Suzanne Eade has a job that many in sport might covet: chief executive of State body Horse Racing Ireland (HRI). Just two months ago, Irish horses plundered many prizes at the Cheltenham Festival, including its most prestigious, the Gold Cup, courtesy of the Willie Mullins-trained, Paul Townend ridden, Galopin des Champs.
As flat racing moves up a gear this weekend with the Irish Guineas at the Curragh, that code’s human and equine stars can look forward to almost similar levels of success, not least a decent shot at the sport’s most historic contest, the Epsom Derby.
To round it off, accountants Deloitte recently published a report showing that the Irish racing and breeding industries support 30,350 jobs, 1,450 more than when the last such study came out in 2016. Last year, bloodstock sales hit €538 million, much of it from exports, putting Ireland second only to the United States. Overall, the sport itself, breeding and their ancillary activities are worth €2.46 billion annually, Deloitte says.
So, there’s not much to worry about then? “Yeah, I would say the industry is in a really good place right now, considering we’ve come through a pandemic,” says Eade, before pointedly adding that “we’re now in a cost-of-living crisis”, which is hitting fans in their pockets, and the business itself, whose participants are seeing day-to-day prices rising.
Racing was one of the first sports to resume [during Covid], in June 2020, but it did so in front of empty grandstands
She argues that racing’s strength in the face of all this is “definitely” rooted in the fact that Government backs it and it is centrally managed. These were particular blessings during the pandemic. HRI worked closely with the departments of Health and Agriculture, Food and the Marine – to which it reports directly – to steer the industry through the crisis. Racing was one of the first sports to resume, in June 2020, but it did so in front of empty grandstands.
Eade took on the job in November 2021, just before the Omicron strain prompted the Government to revive restrictions, which dragged into early last year. Despite the delay, 2022 marked normality’s return for racing. The key challenge was luring the crowds back to tracks against competition from other sports and events.
In the end, the attendance was 1.2 million, around 5 per cent less than 2019. “What we saw was well over 90 per cent of the people coming back,” she says. “So, we felt good that we’d got that many people back. But yeah, obviously we were disappointed that we weren’t back to 2019 levels.”
This year has started strongly. Crowds at three marquee events, Leopardstown’s Dublin Racing Festival in February, the Fairyhouse Irish Grand National meeting at Easter and April’s Punchestown Festival, the jumps finale, have all topped last year. Tracks including Naas and Navan have also seen more punters coming through the turnstiles.
Similarly, student days at Cork, Leopardstown and Limerick racecourses all brought in good crowds.
While all of that amounts to a good beginning to 2023, it’s not quite half the work as the year has a good way to go, and there is little sign of mortgages, or energy or grocery bills, coming down. “It’s about value for money,” Eade observes. “So, people feel that when they come in, they’re being charged reasonable prices, whether it’s food, beverage, and any other entertainment, that’s what we’ve been focused on.”
Tickets for the big meetings cost €40 on the day for an adult, but there were early booking concessions that brought those prices down to €35 or €30. Racecourses offer other incentives, too, including free entry for children, for whom they often put on specifically tailored entertainment.
Leopardstown currently charges €6.60 for stout and €6.80 for lager, which is slightly more expensive than many Dublin pubs but stands up well against plenty of live sports and other events here
Eade maintains that Irish racing is a far better value proposition than its British cousin. Club enclosure tickets for Gold Cup day at Cheltenham were £115 (€132) this year. The cheapest entry on the same day next year – Friday March 15th – is £53 (€61) through the course’s website.
While some will say that you are not comparing like with like, plenty will point out that you will see many of the same horses at the big Irish jumps meetings. Whichever side of that debate you are on, Irish racing came out reasonably well from a recent Racing Post survey of the price of a pint at courses in both countries, prompted by readers’ complaints about sharp hikes. Leopardstown currently charges €6.60 for stout and €6.80 for lager, which is slightly more expensive than many Dublin pubs but stands up well against plenty of live sports and other events here.
HRI’s chief frequently returns to her basic point, that the sport’s big opportunity lies in getting what it offers the public right. One area where she readily concedes it fell down in 2022 was service. “It was difficult last year, straight after the pandemic, to get quality staff in the bars and hospitality areas,” she says. “That is something that’s improved an awful lot in 2023.”
With a strong performance at home matching the country’s acknowledged international leadership, why did racing ask the Government for more money ahead of last year’s budget, particularly in light of Deloitte figures showing it in rude health? This week, The Irish Times published details of a letter written by HRI chairman Nicky Hartery to agriculture minister Charlie McConalogue last year, seeking €500,000 to €1 million extra for integrity services, following a row over doping in the sport.
He also sought aid to boost prize money, which has fallen behind that of European rivals – and which is key to attracting owners – and to deal with rising insurance costs, extra bureaucracy that resulted from Brexit and surging costs, including energy, feed, fuel and wages. Hartery indicated that betting tax, the traditional source of State cash for racing, could be increased from 2 per cent. In the end, the Government allocated €72.8 million to racing for this year, a €2.4 million increase on 2022, but left betting alone.
Eade says that it’s “standard practice” for State bodies to set out their case for taxpayer funding before budgets. She stresses that in HRI’s case, the Deloitte study demonstrates that the Government gets a 17:1 return for this backing, a payback that includes 30,350 jobs. “We are very careful to provide effective stewardship of this vital funding from the taxpayer,” she adds.
