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Track records

Horse racing

POLICING the racing game is not an easy task and, as Senior Turf Club Steward Pierce Molony tells Declan Colley, the business is not simply about racing horses.

PIERCE MOLONY is the man entrusted with ensuring the integrity of Irish racing. As the Senior Steward of the Irish Turf Club, he has responsibility for everything from the redevelopment of the Curragh to the on-track behaviour of jockeys.

His has the ultimate multi-faceted job, for which few plaudits are dished out. However, for a man whose life has been immersed in the sport he has loved since childhood, that's irrelevant. It is the wellbeing of the sport that is important.

Racing, the quietly spoken fifty-something admits, is an "immensely complicated" sport and he credits his knowledge of it to having been Racecourse Association chairman for seven years before becoming a Steward of the Turf Club or a member of Horse Racing Ireland, the two most important organisations in racing in Ireland.

"When you're active in the world of racing on the racecourse, you see it from every angle," he says. "You're working to try and satisfy the Turf Club with regard to the integrity of racing - everything from ground conditions up. You're working to see the public is entirely satisfied. You're in negotiations with bookmakers, you're dealing with the Tote, liquor licences, health licences and a myriad of other things to do with jockeys, trainers, weighroom staff and so on.

"On top of that, I am an owner, breeder and I was a permit holder, so I think I've a broad line on the whole thing.

"During my time there I also enjoyed very much negotiating the rights for audio and visual material with SIS and such like, and during that time we saw racing from Ireland moving very much on to the international stage and it is marvellous to have seen it come so far.

"I mean, now you can - with a mobile phone - view an Irish or an English race from anywhere."

Despite all this commercialism, that frenetic activity from a myriad of people, or even all the technology, racing is an entertainment function, pure and simple. One of the most often asked questions of the Senior Steward concerns the most important person involved in racing.

For him the answer is simple.

"To me it is the punter," he says.

"The punter is the one who generates the revenue stream and it is from that stream that everything else flows: prize money, racecourse development, the desire for breeders to produce the right horses and the desire of people to have horses in training."

One of the most pressing issues on his mind involves the interaction between the punter, technology and racing - and the returns racing can generate from that relationship. For some time, racing has been trying to extract what it considers its due rights from racing's newest toy, the betting exchanges. It has been a frustrating time for the Turf Club and the issue has not yet been resolved, but Molony is a patient man.

"Everything comes from the punter and I suppose that's what makes the emergence of betting exchanges internationally so concerning, because it is a good product, it's a product that's desired by the public, but it is a product which works on an extraordinarily low margin. If that margin is interfered with then it has an enormous effect on the profitability of the betting exchange in question.

"So unless you have huge turnover it doesn't work, which means a few operators are going to succeed and the rest will fail. We don't have legislation in Ireland - or Britain - which outlaws exchanges and that makes it difficult to look to the future.

"The tax on on-course betting is so small and the tax on off-course betting is so low, and now betting exchanges are starting to compete with them. So it is a problem for the industry and we in the Turf Club are always conscious of the need to have prosperity in racing - for owners, trainers and racecourses.

"We also are conscious Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) has to be properly funded and is getting its fair play from those making money out of the industry, so it can re-invest and make our section of the industry - the integrity section and the critical section of it - adequately funded."

The advent of betting exchanges has given industry critics ammunition to fuel allegations of race-fixing and chicanery, but Molony thinks otherwise, because the exchanges themselves are easy to police.

"Everyone who is betting is recording who they are, they are different to those who go to a racecourse or a bookie's shop for a bet. Everything is traceable - the phone call, the person who made it and the account it was charged to. So there is a lot of information that assists integrity. That is very positive for integrity.

"I hope the public perceive high-profile investigations into suspicious betting trends as the authorities attempting to be in control. I would like to think we are regulating our business as best we can and not being absent-minded to the human deficiencies."

THE REDEVELOPMENT of the Curragh, widely regarded as being one of the finest stretches of racecourse acreage in the world, is something which has been playing on Molony's mind since the Aga Khan, recognising the desperate need for something to be done with the existing facilities, bought the Stand House Hotel and handed it over to the Turf Club as a present.

The hotel was regarded as central to any potential development and neither the Turf Club nor anyone else interested in redeveloping Ireland's premier track had the wherewithal to take it over and kick-start the process. The Aga Khan's munificence changed all that.

