As racing fans flock to this week’s Listowel Races, Ray Ryan looks at the runaway success tale of Irish thoroughbred horse breeding
PICKING winners at Listowel Races, which began yesterday and continues until Saturday, will be every bit as tantalising as trying to predict the impact Brexit will have on the horseracing and breeding industries on both sides of the Irish Sea.
The economic importance of the racing and thoroughbred sectors was well reflected in the submissions recently made by various interest groups to the Seanad Special Select Committee on Brexit.
Maintaining free movement of thoroughbreds and people between Ireland, the UK and France is deemed critical to the future of the industries which makes a direct contribution to the Irish economy of €1.84bn and supports almost 29,000 jobs.
Growing concerns now being voiced about the sector’s future would surely have been shared by one of the most colourful characters to have ever visited Listowel Races.
The late great Prince Raz Monolulu was a towering man who wore bright African robes, baggy trousers, a head-dress of ostrich feathers, and a necklace reputedly made from lions’ teeth.
He was a racing tipster, who operated like a market trader, sold tipping sheets in envelopes for a small fee, used the catch phrase “I gotta a horse” and attended race meetings all over Britain and Ireland.
Monolulu claimed to be the chief of the Falasha tribe of Abyssinia, but his real name was Peter Carl Mackay, who came from the West Indies, was of Scottish descent and was estimated to have won and lost £150,000 in betting between 1919 and 1950.
He clearly enjoyed the free movement of people and horses between Ireland and Britain and one can only assume he would not be happy with any proposal in Brexit that would restrict those freedoms.
Today, there are 200 thoroughbred horse movements a week between Ireland and the UK, a lot more than when Prince Monolulu dispensed tips and wit at Listowel Races in 1959.
The Irish racing and horsebreeding industries say that they are very heavily dependent upon the UK as its main market and would be considerably exposed in the event of a hard Brexit.
Some 65% of Ireland’s annual foal crop is exported with 80% of them going to the UK. The export of thoroughbreds alone is worth €225m a year to the economy.
Irish Thoroughbreed Breeders Association chief executive Shane O’Dwyer told the Seanad Committee that Ireland is an international leader in racing and breeding.
“We continuously punch above our weight and breed the best horses in the world. Irish stallions are the best and attract many foreign mares to be covered by those stallions,” he said.
Mr O’Dwyer said at a time when other forms of rural employment are under threat from the consequences of Brexit, the maintenance and expansion of activity in the thoroughbred industry is important.
The UK is the single biggest market for Irish bloodstock and a major source of overseas revenue for Ireland. Over 10,000 horses were exported or imported between Ireland and the UK in 2016.
To a large extent, the Irish and British horseracing and breeding industries operate as one with all stakeholders ranging from horses to trainers, riders, agents, stable lads, owners as well as vets regularly travelling back and forth between both jurisdictions.
“A hard border would restrict the free movement of horses and could have an adverse effect on trade,” said Mr O’Dwyer.
“British breeders would also be more inclined to cover their mares in the UK rather than risk delays at ports due to customs procedures and veterinary requirements.”
The Alliance of Racing and Breeding, representing the associations for jockeys, trainers, stable staff, owners and breeders, also underlined the importance of the industry to the Seanad Committee.
Elizabeth Headon, spokeswoman for the Alliance, said the proximity and ease of access to racing in the UK is a key element in the achievements of Irish trainers, jockeys, stable staff, and, of course, horses.
However, the sport is really the shopwindow and the springboard for a much larger agricultural and rural industry — breeding.
Ms Headon — who is also a board member of Horse Racing Ireland — said that just over 2,500 races were run in Ireland last year, compared to 10,000 in the United Kingdom.
Ireland had nearly 29,000 runners compared to the UK’s almost 90,000.
Irish-trained horses ran 1,471 times in the UK, winning €17.5m in prize- money while 309 British- trained runners in Ireland took home €4m.
In Cheltenham this year, there were a record 19 Irish- trained winners. More than two in three races were won by an Irish-trained horse.
At Royal Ascot last year, one in three races were won by Irish-trained horses, and 63% of the winners were foaled here.
Ms Headon said anything other than the current integration and ease of movement for people and horses will have significant negative consequences for Ireland.
Horse Racing Ireland chief executive, Brian Kavanagh, welcomed the Seanad Committee’s recognition in its final report of the serious challenges facing the Irish horseracing and breeding industries.
He said it is crucial that a tripartite agreement for the free movement of thoroughbreds between Ireland, the UK, and France be maintained.
Meanwhile, the thousands of punters who will flock to this week’s Harvest Festival in Listowel, a town with a history of horse-racing going back to 1858, will as always be looking for tips. A few might even remember Prince Monolulu, who won £8,000 in a bet on Spion Kop, the 100/6 winner of the 1920 Epsom Derby.
His spirit might even tempt those worried about the potential impact of Brexit to have a flutter with one firm which is quoting odds of 3/1 on the UK applying to rejoin the EU by 2027.
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