It's a sunny morning on the Curragh racecourse in Co Kildare. There is no racing but, off in the distance, work riders are exercising two powerful-looking thoroughbreds on the Old Vic Gallop, tacking in a diagonal line across the plain, heading towards the track's new stand with its distinctive roof.
The course recently hosted the second leg of Irish Champions' Weekend, a two-day festival of top-class racing split between the Kildare venue and Leopardstown in Dublin that attracted 23,000 people in total. Local horses, courtesy of trainers Aidan O'Brien and Dermot Weld, kept most of the big prizes at home.
Last Saturday, O'Brien and Jessica Harrington, who is based not far from the Curragh, sent out runners to capture two big races at Newmarket in England.
Racing here looks in rude good health. This year produced another raft of winners at Cheltenham and Tiger Roll’s second Grand National in a row. Irish-trained horses took the Epsom Derby, Grand Prix de Paris, several Royal Ascot trophies and scored victories at the highest level at Newmarket and York.
Brian Kavanagh, chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland (HRI), the State body that administers the sport, says it is attracting new owners from home and abroad.
“There’s been growth across all categories and we have focused on syndicates in terms of getting more participation. We’ve developed a specific ownership department with Amber O’Grady and Aidan McGarry running it. So they’ve targeted syndicates on a local basis.
“Also, what’s very much noticeable now is that we have also targeted a greater level of international investment and particularly from the US and the UK. Whether it’s because of prize money policies or whether it’s because of the success of the trainers, we’ve seen a growing number of UK people choosing to have their horses trained in Ireland, particularly over the jumps.”
Kavanagh notes that there are more than 1,000 two-year-olds – that is, young flat horses at the start of their careers – in training here this year. Ireland is generally well represented in this division because leading trainers have links with commercial breeders. For example, O'Brien trains almost exclusively for Coolmore Stud, while Dermot Weld handles horses for Moyglare Stud and the Aga Khan, among others.
However, Kavanagh notes that this year's statistics show a broader ownership base for two-year-olds. Harrington, Ger Lyons in Co Meath and Joseph O'Brien (Aidan's son) in Co Kilkenny have all had winners in this bracket. Harrington's Millisle, owned by Stonethorn Stud in Co Down, won the prestigious group one Cheveley Park stakes at Newmarket in England last weekend.
Lyons trains Siskin for Saudi prince Khalid bin Abdullah, owner of breeding operation Juddmonte Farms. That horse won a top Irish two-year-old race, the National Stakes, in August.
Luring new owners
Abdullah is no stranger to Ireland, but handlers such as Lyons, Harrington and Joseph O’Brien are luring new owners to Irish racing, particularly from the US, the world’s biggest racing and breeding jurisdiction. Most American racing is on dirt – a partly artificial surface – but some is on grass (or “turf” in racing speak), and this branch is growing.
“We’ve been actively targeting the American bloodstock community to consider having horses in training here in Ireland,” Kavanagh explains. “A much higher proportion of their programme is now run on turf as opposed to dirt. They are now looking at Europe and Ireland in particular as a strong and potential source of turf horses.”
Barbara Banke, the lawyer-turned-viticulturist who heads Kentucky breeding operation, Stonestreet Stables, is one of the US owners with runners here, along with academic and one-time Campbell's Soup director George Strawbridge, syndicate Team Valor and Mill Ridge, another Kentucky breeder.
Recently, Tipperary-based trainer Fozzy Stack sent the filly Yesterdayoncemore to win a race at Del Mar in California, where she led home a one-two-three for Irish-bred horses. The second home, Croughavoke, began her career with a win at Limerick before moving from another Irish trainer, Adrian Keatley, to the US.
Irish horses are exported around the world. Kavanagh says we produce 9,200 thoroughbred foals a year, making us Europe’s biggest breeder and third overall to the US and Australia. About 5,500 are sold abroad, 80 per cent of them to our nearest neighbour, Britain.
Not surprisingly, Irish breeders are watching how Brexit unfolds.
“Our industry is very dependent on the economic situation in the UK. So if Brexit throws the UK into recession, that will be a concern for our sector, particularly on the breeding side. And on the racing side, horses regularly travel over from the UK and to there, so there’s a potential impact there.”
Racing and breeding want the UK to avoid a hard Brexit. This could threaten the so-called Tripartite Agreement, which allows horses to travel freely between Ireland, Britain and France. The deal is based on the three sharing common health and welfare standards.
This is important for breeders, but particularly critical for trainers who want to race in the UK, and for their British counterparts who want to compete here. Kavanagh notes that if the UK goes without a deal, his organisation “broadly” knows what happens. Anyone transporting horses between Ireland and Britain must have a health certificate. Both that and the animal itself can be inspected. “That’s east-west, west-east. That’s very clear,” he notes. “What’s less clear or straightforward is the north-south aspect of it.”
Racing is an all-Ireland sport, administered on a 32-county basis, so a hard Brexit creates a specific difficulty. If the UK goes on October 31st it could manifest itself immediately. The following day, Down Royal racecourse in Co Down stages an important jumps meeting, attracting runners from the Republic and possibly Britain.
Kavanagh says that HRI would have to talk to the Department of Agriculture, which in turn would have to get advice from Brussels, about what sort of checks might be needed either side of the Border in that circumstance. He notes that health, welfare and disease control standards are "exactly the same" in the Republic, Northern Ireland and in Britain. "So there's what you might call, in that dreadful phrase, regulatory alignment. All the horses that are moving are registered here, or registered with the British Horse Racing Authority. So the basis for technical solutions is there in our game."
