Irish Examiner view: Racing faces unavoidable challenges

Irish Examiner view: Racing faces unavoidable challenges

Horse racing should learn from mistakes made in the greyhound industry.

Not too many of our pillar institutions enjoyed their arrival in the modern world. Today's intrusions and ever-higher expectations, often unwelcomed by stiff, dusty, shibboleths, toppled more than one stately apple cart. 

Old habits, so long unchallengeable, were scrutinised in ways that sounded organisations' death knells. 

In some cases, these intrusions led to a review of State supports once imagined permanent by their recipients. Change was introduced through that most effective medium —  leveraging public funding.

That elements of the Catholic hierarch have declared their intention to defy public health measures around containing the pandemic is a live example of how the past and today collide. That our participation in the Tokyo Olympics has not been overshadowed by a ticketing scandal —  or any other scandal either — as the last games were is another. A litany of public inquiries confirms that organisations as diverse as An Garda Síochana, the banks, and the country's meat processors, and more than one sports organisation, had embraced a culture out of step with the day's mores. 

The pattern of these events is reliable. Allegations are made and initially refuted but the allegations persist to the point that one kind of an inquiry, criminal or otherwise, becomes unavoidable. 

Very often the messenger is subject to unrelenting attack — as was the case in the all-but-forgotten Beef  Tribunal when, amazingly, the only person charged with a crime was the journalist Susan O'Keeffe.

That offensive defence was brought into play a little over two years ago when an RTÉ investigation exposed the dark underbelly of the greyhound industry. Already struggling to hold a place in an increasingly incomprehending world, the industry responded initially by dismissing the allegations but that stonewalling was unsustainable. That reality is underlined by the qualified nature of remarks today from Agriculture Minister Charlie McConalogue. His warning is unambiguous: "I've made the funding conditional as well on ensuring that welfare measures are enhanced and the welfare programme which the greyhound board have adopted is followed through on." 

That €16m funding, for what is increasingly very much a minority interest, may be the lever used to secure a future for the industry, but the challenge of doing that should not be underestimated by those responsible for its increasingly uncertain prospects. Change or become part of history is the message. 

That message should not be ignored by the horse racing industry either. Just as the greyhound sector was forced to mend its ways by good journalism the horse racing industry's many woes were exacerbated by a recent BBC documentary exposing situations every bit as grim as those faced by unwanted greyhounds. 

That industry, worth an estimated €1bn a year to our economy and the source of around 14,000 jobs, was subsidised directly to the tune of  €76.8m this year. It is likely that if the industry's tax experts and accountants are worth their hay, the real figure is a multiple of that. Yet, the industry seems unable to join the regulatory dots in a way that might secure its future.

A case of the wrong horse running and winning a race at the Galway festival is the latest example. Gordon Elliot's travails were another, but the persistent, and as yet not convincingly refuted allegations of systematic doping are the greatest threat.

Just as Fine Gael should learn from Fianna Fáil's difficulties, horse racing should learn from the greyhound industry if it is to avoid a similar fate, fading away on the margins of society and sport. 

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