Ask most anyone in racing what the nightmare scenario is of a no-deal Brexit on March 29th and it usually comes back to horse boxes stuck in traffic jams.
"Horses by nature, literally when the box stops, they expect to get off," says the chief executive of the Irish Racehorse Trainers' Association Michael Grassick. "It's a bit like going to a football match with a busload and then not letting them off the bus – it wouldn't be long before you had a problem!"
It’s an amusing picture but there is little funny about half a tonne of upset thoroughbred in a small space, both in terms of animal welfare and those looking after it. There is especially nothing funny about the prospect of dealing with a sick or upset animal in the confines of Dublin Port.
Right now we're shipping up to 70 horses a week each way. That's six or seven trucks. That increases as the year gets busier with sales
Up to 90 per cent of Ireland’s thoroughbred exports go through Britain. In return, the UK’s department for environment, food and rural affairs recently indicated an apparent readiness to export almost all of the immediate logistical nightmare involved in coping with a no-deal Brexit.
The department outlined how thoroughbreds arriving in the UK would be waved through as per normal like under the current tripartite agreement which guarantees freedom of movement for horses between Ireland, France and Britain.
A stark reminder of the advisability or otherwise of such a laissez-faire approach came on Thursday with confirmation of an outbreak of equine influenza which brought racing in Britain grinding to a halt.
But that still does not prevent the real bureaucratic problem being getting back into Ireland.
European legislation would see Britain get “third country” status if there is no deal. That requires veterinary standard checks on animals arriving into the EU from a third country.
That means border inspection posts. Ireland currently only has two of those, at Dublin airport and Shannon airport.
Technically it throws up a ludicrous scenario where if the UK crashes out of the EU today, a horse trained in Co Cavan could run in a point-to point in Co Tyrone, yet in order to get home would have to fly to Dublin to be checked and cleared by a vet.
You could get to Holyhead at 2.10am. No paperwork needs to be done, there might be the odd spot check for something, but normally it's straightforward
Nearly 15,000 thoroughbreds traverse the Irish Sea every year by horse box and ferry, so a new border inspection post is being constructed at Dublin Port. Yet any kind of check takes time, and time is at a premium when it comes to transporting animals.
Paul Stafford trains a small string of racehorses in Oldtown, Co Dublin. If the headline element to a potential March 29th crash-out is the impact on Irish horses travelling to the following week's Grand National, Stafford's cross-channel expeditions are usually to more mundane fixtures.
Better opportunities in weaker races in Britain means he has transport arrangements down to a tee. For Perth, Hexham or Musselburgh, Stafford drives his 7½ tonne lorry through Belfast port. For Bangor, Worcester or Ludlow in Shropshire, he goes through Dublin.
“Ludlow for instance, door to door, takes about eight hours. I would generally go out on the 3.10pm ferry the afternoon before. The ferry is only 20 minutes from me. Everything is arranged, I roll onto the boat, there’s no contact from anyone, and I get to Holyhead, roll off and straight down.
“On the way back, say if you’re coming through Belfast, I deal with the department lads there and you fill in the form, they photo-copy it, and no one’s stopping you. Occasionally they might throw their head in the door to make sure there’s hay and water for the horses but that’s it,” says Stafford.
Such ease of movement means Stafford’s horses, who may find it difficult to compete at home, still get a chance to win for their owners.
“The prize money hardly covers your expenses when you add everything up. But my owners are happy to do it at the minute,” the trainer says.
“But if this happens it will mean added expense, like blood tests before travelling, which means getting a vet out and having it sent to the equine centre to be tested. Then there’s having to spend more time away and the time horses have to spend in a lorry. It could be the end.”
If racing is the shop-window then Ireland’s breeding industry produces much of the traffic criss-crossing the Irish Sea.
Ballinroe Transport in Templemore, Co Tipperary, is one of the busiest firms involved in moving horses overseas and back. Set up in 1990, it now operates 10 horse boxes, some of which can carry up to 11 horses at a time. Some 90 per cent of its traffic goes through Britain.
Staff and trucks
"If the number of horses moving between both countries decreases we won't have the same amount of work, and that means cutting back on staff and trucks," says the firm's spokesman Patrick Keane.
“Right now we’re shipping up to 70 horses a week each way. That’s six or seven trucks. That increases as the year gets busier with sales. Some weeks we could have 15 to 20 [trucks].
“It’s mainly breeding, horses going back into training, horses being sold to race somewhere else: a lot of horses go to England to fly on to other countries like Hong Kong or Japan. On the way back then, at this time of year, we have English customers sending mares to Ireland.”
Ultimately we're all still going to wake up on March 30th, and we're going to have to find some way of ensuring we don't lose all the benefits we've taken for granted
Ballinroe’s trucks go through Holyhead, Pembroke and Fishguard. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, Holyhead will be the only route into the Republic given the only inspection post will be in Dublin.
