There are two organisations that run Irish racing. Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) is responsible for governance development and promotion. The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) – formerly known as the Turf Club – looks after regulation. And the roles aren’t supposed to clash.
Other major jurisdictions like Britain and France lump the lot into one body. But in Ireland, separation of powers legislation is there in black and white; the regulator is “solely and independently responsible for the making and enforcing of the rules of racing”.
There is a valid theoretical argument for such a divide, too, since regulation and promotion are contradictory instincts.
An autonomous regulator at least contains an aspiration towards independent policing of what is a €2 billion industry which this year will see HRI get almost €73 million in State funding, of which IHRB gets €15.9 million to carry out its integrity functions.
That is a reminder of how practical considerations can intrude on the theoretical, bringing to mind, perhaps, Harold Wilson’s famous rationale for refusing to criticise US government policy on Vietnam during the 1960s – “Because we can’t kick our creditors in the balls!”
Anyone pinning their faith on a close-knit sector like racing being some clearly defined administrative utopia is destined for disappointment. Consultation between both bodies is inevitable and often necessary, with provisions put in place for such co-operation.
Nevertheless, Irish racing’s legislative reality is that regulation is strictly the IHRB’s patch, which made for a particularly eye-catching line in a 137-page Court of Appeal judgment delivered last month.
The judgment related to a dismissed appeal by the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association (IRTA) against a 2020 High Court verdict that awarded the IHRB’s head of security Chris Gordon €300,000 in damages for defamation.
After a 30-day hearing the High Court jury decided Gordon had been the subject of an “orchestrated and severe campaign” against his name by the IRTA on the back of, among other matters, a stable inspection of trainer Liz Doyle’s premises in 2014.
The Court of Appeal conclusion delivered by Justice Brian Murray was notably blunt in dismissing the IRTA’s argument in a case that has seen estimates of up to €2 million eventually having to be paid out in legal costs.
Crucially, at one point it refers to how the IRTA “successfully petitioned Horse Racing Ireland to exert pressure on the Turf Club to restrict Mr Gordon in his duties and prevent him from investigating trainers”.
From 2015, while waiting for his defamation case to be heard, the Turf Club did remove Gordon from some of his duties, including investigating trainers, at a time when the sport was reeling from a series of doping controversies.
Earlier this week, Brian Kavanagh, the then chief executive of HRI, rejected that court judgment. He said communications between HRI and the IHRB related only to “clarifications” over any potential case by Gordon taken against the trainers.
Nevertheless, a judgment given by a Supreme Court judge baldly states that HRI exerted pressure on the regulator to prevent Gordon investigating trainers. It raises any number of fundamental questions that cut to the heart of how Irish racing is run because this is not what it says on the tin.
Was a vital line crossed when the HRI board, chaired at the time by Joe Keeling, and including the then Trainers’ Association chairman, Noel Meade, exerted “pressure” on the regulator? Who on the HRI board believed it appropriate? Why did the Turf Club agree to restricting Gordon’s duties?
If this is the practical reality of Irish racing politics, then why persevere with a veneer of regulatory independence at all? Because it’s no stretch to paint this in terms of the sport’s senior police official getting sidelined by those he’s paid to police since they don’t like the way he’s policing them.
These are important questions that need answers. The judgment delivered by Justice Murray vindicated Chris Gordon. It also shone an uncomfortable spotlight under the bonnet of racing’s administration, exposing a gulf between words and actions.
The Oireachtas Agriculture Committee has been busy with racing recently, particularly examining high-profile claims in relation to doping. Many of those hearings were rooted in inflammatory accusations relying more on flimsy hints and allegations than actual specifics.
In contrast this is a Supreme Court judge bluntly pointing out how the regulator’s senior security officer had his responsibilities diluted after the body representing some of those he’s supposed to police petitioned the sport’s governing body to sideline him.
That cuts to the heart of Irish racing’s credibility in terms of independent regulation. It demands fundamental questions be asked of Irish racing’s administrative structure. Otherwise, it will look like backing the wrong horse doesn’t cost anything.
Something for the weekend
Tips come with the usual health reminder that if they were reliably profitable there would be no need to flog them. But on the old basis of a stopped clock being right twice a day . . .
JP McManus’s Cayd Boy is likely to be all the rage for Saturday’s Dan & Joan Moore Chase (2.12) at Fairyhouse. His first-rate claims are likely to be reflected in his odds. Two miles on heavy ground looks ideal for EPSON DU HOUX as well so Rachael Blackmore’s mount could be better value at about 6-1.
MADE IN THE WOODS ran twice at Limerick over Christmas and was supported both times. Testing conditions look likely to suit in the 3.10 at Punchestown on Sunday.