Feeling the pinch
Like everyone else, racing is feeling the pinch, not least in the 580 training yards that are its engine, whose energy, feed and fuel bills have been rising. In some ways, HRI can do little about this, as it cannot interfere with the market and trainers are ultimately responsible for making their own businesses work. But ensuring that they know how to run those businesses is part of the licensing process, Eade says.
“For us, it’s about making sure when they get their licence, they are trained adequately, so they know the risks and what they need to do to put in place a sustainable business model. We want them to be successful, and to be able to continue training and employing people.”
According to Deloitte, those trainers were responsible for 10,208 horses last year, with 13,592 individual owners, many of them in syndicates and clubs that share the cost of buying and maintaining thoroughbreds, making it affordable for people able to part with relatively modest sums. In total, there were 4,757 active owner accounts.
Owners fall into different brackets, ranging from those clubs and syndicates up to commercial breeding and stud farms, including Tipperary-based Coolmore, Moyglare Stud, the Aga Khan, Juddmonte and the Maktoum family, whose business is breeding and selling horses. In fact, Irish flat racing is attracting owners from as far afield as China and the US. Jumps owners are mostly, but not exclusively, Irish and British.
Through ownership and breeding, the sport brings in a lot of foreign investment, €550 million in 2022 alone. Deloitte calculates that 45 per cent of the €125 million capital investment by breeders and auction houses over the six years to 2022 came from overseas.
Prize money is key to drawing owners, and thus investment. It does not cover the cost of keeping horses, but it helps to offset the expense, making it an important part of the mix. Another element is, obviously enough, the chance to race the horses. HRI has scheduled 390 race meetings this year. Eade says the organisation hopes to get that to around 414 by 2028.
Some of that expansion will hinge on building a new all-weather track at Tipperary racecourse, across the road from Limerick Junction railway station, at a cost of €30 million. HRI is waiting on a planning permission decision for what will be Ireland’s second such course. Its first is at Dundalk. All-weather tracks have artificial surfaces, which makes them less vulnerable to the elements, so they can stage flat racing year-round.
Dundalk is floodlit and races every Friday night through the winter. It is successful and by now a firm part of Irish racing. The second track aims to replicate that by opening new opportunities to trainers, especially those based in the south of the country, and could open in 2025, if all goes to plan. “The idea is that we’ll likely have 20 fixtures there every year,” Eade says.
She acknowledges that it’s a “huge undertaking” but points out that the existing track is crying out for development. It will serve as a facility to aid young trainers starting out on their careers. HRI is discussing the possibility of using the new course as a centre for equine therapy with Tipperary charity Moorehaven. All-weather racing gives owners and trainers a chance to race their horses, generates betting revenue, particularly from overseas, and media rights earnings.
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HRI and the Association of Irish Racecourses recently agreed a new rights deal with the current holders, British companies Satellite Information Systems and Racecourse Media Group, for 21 of the country’s 26 tracks. It covers broadcasts to bookie shops, digital streaming and the specialist channel, Racing TV. There is no precise figure for its full value as the deal is partly tied to bookie shop turnover in Britain, but estimates put it at around a basic rate of €8,000 per race.
When it confirmed the deal, the State body predicted that it could increase the value of Irish racing’s media rights by 50 per cent over the contract’s five-year lifetime. The current agreement is valued at €40 million a-year to the sport. Eade believes that those targets will be met if Irish racing has the right programme. Five courses opted out: Thurles, Kilbeggan, Sligo, Roscommon and Limerick.
When I came back to Ireland I’d always wanted to work for an Irish company, but I wanted to work for an Irish company that was really strong and had its basis and heritage in Ireland— Suzanne Eade
Originally from Santry in Dublin and now living with her husband in Co Kildare, Eade is a self-confessed sports addict, although she is relatively new to racing. She trained as an accountant with Gillette in Britain after completing a degree here in economics and Italian. She worked for 14 years in various posts including treasury, financial planning, audit and customer service.
Eade was involved in moving the company’s European HQ to Geneva, Switzerland, where she spent two years from 2003. She returned home to work for Procter & Gamble, which had bought Gillette. This involved travelling between Carlow and Newbridge, hence the couple setting up home in Kildare. She shifted to a commercial role that involved commuting to Dublin. After five years, she went to Boots as financial director.
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In 2015, she joined HRI as chief financial officer. “When I came back to Ireland I’d always wanted to work for an Irish company, but I wanted to work for an Irish company that was really strong and had its basis and heritage in Ireland,” Eade explains.
Even with a wide knowledge of sport, racing was not something about which she knew much. “I had to learn very quickly,” she acknowledges. When she joined HRI, Eade says she found a “can-do attitude” in the organisation and throughout the sport.
She says she has learned that Irish racing’s success is very much tied to the rural communities in which it is based and its importance to those same areas’ prosperity. “Not just in Kildare, which is the thoroughbred county, but in all those counties where there is a racing and breeding presence, it’s just vital to those communities.”
Name: Suzanne Eade
Post: Chief executive, Horse Racing Ireland
Family: Married to Adrian and living in Co Kildare.
Something you might expect: She’s a self-confessed sports fanatic.
Something that might surprise: She studied Italian in university but rarely gets to speak it now, although she listens to it in the car.