On September 1, 2004, the Turf Club took control of the Stand House and the running of it, but since then the Turf Club has concentrated on developing a 'grand plan' for the Curragh and last week Molony announced a e100m redevelopment of the facilities at the track.

It is hoped there will be no disruption to racing when work begins in April, although that depends on a number of things, not least of which is the planning process. The first phase of the plan includes a spectacular grandstand incorporating a 900-seater panoramic dining area which will be completed in time for next year's Irish Derby, while the racecourse capacity will increase to 50,000 over time.

The new grandstand will be sited 42 metres from the track to provide a large sloping area to enhance viewing.

However, pulling the redevelopment together, Molony confesses, has been a little fraught, with one problem being the closure of one road and the establishment of a new one. The road in question separates the main grandstand at the Curragh from the Stand House and the plan is to relocate it around the back of the hotel, so the hotel property could be integrated into the racecourse redevelopment.

Like many planning issues in Ireland, this was easier said than done. It may not have seemed like a big deal, but as the Senior Steward confirms, it was a "huge deal" because where the public have rights over a given area, the issue has a different set of parameters.

As a property developer, Molony knows the many pitfalls a project of this nature could throw up, but his experiences showed him the most important part of the work is done before a shovel is used.

"What is not a big deal is actually building the stand. The big deal in a successful development is the work you do before you start. You make sure the 'i's are dotted and the 't's crossed and succeeded in satisfying the various authorities - starting with the planning authorities - and in this instance, that process is exacerbated by the closure of a road and the moving of a road.

"The road, therefore, became the most challenging thing about the project, so when it is complete the real work is still to begin. To me it's a jigsaw after that."

Given all that, how was it that the likes of neighbours such as trainers Dermot Weld, Michael Halford and Michael Grassick initially protested the planning permission? Molony is sanguine in his response.

"I think reasonable proper discussions had to take place. However, most people decided to see if the council had a problem with this first. I think an element of play went on to see if the planners were going to be agreeable."

An Bord Pleanála rubber-stamped the development in January and the plans are now on track for the work to begin.

On the whole, Molony says he is delighted by the "enormous goodwill" for the Curragh development from the community, the local authority and the Government, and he reckons that to progress such a project while only raising minimal objections was "not a bad strike rate".

The Turf Club has increasingly involved itself - and the Senior Steward credits chief executive Denis Egan for much of this work - in the health and wellbeing of those who partake in racing, particularly jockeys, who are in the front line when something goes wrong.

A study commissioned from the National Coaching and Training Centre's Dr Giles Warrington on the body weights of jockeys last year astounded many observers and, according to Molony, it is one of the most important pieces of research in racing in recent years.

"It is very important to recognise the human being is changing; people are taller and that brings added weight with it. We are moving with the times and it is a case of the Turf Club seeing what is a serious subject, and one from which other countries are benefiting from Irish research."

That research has shown change is needed in the way jockeys treat their bodies, and the Turf Club are getting serious about initiating education programmes for younger riders.

"The health and safety of everyone is paramount and that's what we're working towards," he said.

Elsewhere, the announcement last year that HRI had to take over the financially troubled Fairyhouse track in Meath is not necessarily Turf Club business, but Molony knows its survival as a racetrack is more important than anything else.

"I was not disappointed HRI had to move in, at least because it means it continues as a racecourse. The people there did their level best to put a hotel development on the site and you need a lot of luck with these things. But I have no doubt Fairyhouse will prosper in the years ahead."

One live issue for the Irish racing and breeding industry was the announcement in the last budget that certain tax benefits for stallion income have gone by the board. However, Molony is not unduly troubled.

"The Government has found itself in an unusual position in that this is not their decision - it is a European decision. The Breeders' Associations, not just in Ireland but in Europe, are aware of the implications and the Government are looking at it, and hopefully they will come up with some form of solution that does not have a major effect on the country at large.

"But I would have thought Ireland as a country is so instinctively good at breeding horses - between the land and the quality of the people - and some farms have put Ireland on the international map, that we will continue to be the number one."

There is an astounding number of horses in training in Ireland now, and he thinks the balloting of horses out of races is reaching a critical point.

"It getting worse and it is not as if the authorities aren't doing their best to try to do something about it. With Irish and European law the way they are, it is difficult to find a solution. Hopefully we will see an improvement, but it is urgently needed."