Narrow definition of agriculture an existential threat to racing industry

HRI now desperately seeking a derogation from implications of industrial relations law

“I know people look through the white rails at the racetrack and see a sport. But to make that happen is agriculture,” said trainer Ger Lyons. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

“I know people look through the white rails at the racetrack and see a sport. But to make that happen is agriculture,” said trainer Ger Lyons. Photograph: Bryan Keane/Inpho

 

A lecturer I once had would illustrate his point about how language can fluctuate between definition and meaning by asking us to pretend to address an Irish Famers Association meeting in Mitchelstown.

“Imagine,” he said, “standing up and starting off with ‘My dear peasants”.

The point being that as sons of the soil a strict definition of ‘peasant’ might be linguistically correct but that would be little consolation when the audience were picking bits of your arse from their wellies on the way out.

Right now racing is picking its way through an agricultural definition neither academic or historic. Instead it’s very current and practical and existential enough to provoke queries about the sport’s very identity.

It comes from a dry bureaucratic tweak to the Industrial Relations Act which basically defines agriculture as raising animals or crops for human consumption.

It beggars belief it made it through the legislative process without anyone in the Department of Agriculture or the semi-state Horse Racing Ireland spotting the implications. But it did.

So racing yards don’t qualify as agricultural workplaces anymore. Working time legislation applies to stable staff the same way it does for someone working in an office despite it being difficult to log off a thoroughbred for the weekend.

Any smug assumption that commonsense would apply got blown out of the water earlier this month.

The Labour Court rejected an appeal by Coolmore Stud’s racing arm, the world famous Ballydoyle Racing stables run by Aidan O’Brien, over failure to comply with Workplace Relations Commission compliance notices issued after inspections there in 2016.

Ballydoyle is the richest and most powerful operation in the world. It’s used to winning. It didn’t win this one. Now it’s appealing the Labour Court ruling to the Circuit Court and while it waits racing generally is not so much spooked as quivering.

The Irish Racehorse Trainers Association chairman Noel Meade has predicted some of his colleagues will be wiped out if strict working hours rules are applied because numbers of suitably skilled staff to pick up the slack simply aren’t there.

A derogation

HRI’s chief executive, Brian Kavanagh, has said operating under such rules make operating bloodstock impossible. The legendary, and famously reasonable, John Oxx, trainer of Sea The Stars, has called the whole thing ridiculous. 

HRI, which answers to the Department of Agriculture, is now desperately lobbying the Department of Business, Enterprise & Innovation for a derogation from strict implementation of industrial regulations.  

The essential argument is that racing can’t be categorised in one specific box. It can be simultaneously sport, industry, agriculture, and probably ticks a few other boxes too. So the pitch is that racing is different enough to be exceptional.

That’s familiar ground since racing’s sense of its own exceptionalism has perhaps only ever been matched by its sense of entitlement.

Over the year it’s a sector which has shifted its definition of itself according to its self-interest. It’s administration briefly flitted between Agriculture and the Department of Sport before returning to Agriculture in 2009. Irish racing likes having it every which way that suits it best.  

It has consistently benefited for almost two decades from state subsidy and grown complacent enough for the HRI chairman Joe Keeling to recently accuse some of the cabinet of a lack of courage for not increasing racing’s 2018 allocation of €64 million.

If that sounded like biting the hand that feeds it only adds to a critical narrative where rich owners get their hobby subsidised, their vassals remain arrogantly suspicious of outside examination, and everyone bemoans a lack of public recognition about how Irish racing is the best in the world.

So racing’s brass have a hard sell, especially in a scenario which can be portrayed as badly paid and overworked stable staff finally getting to stick it to ‘The Man’.

Except the thing is racing really is different. Not different enough to excuse the worst excesses of some work practises where that thin line between voluntary and compulsory get blurred, but still different.

It’s not straightforward in one-dimensional sporting terms, something which those in thrall to English football’s multi-billion hard-sell, or craw-thumping amateur pastimes closer to home, use to criticise it. Defining racing and putting it into a definitive one-size-fits-all box is not easy.

“I know people look through the white rails at the racetrack and see a sport. But to make that happen is agriculture,” said trainer Ger Lyons in probably the most lucid summation of this conundrum. “You can’t argue I’m not playing sport. But equally you can’t argue I’m not in agriculture.”

Global sport

Racing yards may not meet the new definition of agriculture but by any rational meaning they’re still an agricultural workplace.

There’s nothing new in the horsey set braying they’re exceptional and getting up a lot noses as a result. But in this specific case they’re right, just as they’re correct in claiming to be amongst the best in the world in a major global sport.  

Their argument that more flexible working hours are required because of a shortage of expertise rather than money to pay people invites the response that better pay and conditions could encourage more of that expertise.

Nevertheless the implications of that are long-term, as is how this controversy appears a timely opportunity for stable staff to organise properly and for constructive steps to be taken to encourage more people, and women in particular, into racing.

But right now it’s clear the horse game really is exceptional enough to warrant a derogation from strict working time legislation.

It’s illogical that a sport and industry fundamentally rooted in the production and care of animals, and which has a governing body responsible to the Department of Agriculture, wouldn’t be regarded as different enough to qualify.

Just because a definition is literally correct doesn’t rule out its meaning being different.

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