THE high summer racing festivals began in Killarney last week and will continue in Galway with a seven-day spree starting next Monday.
Along with the harvest meeting in Listowel and the magic of Punchestown in the spring, the racing festivals represent the shop window of racing for thousands of people from the high rollers to what were once known as the “bob each way” punters.
Almost 1.3m people attended 347 fixtures, which featured 2,489 races with 27,476 runners, at the country’s 26 courses last year. But the total number of horses in training was 8,612 versus 11,136 in 2010, an indication of how the downturn in the economy has affected the industry.
The thoroughbred sector supports more than 20,000 employees, facilitates annual exports of some €130m to 34 countries, with Britain remaining the largest market. It envelops tourism, boosts the rural economy, provides a social outlet for people and is worth €1.1bn to the economy every year.
While it took a hard hit during the recession with attendances and entries falling, fewer owners, a drop in horses being trained, and other issues, there are now signs of recovery. Total attendance rose 4% last year and on-course betting increased for the first time since 2007 to over €138m. Irish-bred and trained horses continued to have tremendous global success.
In a bid to improve returns to existing owners, whose numbers have dropped from 5,023 in 2010 to 3,706 last year, and attract new ones to the sport, Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) increased prize money in 2014 by 6.1% to €48.6m.
This included a rise in the minimum race value from €7,000 to €7,500. Prize money this year will increase by a further €5m, or 10% to a projected €53.9m.
In last October’s budget, the Government allocated HRI an increased allocation of €11.2m, with Agriculture Minister Simon Coveney pledging continued support.
The thoroughbred industry is spread across the country with the largest concentrations in counties Tipperary, Kildare, Cork, Wexford and Meath.
Despite signs of growth in many key areas, HRI chief executive Brian Kavanagh accepted in his year-end review for 2014 that the industry still faces the challenge of retaining and attracting racehorse owners.
“To address this, we are committed to increased prize money and reduced costs of ownership because owners are the foundation on which this industry is built,” said Mr Kavanagh.
“Our increased race values, coupled with the further reductions in administrative charges, will hopefully encourage new owners into the sport and existing owners to reinvest.
“Increasing the number of horses in training is a priority to maintain the competitiveness of Irish racing and generate increased employment in our vital rural industry.”
In 2014, the number of horses in training was down 6.4% on the previous year. But there was a rise in new owners and the number of horses racing was comparable with other regions.
In a recent analysis for the Irish Thoroughbred Industry, Alan Dukes stressed that racehorse owners, whose numbers have declined dramatically, are the key drivers of wider industry economic activity.
“Their activity supports the direct economic activity of hundreds of breeding and training operations spread throughout the country as well as supporting the indirect economic activity of the off-course betting industry,” said Mr Dukes.
“Superficially, the industry has bottomed out since the recession with annual foal production, prize money, employment and gross expenditure stabilising.
“However, there are indications that issues are developing which could threaten the industry. For instance, the value of exports is rising while the number of horses exported is falling suggesting that we are “selling the best”.
“This is the direct opposite of the decisions by founders of the modern industry to breed, train and stand the best in Ireland which first developed the industry here.”
The Dukes report, which suggested some options to secure the future of the industry, accepted that Ireland will never be the biggest producer of racehorses and mares in the world due to scale and location.
“However, with careful planning and prudent policy making, we have the unique opportunity to be the best in the world with our unmatched bloodstock, world class personnel and our excellent horse racing infrastructure,” it stated.
The report also noted that there are hundreds of rural areas that have developed through the growth of the horse racing and breeding industry. It stressed that, without these industries, there would be a much higher level of unemployment and the new businesses that have entered and grown in these areas would never have been given the opportunity.
The Association of Irish Racecourses also highlighted the industry’s importance in a submission to economic consultants, Indecon, which carried out a 2012 review for the Department of Agriculture.
“Racing and breeding are an integral part of the agriculture industry and employ thousands of people widely dispersed throughout the country, frequently in areas where there is little alternative employment. It is a strong indigenous industry ideally suited to our environment,” it stated.
Galway’s racing festival drew over 148,000 visitors last year and was worth €70m to the region. Always a barometer on the economic state of the country and the health of the racing industry, the stats from next week’s festival at Ballybrit will be closely studied to see how both are progressing in challenging times.