going gets tough for racing

 

The Irish horse racing and breeding industry is in desperate need of a boost, but will the recommendations of a new report help get the industry back on track?

On Tuesday, Simon Coveney, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, whose remit includes the Irish racing and breeding industries, launched a report he had commissioned from economic consultants Indecon into the best way forward for the industry.

The report is meant to point the way forward for the industry, which supports 16,000 jobs and generates about €1 billion for the economy and exports €150 million of bloodstock a year.

Coveney’s argument for commissioning it ran along the lines of: We are already very good at racing and breeding, but we can’t stand still if we are to maintain and improve our position.

Broadly speaking, Indecon believes that the industry can improve its position, boosting jobs in the process, and says that it has already demonstrated that it can do this with the recent link-up with the emerging Chinese racing industry, for which Ireland – and specifically Coolmore Stud – will provide bloodstock and expertise.

However, realising that potential will take money. Indecon’s report was published hot on the heels of the Betting (Amendment) Bill, which proposes to levy a 1 per cent tax on online bets placed in the Republic, which the horse and greyhound racing industries have been demanding for years. The levy already applies to bets placed in bookie shops, but not to online wagers.

The idea is to help secure funding for both into the future. The logic behind this is that betting is used to fund racing in most other jurisdictions, but in many of those cases the state, or racing itself, controls gambling through tote monopolies. Whereas Ireland – and the UK – have private sector bookmakers, for whom racing is a key betting product.

The funding issue has been a bone of contention between the racing industries and the bookmakers for several years, with the Government caught somewhere in between.

When Irish racing’s administration was restructured a decade ago, the legislation created a link between betting tax and funding for both horse and dog racing, through the Horse and Greyhound Fund.

As the recession gathered momentum at the end of 2008, former finance minister Brian Lenihan cut that link – the legislation allowed this – but pledged to continue State support for both. However, he did warn that they would have to cut back like everyone else.

The result was that funding fell from €61 million in 2008 to €45 million this year. According to the Indecon report, total betting turnover in the Republic last year was €4.365 billion. Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) chief executive Brian Kavanagh says that just €28 million was raised in betting tax. The report states betting duties have been “insufficient” to cover funding.

On the basis of these figures, a 1 per cent, across-the-board betting tax would raise €43.65 million. Another study, this time commissioned from PwC by betting exchange Betfair, concluded that the online levy would bring the tax take close to €50 million. Kavanagh says that €1.7 billion is bet online in the Republic. The figures indicate that the tax take could make racing self-funding, on the basis of the €45 million it received this year.

But will that be enough to sustain the industry? Indecon points out that it is important that there is enough funding to ensure reasonable prize money; to support integrity services, which is key to racing’s credibility as a betting medium; to maintain the disease-free status of Irish bloodstock; and to support effective international marketing, which the consultants state is important in order to realise the sector’s potential.

“The dependence on very scarce Exchequer resources, to the extent which currently exists, represents a major strategic vulnerability for the sector given the current state of the public finances,” the report says. “Indecon therefore believes new sources of funding are urgently required to support the industry and to wean the industry off its dependence on exchequer funding.”

Racing has other sources of funding. They include racegoers, who pay to get in and then bet on course or with the tote. However, their numbers are down 15 per cent since 2007 and betting turnover at racecourses has plumetted by 46 per cent, according to Indecon.

Attracting new customers will require spending on marketing and facilities.

Racehorse owners are another source, but their numbers are also falling. The number of horses in training is down 26 per cent since 2007. Kavanagh argues that prize money is key to attracting and maintaining owners, particularly from abroad. Since 2007, prize money has fallen by €16 million to €44.4 million. Indecon’s analysis shows that the number of races in the lower prize money bands has increased while the number of contests in the higher prize money brackets has fallen. The number of races has remained steady at around 2,400. So there are more races for smaller purses.

Other racing nations have more generous prize money. One of Ireland’s main European competitors, France, offers far bigger purses. It also uses this as a way of attracting investment to its breeding industry by paying special premiums to French-bred winners.

Its industry is looking at further enhancements to these payments, to the point where breeders’ associations in other EU countries may be considering a complaint to Brussels on the basis that France is providing illegal state aid to its thoroughbred breeders, as the premium system is funded by the country’s tote monopoly.

A similar complaint spelled the end of the tax break given on stallion fees in the Republic, which underpinned a hugely successful breeding industry. That has suffered since 2008, when the incentive was ended. The number of stallions, mares and foals in Ireland is down by one third, while the aggregate value of racehorses sold at Irish sales has dropped by almost 60 per cent to €81 million from €191 million over the same timescale.

Kavanagh says that, assuming that the betting tax goes through and the industry gets the extra money raised, a key aim will be to boost the Irish breeding industry by stepping up overseas marketing.

Racing also has other commercial income, in the shape of sponsorhip and media rights. This year, it negotiated an enhanced deal from the bookmakers who screen its races. Kavanagh says that rights for specialist TV channels are up in 2013. Currently Attheraces holds the rights for all Irish racecourses. Its competitor RacingUK has no Irish rights, but could be interested in at least some of the leading courses.

The HRI chief executive says that there is “plenty of interest” in the rights at the moment, but would not be drawn further.

Indecon also recommends some measures to save money, including having HRI and the Turf Club – racing’s regulator – operate from the same offices. It stops short of calling for the integration of both bodies. It suggests shrinking the HRI board and appointing three public interest directors to guarantee greater accountability.

The Minister wants responses to the report over the next 30 days and signalled that he will begin implementing its recommendations in September. So when the dust settles from this year’s Galway festival, everyone who is anyone in Irish racing is going to have a good read of the Indecon report.

INDECON REVIEW OF RACING

KEY RECOMMENDATIONS

* Measures should be introduced to secure a significant increase in taxation from the betting sector

* The rate of betting duty should be initially set at 1 per cent

* Greater funding certainty should be introduced to support medium-term planning for the integrity services in Irish racing

* The Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) board should be reduced and the Minister should appoint its chairman and three public interest directors

* The head offices of HRI and the Turf Club should be integrated

* The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine should undertake a value-for-money review of HRI


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