Irish racing leads world but its financial model is badly flawed
Policing billion-euro sport an urgent issue for bloodstock industry’s long-term health
In effect, there is no correlation between encouraging people to bet on Irish racing and the revenue Irish racing gets. It is a stark contrast with other major racing jurisdictions where racing is financed through a Tote monopoly. Photograph: Donall Farmer/Inpho
At the root of Irish racing’s integrity problem is how punters are irrelevant. By punters I mean those of us on the outside, the betting shop cannon fodder, if you like, who are largely superfluous in the sport’s scheme of things.
Obviously no one officially admits that. Instead the line is steadfastly held that Ireland is a world leader in the global racing game.
And it is: from the horses bred and trained here, to the people who ride and train them, the Irish horse game is a sporting flagship in many respects, as proven yet again by Rule The World’s Grand National victory.
However, there is a fundamental flaw to its financial model, a flaw which cannot be fundamentally changed, and which should make the policing of this billion euro flagship such an urgent issue for the bloodstock industry’s long-term health.
This year will see Irish racing get €59.1 million from government, the seed-grain, as it has been described, for an industry that employs almost 20,000 people. That’s a healthy return for State investment, something reflected in cross-party support for the Horse & Greyhound Fund.
Up to recently about half of what Irish racing got was betting tax generated in betting shops even though only an estimated 10 per cent of that turnover is generated by Irish racing. The difference has been topped up by the State.
This year sees a significant change in that tax collected on offshore betting is projected to generate about another €20 million. That is likely to leave government still topping up racing’s coffers by at least €10 million.
And in terms of employment dividend, as well as foreign investment, exports, not to mention an intangible factor like prestige, a value-for-money argument is easily made for that subsidy.
But it does make the most important figure in Irish racing whoever is the incumbent Minister for Agriculture in charge of a money-hose which continues to make up any difference in funding, irrespective of betting tax generated, and irrespective of what generates it.
In effect, there is no correlation between encouraging people to bet on Irish racing and the revenue Irish racing gets. It is a stark contrast with other major racing jurisdictions where racing is financed through a Tote monopoly.
In Australia, Hong Kong, France, and most other jurisdictions, the money bet by the public is directly reflected in prizemoney. So for professionals there is an obvious perpetuating self-interest in encouraging people to bet more. And an obvious element of that is convincing that public that policing is taken seriously.
Bend or break
It doesn’t mean punter panaceas have been created. Wherever there’s gambling, there will always be those prepared to bend or break the rules. But there is a vital and tangible link between punter interests and how the racing they bet on is stewarded. And that link between professional self-interest and punter input doesn’t exist in Ireland.
The practical impact of that theoretical flaw is seen most days of the week in light- touch regulation that often produces little more than a fig-leaf of probity and effectively allows too many within racing to behave with like-it-or-lump-it hauteur.
Whereas a racing official in Sha Tin or Flemington can talk with a straight face about the primary importance of the betting public, many punters here have wearily concluded the primary interests of Irish racing are directed towards an oligarchy of very rich owners and those feeding off them.
Racing integrity is the job of the Turf Club, a private organisation with a membership that includes many of the owners and breeders it is supposed to police, and which is financed by the semi-State Horse Racing Ireland which comprises representatives of the various industry sectors it pays the Turf Club to keep on the straight and narrow.
Racing is a tiny village anyway but a combination of such self-regulation, allied to a guaranteed funding structure, allows it to indulge its sequestering instincts to the full. It is little wonder in such a culture that there is a reluctance to upset any applecart by pursuing the interests of those peering in from outside.
It is interesting to ponder the relationship between that culture and a continuing struggle to set up a meaningful anti-doping programme throughout the thoroughbred industry.
However, it is the day-to-day policing of horses, and ensuring they run on their merits, which is the most obvious example of this culture, one that, as it stands, makes the ambition of racing eventually becoming self-funding through global betting seem very ambitious indeed.
Maybe some digital offshore consumers, despite being used to the more stringent standards that apply elsewhere, will bet consistently on the Irish product where, apart from an occasional ‘spectacular’, stewarding is too often little more than an exercise in optics, but few would realistically bet on it.
And as things stand, it doesn’t really matter. Where can the impetus be to change, to view what happens on the track as more than an exercise in expedient containment, when there is no self-interest involved?
It’s not like a Tote monopoly can be introduced to create that link between punter and professional. Neither is the government money-hose going to be turned off anytime soon.
Certain steps to convince a sceptical betting public could be taken quickly. Professional stewarding is one obvious initial step, especially if a global betting market really is the future.
But the reality is that any propulsion towards serious change of the integrity regime will have to come from an industry whose various sectional interests appear content with the status quo as it is in order to benefit those who remain largely irrelevant. Maybe it will happen. But I wouldn’t bet on it.