In the week when the UK started to negotiate its departure from the EU, horse racing is an interesting if unusual place to study the ramifications of Brexit.
The second biggest spectator sport in the UK, which gave it the tag of “the sport of kings”, horse racing would be transformed for the worse by a hard Brexit.
Alongside the dislocation of this great British sport, in a worst case scenario, catastrophic damage is feared to the Irish racing and breeding industry, which is worth an estimated €1 billion per year.
Horse Racing Ireland Chief Executive Brian Kavanagh recently explained how the horse racing industries in Ireland and the UK are joined at the hip, and border controls and checkpoints would end the free movement of racehorses secured between Ireland, Britain and France since the early 1970s in a tripartite agreement between the three ministries of agriculture.
The politicians of the EU and the UK might eventually be able to hammer out a hard Brexit negotiation, but the thoroughbred racehorse, a highly sensitive animal, would not be able to cut it.
Horses are not commodities like agriculture produce, and cannot wait at ports or borders, said Kavanagh.
There are an estimated 10,000 horse movements between Britain and Ireland each year. Britain relies heavily on Ireland to supply the racehorses for its racing industry. But animals stuck in horse boxes in queues at ports could not perform to their maximum potential on the racetrack. So Ireland would lose its shop window at Cheltenham, Aintree, Epsom or Royal Ascot. And these great sporting occasions cannot be replicated in another country. “When it comes to exporting our racehorses, especially those destined for the jump racing market, there is no replacement market for Britain. Unlike many other Brexit-hit sectors, we simply cannot adapt our product to suit new markets,” said Kavanagh.
British racing would suffer from the lack of competition (in Cheltenham this year, there were a record 19 Irish-trained winners, and at Royal Ascot last year, one in three races were won by Irish-trained horses.). However, Ireland’s loss would be greater, with a hard Brexit likely to remove much of the incentive to owners to keep horses in Ireland to be trained or bred.
The Downpatrick and Down Royal racecourses in Northern Ireland could lose the nine out of ten horses racing at these tracks which are trained in the Republic of Ireland. But, in the event of a hard Brexit, the UK might have to leave the racing industry in Northern Ireland continue as is, to be run on a 32-county basis. According to Horse Racing Ireland, Northern Ireland’s racing, breeding and racecourse authorities want to keep the status quo of full alignment with the Republic.
Thoroughbred racehorses cannot be expected to deal well with border hold-ups, when travelling from Ireland and France to the UK. They are also blissfully unaware of the WTO tariffs which would apply to trading them back and forth after a hard Brexit.
About half of Ireland’s thoroughbreds are exported to the UK. Unfortunately many of them are male horses for the jumps racehorse market in Britain, which means they have been converted from colts to geldings by a snip of the veterinary surgeon’s knife.
Doubly unfortunately, the snip means they can no longer be considered as animals for breeding, which instantly renders them liable to a WTO tariff, likely to make their export to the UK unviable after a hard Brexit.
For the large portion of our annual €220 million thoroughbred exports which is destined for flat racing, it is some comfort for the bloodstock sector that a WTO tariff would not be added to the export price.
In any case, Irish horses bred for flat racing have a good chance of selling on international markets, if the UK becomes less attractive after a hard Brexit. But almost 50% of our production of thoroughbred horses is for jumps racing, a hugely popular sport, but generally confined to Britain, Ireland and France.
Popular though it may be, it is a sport at the mercy of Brexit, and all bets are off for the estimated 14,000 employed in Ireland’s horse racing industry, until the Brexit outcome becomes clear.