Currently they often take the 2.40am night sailing from the Welsh port. “We like to allow time, but you could get to Holyhead at 2.10am and still get on. No paperwork needs to be done, there might be the odd spot check for something, but normally it’s straightforward: straight off in Dublin, no checks and straight out,” says Keane.
It is generally recommended horses should not travel for more than 12 hours at a time. They can get dehydrated, lose condition and travel sickness – a type of pneumonia – can become an issue during lengthy journeys.
Keane estimates a lorry takes four hours to get from the English training centre at Lambourn to Holyhead. The sea crossing takes about three hours depending on weather conditions. Any delays automatically add to time pressure.
“Horses can’t tolerate long delays and being on a truck longer than they should be is not on,” Keane says. “In the 1980s there were customs checks coming off the ferries. But there wasn’t a quarter of the freight leaving England then that there is now. It caused hours of delays back then when boats were tiny. Now they’re massive.
“You can have 250 trucks, as well as cars: how can you physically check all of them? If you’re coming off that Holyhead ferry and say two ferries land together it could take an hour to get to the Port Tunnel, and that’s without any checks.
“I’d say freight will be more of an issue than horse transport. But I worry that horses will get delayed because freight will be delayed off the ferry. And the longer horses are on a journey, the more chance they have of getting sick.
“If you add to journey time, stopping and starting, and especially when it gets really hot, that doesn’t help a horse. They get agitated, and that’s when they can freak out. No one wants to be stuck in a traffic jam. But with live animals you have to look after them.”
Like most involved in horses, Keane is keeping his fingers crossed common sense eventually wins out and an exit deal is sorted. If it is Irish racing's ruling body, Horse Racing Ireland, believes a new "High Health" protocol can replace the old tripartite agreement and little change will be necessary.
However some within the horses industry are concerned about a lack of contact from the Department of Agriculture regarding contingency arrangements if there should be a crash-out. “There’s a lot of speculation and rumours. We don’t want this to be a mess,” says Keane.
However, Horse Racing Ireland's chief executive Brian Kavanagh points out that with March 29th looming, preparations for a no-deal scenario are likely to step up and become more obvious.
Should it happen Horse Racing Ireland is working with the Department of Agriculture to try to get a fast route for livestock inspections, although a single border inspection post inevitably means a concentration of everything on Dublin Port.
“We’re working with the department so that livestock should be prioritised in a queue ahead of vehicles that contain food and foodstuffs. I think they will do that and try and alleviate any welfare concerns,” Kavanagh says.
However, Michael Grassick says: “If a horse is in a state and you take it out they could be loose around the place. They would have to have a compound somewhere, and I can’t imagine that happening.”
The uncertainty of the whole situation is that fear of delays at Dublin Port might even prompt some to journey from Britain to the Northern Ireland and then down into the Republic, with consequent questions arising about checks on the Border.
Either way, central concerns about delays, bureaucracy and cost, including tariffs, in the event of a no-deal Brexit won’t go away for the horse industry, especially since the “wave-them-through” policy issued by the UK’s department for environment, food and rural affairs last week can hardly be sustainable long-term.
“That can only be a temporary solution because ultimately any country has to protect the health of its herd. To say we’re going to let any horses in, any time, without any checks, is a dangerous thing to say unless you’ve got some sort of agreement these horses are coming from a safe background.
“But I think that can be achieved given veterinary standards are so aligned between the two countries,” says Horse Racing Ireland’s Brian Kavanagh.
He is also optimistic Ireland’s racing and breeding industries will emerge intact even in there is a no-deal Brexit.
“Ultimately we’re all still going to wake up on March 30th, and we’re going to have to find some way of ensuring we don’t lose all the benefits we’ve taken for granted for years. We have to find a way because there’s so much at stake.”
“Most of it should be common sense,” adds Keane. “If they leave it’s not going to stay as it is. But you would hope common sense could be used.”
With Brexit, however, common sense continues to look uncommon.
Statistics on the movement of thoroughbreds (2017 figures)
7,500 horses moved from Ireland to Britain;
2,500 horses moved from Britain to Ireland;
7,000 horses moved between the Republic and the North and back;
2,354 horses moved from continental Europe to Ireland through the UK;
2,780 horses moved from Ireland to continental Europe through the UK
*Figures from Horse Racing Ireland
In 2016, Ireland produced 9,381 live foals, greater on a per capita basis than any other country in the world.
Ireland is the third biggest thoroughbred breeding nation in the world. Some 60 per cent of foals are exported, and up to 80 per cent of those go to Britain.
Public and private sales by bloodstock vendors are close to €450 million per annum.
An estimated €45 million in nomination fees come from overseas breeders sending mares to Irish stallions. There are over 6,500 breeders in Ireland, with over 60 farms standing stallions.
*Figures from Economic Impact of Irish Breeding & Racing 2017