“This a challenging and perilous time for the racing industry in Ireland,” recently appointed Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) chairman Nicholas Hartery warned yesterday as he answered questions from the joint committee on Agriculture, Food, and the Marine.
Hartery, who was appointed to his new role in late May, identified Brexit as the single biggest issue facing the industry and said his approach to the challenge was to prepare for a doomsday scenario.
“My process around Brexit is to prepare for the worst,” he said. “It’s one of the biggest and most pressing challenges facing the Irish industry in breeding.
"The ability to move horses between the three big nations is really important, with France Galop, with the UK, and with ourselves here in Ireland.
“Between the three individual groups, the departments of agriculture of each three countries, there is a high health care standard that’s been developed and that was actually sent to Brussels last Thursday. That has united support across Europe. That is so horses can move freely within Europe.
“That part is being done but what then has to be complete, which is not complete at this point, is how you move and, I’ll use an airline term here, with priority boarding so that when you come to a port a horse is not delayed for a number of hours but it moves through on priority.
"That part of the logistics has to be completed and that will get done. They’re the two critical items that are there. And that’s assuming a hard Brexit.”
In his initial address to the committee, Hartery pointed out: “Horse racing is run on an all-ireland basis in Ireland and 80% of our bloodstock exports are to Britain.”
He added: “HRI are putting the final touches to an ambitious strategic plan for 2019-2023 and the extra investment we’re proposing will protect our current position, allow the industry to grow, and will enhance the return to the exchequer and the local economy all over the country.
"This strategic plan will address the various challenges faced by our industry.”
Hartery said it was “truly an honour to serve as chairman of HRI” and outlined what his approach to the role will be.
Hartery also touched on a range of other issues. Referring to the Curragh redevelopment, he said: “It looks to me like we are on course and my assumption is we are on budget, or close to it.”
Leopardstown, last redeveloped in the early 70s, should be next big project, Hartery said as “it’s probably time for it now to get a refresh”.
An investment in the Irish Equine Centre in Johnstown is also on Hartery’s wishlist “because to have an industry like our industry and to be a leader in global market, I think we need to have the capabilities for drug testing and everything that goes with that”.
While pointing out attendances “are back to where they were pre-recession, about 1.3m on an annual basis” Hartery conceded getting people through the turnstiles for the non-festival meetings at the less glamourous tracks is a challenge.
Concerns over the dominance of a small handful of owners and trainers were raised by the committee.
In reply, Hartery said what seems permanent today can be history tomorrow.
“On a weekly basis, when the field comes out, you’ll see the top sires, the top trainers and I was reflecting the other day that of the top 10 there’s probably only three that were there five to seven years ago. There’s seven different trainers.
“You’re going to have that movement every five to 10 years, there’s quite a number of new young trainers in Ireland that are coming through and you’ll get a changing of the guard with time.
"What that does, like all industries, is it puts pressure on people to perform better and I think that can be a good thing. You will see changes come, that’s just the dynamics of the industry.”
Interesting times lie ahead.