Nevertheless, meaningful talks on a future relationship cannot happen until the UK’s withdrawal is finalised. “We’re doing a lot of work with our colleagues in Britain and the industry in the north, but it’s very hard to make a final plan until you know exactly what’s going to happen,” he observes.
A row closer to home this summer threatened to mar racing’s flagship project, the rebuilding of the Curragh stands. The track itself is recognised as one of the best in Europe. It’s also racing’s headquarters: HRI’s offices are in Ballymany to the east of the course, while the training centre that surrounds it has produced champions such as the Derby and Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe-winning Sea the Stars.
Built over three years at a cost of €81 million, the stand replaced a dilapidated 60-year-old structure. Racegoers on Derby day complained of queues for food and toilets, even though the 12,000-plus attracted to the fixture was well short of the 20,000 or so that have attended in the past. Chief executive Derek McCormack subsequently left to be replaced by Pat Keogh, who also runs Leopardstown.
“Derek felt at the time that he delivered the building and then it was time to move on,” Kavanagh explains. Keogh was considering leaving Leopardstown next year, so seemed the obvious successor, he adds. HRI, which owns the Dublin track, will seek a replacement shortly, allowing Keogh to focus on the Curragh.
Kavanagh says the Curragh put its hands up over the queues. “I said at the time it wasn’t good enough,” he points out. “I think there’s teething problems in year one, they are being addressed.”
The HRI chief argues that similar problems hit Ascot, which was rebuilt in 2006, and Longchamp in Paris, which finished its new stand last year.
“We’re delighted with the outcome in terms of the stand that’s been delivered. It’s maximised on the biggest selling point in the Curragh, which is its fantastic view out over the plains, so when you stand on any part of that stand you’ve got a wonderful view of the racing.” He adds that visitors from overseas racecourses have given it the thumbs-up.
An accountant by profession, Kavanagh has led HRI since it was established in 2002. In 2016, the Government reappointed him after the body's then-chairman Joe Keeling advised two Ministers that the board approved the move, though it had not done so formally. The board did subsequently ratify his appointment.
His current term runs until 2021, when the board will have to find a successor. “There’s a job to be done until then,” he says, adding that there are plenty of people capable of taking on the role when the time comes.
Whether it happens on his watch or someone else’s, Leopardstown could be the next course to get a new stand. The Dublin venue hosts high-grade flat and jumps racing. It is spending €18 million on a new weigh room – jockeys’ dressing room – and new bars and restaurants. In a blow to romantics everywhere, its nightclub, Club 92, will be closed and converted to a new food and beverage area.
It could yet rebuild its 1970s-vintage stand. "Long-term it's something that should be looked at, yes. I think the Curragh will raise the standard around the country and I think that if you look at the quality of entertainment venues that are available, The 3Arena, Bord Gáis theatre, there's a different level now."
Leopardstown's Champions' Weekend showpiece, the Irish Champion Stakes, drew a TV audience of millions from countries such as the US, Japan, China and Dubai. Thanks to the participation of Japanese horse Deirdre, who came fourth, the course gets a percentage of the money wagered on the race by punters in her home country through its tote pools.
This was partly due to the work done by Leopardstown to attract the Japanese runner, and partly down to Racing TV, the UK company that has Irish racing’s media rights. The sale of pictures to the betting industry is commercially important to the sport but home TV, streaming and now international deals are increasing their contribution.
Irish racing is nine months into its five-year partnership with Racing TV. It positions the big tracks – Leopardstown, the Curragh, Punchestown – alongside the likes of Cheltenham and Aintree in Britain. It also benefits smaller rural tracks, such as Cork, Ballinrobe, Listowel and Kilbeggan, which Kavanagh describes as the sport's backbone.
A more controversial source of cash is the State’s Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund. Legislation ties this to betting tax, but the amount given to the two sports has generally exceeded what the Government collected from bookies. That should change as the levy, applied to betting shops and online wagers, doubled to 2 per cent this year.
The tax yielded €68.1 million in the first eight months of the year, against €38.4 million over the same period in 2018. “If you applied that to a full year it would mean that the yield from betting tax is of the order of €90 million to €95 million,” Kavanagh calculates. “Last year horse racing got €67 million, so we’ve moved from a situation where only five years ago the State was writing a cheque on top of betting tax of about €30 million a year to fund horse racing and greyhound racing.”
The cash goes to prize money and the capital programme, which contributes 40 per cent of the cost of improving facilities at racecourses. Most racing jurisdictions fund the sport from betting, either through a direct levy or a tote monopoly, Kavanagh points out.
He argues that backing the sport and breeding in this way makes sense for the Republic. A 2017 report by Deloitte, commissioned by HRI, showed that racing and breeding contributed €1.84 billion to the economy and supported 28,900 jobs directly and indirectly. Almost 8,200 people were involved in ownership.
He points out that its reach stretches throughout rural Ireland. We have the right environment and a tradition with horses – that means we also have people with the right skills.
“If you didn’t have it, you’d be creating every incentive to get an industry like this,” he says. “So if the industry is backed it will deliver in spades for the country – I have no doubt about that.”
CV: Brian Kavanagh
Job: Chief executive, Horse Racing Ireland
Family: Married to Diana with four children
Lives: Curragh, Co Kildare
Hobbies: Follows all sports, reading, music and travelling.
Something we might expect: Goes racing about 100 times a year, and by December will have visited every one of Ireland's 26 racecourses.
Something that might surprise: Remains hopeful Leeds United will secure promotion to the Premier League this year.