Jumping at chance for closer ties

On his visit to Britain, President Higgins will highlight the role of horses in the shared bond that has survived wars, social change and economic upheaval between the countries, reports Ray Ryan.

Horses have been a common link between Ireland and Britain for centuries.

That shared bond has survived wars and famine, social changes and economic upheaval.

The bond will be highlighted during this week’s state visit to Britain by President Michael D Higgins, just as it was when Queen Elizabeth II came to Ireland.

The President and his wife Sabina will travel tomorrow in a horse-drawn carriage to Windsor Castle, where they will be guests of the queen.

The queen is primarily interested in Flat racing and has enjoyed a lot of success as an owner. In contrast, her late mother was a patron of Jump racing — she almost won the Aintree Grand National in 1956 with an Irish horse, Devon Loch.

Bred in Newtownshandrum, Co Cork, by Willie Moloney, the horse flopped under jockey Dick Francis 40 yards from the winning post with the race at his mercy.

It remains one of the great mysteries of steeplechase racing, which Ireland gave to the world in 1752. That happened when horsemen Blake and O’Callaghan galloped across country from Buttevant to Doneraile churches in north Cork to settle a bet.

Today, 98% of the beautiful black horses in the Queen’s Household Cavalry are sourced in Ireland and are of Irish Draught stock. Some 550 foals were registered in the breed’s studbook in Ireland last year.

Irish bloodstock breeding and training is nationally important in terms of jobs — especially in rural areas — equestrian tourism and exports. Some 14,000 are employed in the thoroughbred sector, worth an estimated €1.1bn a year to the economy.

Ireland is the biggest producer of thoroughbred foals in Europe — a total of 7,757 were registered last year — and is the fourth largest in the world.

Irish-bred horses, valued at over €205m, were exported to 37 countries in 2013. Most of them went to Britain, where Irish people work in racing yards and studs up and down the country.

On the racetracks, Irish-trained horses won over €20m in Britain and overseas while Irish-bred horses captured nine out of the 10 Classic Races in Britain and Ireland. Three of the first four horses past the post in the 2013 Melbourne Cup were all foaled in Ireland. The previous year the first seven finishers were foaled here.

At Royal Ascot in 2013, there were a record equalling eight Irish-trained winners while the first five finishers in the Aintree Grand National were bred in Ireland.

Irish-bred horses won 16 of the 27 races at the recent Cheltenham festival, while 12 Irish-trained winners earned more than €1.9m in prize money. There were 18 Irish winning Jockeys. Racing remains a big part of Irish life. Almost 9,200 horses were in training last year. Some 1.2m people attended 349 meetings at 26 tracks.

Nearly 6,000 breeders, almost 4,000 owners, 3,181 stable staff, 669 trainers and 619 riders are involved in the industry.

Racing suffered in the recession with a drop in attendances, betting, ownership and funding. But there are signs of recovery.

Bloodstock sales turnover in the thoroughbred sector was up 43% to €133.4m in 2013.

Meanwhile, the Sport Horse sector, embracing show jumping, dressage and other disciplines, contributes over €708m per year to the economy.

It supports 12,500 full-time jobs and over 29,000 people earn some or all of their income from the sector which had 124,000 horses and 15,110 active breeders in 2012.

Exports in 2011 amounted to €26m, with Britain a major market. Over 47,000 people are estimated to be involved in the industry.

Queen Elizabeth II made private visits to Coolmore (Tipperary) and Giltown (Kildare) studs when she was here in 2011.

She also made an official visit to the Irish National Stud at Tully, Co Kildare, to see for herself where the winners of five English Classics for her family were produced.

It is accordingly significant that President and Mrs Higgins will visit Park House Stables of Andrew and Anna-Lisa Balding at Kingsclere in Newbury on Thursday. Andrew Balding and his sister Clare, the broadcaster, are grandchildren of trainer Gerald Balding, a close friend of Vincent O’Brien.

When he first went to the Cheltenham Festival over 66 years ago, O’Brien stabled his runners with Gerald Balding, yet another example of how horses have fostered Anglo-Irish friendships.

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