Minister for Agriculture Simon Coveney has described the Government's recent budget increase to Irish horse racing as an investment, and says he is aiming for a return to the days of the industry being responsible for up to 20,000 jobs.
Racing was given an increase from €43 million to €54.5 million in the Horse and Greyhound Fund in the last budget, with pledges for further increases over the following two years on the back of predicted increased tax revenue under new betting legislation which is being predicted for early 2015.
The provision of such funds for racing and not other sports has received some criticism, but Minister Coveney defended the funding at Horse Racing Ireland's 2014 Awards and said the racing industry is worth over a billion euro a year to Ireland and provides employment to more than 15,000 people.
“This is an investment as far as I’m concerned. I’m not trying to be popular with horse racing,” he said at Leopardstown. “There are over 15,000 people employed in racing and I believe we should be aiming for 20,000, which is the level it was at during the so-called good times 10 years ago.”
At the awards, Coveney presented the connections of the star sprinter Sole Power with Horse of the Year honours, beating the dual-Derby winner Australia, the Champion Hurdle hero Jezki and the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Lord Windermere, as well as another Eddie Lynam-trained sprinter Slade Power, who also races in the colours Sabena Power.
The award was accepted by Mrs Power’s sons, Willie and Paddy, as well as Lynam who later left to fly to Hong Kong where Sole Power runs on Sunday morning in the International Sprint, a race which also includes Gordon Lord Byron, whose trainer, Tom Hogan, picked up the Outstanding Achievement prize.
“The horse lost a bit more weight flying out there than I would like but trainers are good at making excuses,” Lynam said of Sole Power.
“He was second in the race last year and has never won at the distance, but 10-1 makes him an each-way bet. He has a chance.”
Lynam also picked up the Flat award for his training of both Sole Power and Slade Power, as well as the high-class juvenile fillies, Anthem Alexander and Agnes Stewart, while Willie Mullins secured the National Hunt prize.
Asked what ambitions he has remaining in the sport, Mullins replied: “I think I’ve been second four times in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and that is one I would like to win.”
Also asked to nominate a likely winner for the upcoming holiday action, the champion trainer opted for the Champion Hurdle favourite Faugheen, who he said will appear next in Kempton’s Christmas Hurdle.
HRI’s chairman Joe Keeling stressed that fighting the threat to racing from doping was a top priority and said increased Government funding is crucial for plans by the sport’s ruling body to reenergise a capital development programme, with special emphasis on giving the Curragh a dramatic face-lift.
Mr Coveney also pointed to the redevelopment of the Curragh as a priority, describing proposed work as “essential for Irish racing’s flagship course,” while the Minister again expressed a need for the sport’s governance structure to become more modernised and transparent.
The Contribution to the Industry award was given to former trainer Mick O’Toole, a Classic winner on the Flat and famously winner of the 1977 Cheltenham Gold Cup with Davy Lad.
“You hear Willie Mullins say his ambition is to win the Gold Cup, so I have to be very proud to have won it,” said O’Toole.
Horse of the Year: Sole Power
National Hunt award: Willie Mullins
Flat award: Eddie Lynam
Contribution to Industry: Mick O’Toole
Outstanding Achievement: Tom Hogan
Point-to-point award: Jamie Codd
Racecourse of the Year: Leopardstown