Since 2008 racing has suffered a loss of momentum with registered owners down by 50%. One solution could be to introduce a fairly radical alternative to the way some races are framed, writes Colm Greaves
Something bothered Richard McCormick as he wandered through the barns at Churchill Downs racecourse last autumn
It shouldn’t have really, because more than most he is keenly aware that Irish horsemen and women have been colonising training centres around the world for centuries, many of them a lot more remote and primitive than Churchill Downs.
But hearing all those accents from back home that day, just so damn many of them, came as a jabbing reminder that a couple of hundred thousand such voices had run from home during the lean years after the banks and the builders raised the white flag. A duty of care stirred in him, a concern for his dislocated young compatriots.
He wondered if there was anything he could do to return a little bit of Kentucky back home to Kanturk or Kilkenny, or at least help slow the flow of more young accents from Ireland to other far flung training centres. He had an idea.
If somebody wounded Richard McCormick the cut would ooze horse blood. A son of the renowned trainer, Dick, he took over the training licence after his father’s untimely death and trained several winners before heading up from home to the excitement of UCD and Vet school in 1963. All of this by the ripe old age of sixteen.
In the decades that followed his career has alternated between training racehorses, (Charlie Haughey was an early patron) veterinary science, managing stud farms and animal food science. The one constancy has been his relentlessly passionate advocacy for the development of the sport he loves.
McCormick’s idea, in which he has an almost evangelical faith, seeks to help reverse the loss of momentum racing has suffered in recent years and is based on his experiences of American racing when he too was a young emigrant. Here’s the ‘nutshell’ version.
Problem statement: The future health of horse racing and its position as one of our greatest indigenous industrial treasures has been severely disrupted by the economic turbulence of the recession. The numbers tell the story. Since 2008 participation ownership has contracted by half, from over 6,000 registered owners to less than 3,000. In the equivalent timeframe the number of horses in training reduced by 30%, mares at stud by 34% and the number of foals born by a quarter. And on and on it goes.
This flight from ownership has negatively cascaded through the whole industry, impacted direct and indirect employment, spending in the rural economy, capital investments, racecourse profitability and both tax and excise returns to the state.
Now, with some green shoots of recovery beginning to grow the State is again in a position to increase funding to racing and an exchequer transfer of €60 million is 9% up on last year. Normalised as a contribution by race, the taxpayer will ante up €24,000 per contest. In short, as the rising tide begins to float some boats again, additional tax payer money is being distributed among fewer recipients with a continuing tendency for a centralisation of prizemoney among a diminishing sub set of hyper-successful owners and trainers.
This is the trend McCormick and his supporters are trying to dilute. Their objective is to convince HRI to implement a fairly radical alteration to the way some races are framed — specifically an increase in the quantity of owner friendly ‘claiming races,’ which in other jurisdictions have proven to be a more transparent, egalitarian, lower cost and convenient route into racehorse ownership.
“The claimer concept exists in many forms,” says McCormick, “and there is a huge number of them in places such as France and Canada, but perhaps the simplest being the American model where at some tracks 70% of all races are claimers. It is the system that allowed one of the greatest trainers in history, Bobby Frankel, get on the ladder to success.”
From his humble beginnings training cheap horses for claimers on the back straight of Hollywood Park, Frankel went on to train almost 4,000, including hundreds of graded races.
The intent behind claimers is to provide competitive and interesting races while simultaneously creating an instant and transparent market place where sellers and buyers can transact inexpensively. For instance, an owner wants to sell her horse, but the cost of entry to horses in training sales is prohibitively high relative to the value of her animal. So she enters her horse in a claiming race, with a stipulated purchase price and racing weights are allocated according to the value determined by the connections. Higher price, more weight. Independent of the formal handicapping system, these type of races overseas tend to be well supported with runners and create lively betting markets. Then if there is a post-race bid at the nominated value, any of horses can be mandatorily ‘claimed’ or in other words, sold.
It’s a win too for any buyer who wants to own an inexpensive horse, but can’t risk the outlay and long term cost drain associated with the 50% chance of a track appearance associated with buying a foal or yearling. So he studies the race, makes a judgement on the value of the one he may like to buy and waits.
The race is run, the current owner of the winner pockets the prize money, a claim is made and ownership changes. The seller has capital to reinvest, the new owner has a horse that’s already in training and ready to run. Most importantly, liquidity has been created at the bottom end of a market that tends to be sluggish.
There are only about a dozen such claiming races in Ireland every year and the campaigners want to increase this on a pilot basis to at least one hundred, or about 4% of all races. “It is a great way for owners to learn about the nuances of racing through claimers,” says McCormick. “Once they learn then they can trade up. Then for smaller trainers it gives them an opportunity to show themselves without always having to compete against the bigger stables or more expensive horses. This is hard to do under present conditions when so few of our races are claimers.”
His first initiative was to generate and circulate a petition among a small but deeply representative selection of trainers, bloodstock agents, bookmakers and breeders. The response was positive, especially among a cohort of non-elite trainers. The petition was delivered to Jason Morris, HRI Director of Racing last month by McCormick and two of his colleagues, bloodstock agent Peter Doyle and long term owner Raymond Keogh. They left with a promise that their proposal would be reviewed with an open mind. So winner alight then? Well, no, not yet anyway.
Racing is still heavily laden with the structures implemented by the Princes, Dukes and Earls who developed the sport three centuries ago, structures that have evolved to turn on the arc of an oil tanker, not a speedboat. The last thing on their Lordship’s minds was egalitarianism, transparency and access and easy access to ownership for the masses.
Whilst the present administrators of racing in Ireland are always keen to adapt new ideas, there is inevitably some caution around such a fundamental change. Jason Morris indicates however that “we (HRI) will look at the proposal with an open mind and are always open to trial new initiatives where a potential benefit can be identified.”
However there are some obstacles to be overcome before the white flag is definitely raised on the proposal. “There is a much more limited overall race programme in Ireland than in countries such as America and France,” he continues, “where there is a huge amount of racing, and therefore any changes to the balance of the race programme have to be carefully weighed up as we have to ensure an appropriate programme of opportunities for all sectors of the horse population, bearing in mind that many connections may not want to participate in claiming races where they run the risk of losing their horses.”
Which is exactly the button the campaigners are pushing. Few people are dumb enough to enter a fertile million-euro Galileo filly in a twenty-grand claimer, no matter how slow she is.
They are confident that the many connections that do not want to risk their horses will be satisfied with the other 2,400 races available to them. Their target market are the owners who are prepared to risk losing their horses and create vibrancy and change in the lower cost bracket.
Morris has confirmed that in the new-year the proposal will be put to the relevant committees and working groups within HRI and then a consultation process will commence with all stakeholder groups in the industry, including the trainers association.
If the idea does get off the ground then Richard McCormick, in the words of his old patron, CJ Haughey, “may have done the State some service.”
And maybe have a few less bothersome Kanturk or Kilkenny accents to listen to the next time he visits Kentucky.
Since 2008 racing has suffered a loss of momentum with registered owners down by 50%. One solution could be to introduce a fairly radical alternative to the way some races are framed
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