Ruby Walsh: Two countries — two very different ways of doing business

We have been two nations divided for many years but when it comes to horse racing, we have always needed each other
Ruby Walsh: Two countries — two very different ways of doing business

A general view of the runners and riders in action as they compete in the McCoy Contractors County Handicap Hurdle during day four of the Cheltenham Festival. It was a meeting dominated by the Irish. Ruby Walsh examines the difference in approach taken by the British - and how they can close the gap. Picture: Alan Crowhurst

One week on from the domination of the Irish-based and, let’s be honest, Irish-born people at the Cheltenham Festival, the debate or inquest into how the British performed so poorly still lingers on.

All sorts of theories and reasons have been put forward but there is no simple answer or fix as the tide has turned and the wind been blowing in a westerly direction across the Irish Sea for a quite a while.

The program here and the minimum prize-money levels are obviously a big factor but are they the single biggest factor? Probably, but that’s not a definite and if they are, it’s a much bigger problem than many of us can do anything about because the core structures of how two nations fund their sports are the absolute polar opposites.

In layman’s terms, the UK model is based on gambling turnover to generate enough income in the betting levy to fund the majority of its prize money. Add in media rights deals, which are also linked to the off-course betting shops, and then gate receipts which are linked to on-course betting turnover and you quickly realise how dependant the British model is on bookmakers to finance itself.

Bookmakers want competitive races, whatever the grade, because people are far more willing to bet on a 4/1 favourite than 1/4 favourite. So, field size matters and if your model is based upon turnover, you need competition. Therefore, the majority of weekend feature races in the UK have a bigger prize fund for handicaps than graded races.

The encouragement is to run novices in handicaps because the better novice races have such poor prize money. That’s a double-edged sword because novices are having harder races to win the handicaps and the handicappers can’t beat the majority of unexposed novices. The only winners are the racecourses and the short-term finances of the sport.

The Irish model has a substantial government buffer for prize money, so media rights deals are used to maintain racecourse finances rather than prize money levels. Hence the ease with which HRI can afford to have small runner races for the better horses to compete in, which do not adversely affect the finances of the sport by generating less turnover.

The vast majority of media rights money comes from the bookmakers’ contribution, so HRI and all the Irish racecourses do need them and, in fact, rely upon them. However, the deals on both sides of the sea are very different because the Irish deal is not runner incentivised.

Leaving the commercial studs aside, owners invest in racehorses to have winners and everyone’s dream is to own a champion. But, owning National Hunt racehorses and the vast majority of Flat ones is a loss-making hobby, so decent prize money is basically used to cover the running costs of a race horse.

The feeling of owning a winner is a great buzz but it will wear off quicker than it should if, by the end of that month, your winnings don’t at least cover the training costs and you find yourself putting your hand back into your pocket to pay the bills.

Essentially, the majority of prize money paid out will end up back within the sport, used to pay bills here, there and everywhere and, ultimately, make its way back to its original source. But plenty of that supply chain relies not just on the investment of people buying horses to stay here but also on those being exported to race in the UK.

The health and strength of the British market is vital to National Hunt racing because basically it is a sport played at a high level in only three countries. Others partake but not at the same standard, so this domination requires a response for the health of the sport.

We have been two nations divided for many years but when it comes to horse racing, we have always needed each other. How the UK restructures itself is a massive issue and goes back 17 or 18 years to when the then BHB lost the fixtures battle with the RCA.

When the Racecourse Association won that battle over who owned the fixtures in the UK, it began the slow dilution of UK racing. A cake can only be sliced a certain number of ways and, whilst the tracks continue to have multiple meetings on the same day, in competition with each other and at times whereby the individual races clash, they have no chance of maximising their potential to generate the income they need to support the owners they require to have racing at all.

Their model relies on punters, but there are only so many of them. So, having races coming at people every four minutes on busy Saturdays is costing the UK racecourses a small fortune. Consideration also needs to be given to the Irish fixture list when the UK authorities are making theirs.

This is one sport, run by different bodies but appealing to the same fan base, and how it performs is heavily dependent upon how and when it is staged.

There are seven days in the week and plenty of reasonable hours with daylight, so why an even spread cannot be organised for the greater good mystifies me.

It has been a slow decline for UK, but it cannot be irreversible. The lesson for us to learn from all of that is to be grateful we, here in Ireland, have one organisation in charge, steering the ship for an entire industry: HRI.

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