Job losses a racing certainty

THE chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland has warned hundreds of jobs are under threat and that racecourses may close if government funding for the industry is slashed in the December budget.

Brian Kavanagh said support for his organisation has been “cut twice and is at breaking point.”

He said that over 16,500 people are employed directly or indirectly in the many facets of Irish horse racing and argued that withdrawal of financial backing for the industry would have massive repercussions in rural areas where the majority of the workforce is based.

The HRI chief said: “It is a difficult time for all business. Horse racing is somewhat unique in that it is a sport and also a very significant industry.

“Ironically, from a sporting perspective, despite the recessionary backdrop, we have enjoyed incredible success on the track, especially on the flat with the exploits of Jim Bolger, Aidan O’Brien and John Oxx.

“Though there was some pessimism on the national hunt side last season, Irish horses swept the boards at Cheltenham this season, especially in the novice races.”

But he warned: “On the business side, things are tough. Racecourses are trying to be innovative, they are working hard at getting people to go racing and getting them to spend. There is a huge tightening of purse strings.”

Kavanagh has stressed to government officials, that the day-to-day horse meetings are the public face of a multi million euroindustry which is vital to rural Ireland.

“We have to look at the broader picture, the industry. In the current economic difficulties, horses aretypical of the type of business that we as a country need to develop.

“These are the type of home grown success stories that will lead us out of the recession. This is an indigenous Irish industry which is worth €200m a year in exports.

“About 16,500 jobs, most of them based in rural Ireland, are directly or indirectly dependent on this sector. This is the type of industry which needs to be developed, not cut.

“People think of racing, and might think of wealthy people. But that is overlooking the amount of people making their living from the sport. There are not many industries employing people around the regional areas in the way horse racing does.

“Look at Coolmore, it provides huge employment like a industrial factory would in another area.

“The government need to be wary about throwing the baby out with the bath water. Overall I would remain positive.

The chief challenge comes a few weeks away with Finance Minister Brian Lenihan expecting to produce one of the most draconian budgets in decades. Kavanagh admits to being anxious about what is contained in the document: “Everyone is anxious about the budget. It is impossible to plan for the future without long term support in place. Over the last while we have had monies cut twice and the point has been reached that it cannot be cut any further.”

Critics of HRI will highlight the fact that the Horse and Greyhound Racing Fund has provided huge cash injections for almost a decade. However the Board Snip group has recommended major cuts to the fund which generated €68m for the two industries this year. The financial largesse to the sectors has been questioned however Kavanagh is quick to produce a counter argument.

“For a relatively small investment the government is getting a return of hundreds of millions from employment, taxes and the positive international image it creates.

“The lifeblood is a secure source of funding. My fear is that we will move back from world leader in terms of bloodstock and breeding to also-rans without such funding.

“You will see racecourses closing, employment being lost. It will be very counter productive. There is a point where cuts become counter-productive. You only have to look at situation ten to 15 years ago before proper funding and where we are now, to discover how important that funding has been to the industry.

“There was the major brainstorming conference in Farmleigh a few weeks ago in an effort to develop ideas to get the economy back on track. I think that if someone came up with an idea of a rural based green industry which would provide 16,500 jobs and be worth €200m in export revenue it would have been an Eureka moment.”

Kavanagh recalled that in the last economic crisis of the eighties, the best horses and jockeys were forced abroad.

“If we can’t keep prize money up, horses will go abroad, we are already seeing competitive pressure from France in this regard. Horses and jockeys are one thing but some of the major operators in terms of breeding going abroad would be quite another.”

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