Horse Racing Ireland is the commercial semi-state body responsible for the administration, development and promotion of the thoroughbred horse industry in Ireland. My colleague, Michael O’Rourke, director of marketing and communications, is before the committee with me today. We are grateful for the invitation to appear before the committee today to address the issue of harness racing and any other matters which the committee members may wish to raise.
I wish to place on record on behalf of the board of Horse Racing Ireland our appreciation of the strong interest in our industry that this committee has taken over several years. I know that our sector has been a regular agenda item for this committee in recent years, not least during the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Horse Racing Ireland (Amendment) Bill. The interest our politicians take in the industry, as well as their understanding and appreciation of it, is frequently commented on and a source of much envy for competing racing and breeding jurisdictions. This is understandable as, in relative terms, the industry is more important in Ireland than in most other jurisdictions.
Horse racing is Ireland's most successful international sport. The industry contributes €1 billion annually to the Irish economy. Ireland is the largest producer of thoroughbred horses in Europe and the fourth largest producer in the world. This year, it is likely that more thoroughbred foals will have been born in Ireland than in Britain and France combined. Our breeders are widely distributed throughout every county with, on average, three horses on each farm. It is primarily an agricultural industry and sustains up to 16,000 jobs, mainly in rural areas. This is a high-value sector which plays a key role in Ireland's overall economic recovery. It is environmentally friendly, labour-intensive and a source of much inward investment in rural Ireland. In short, it is precisely the type of industry that the country should be developing and one that needs careful minding and protecting. We believe that the industry has the potential to double in value by the end of the decade. Horse Racing Ireland has set out a strategy to achieve this in a plan that we have presented to the Minister. Our confidence in realising the potential of the Irish thoroughbred industry is based on its current position of strength, which is the result of many years of investment by successive Governments as well as the achievements of our present-day owners, trainers, breeders, jockeys and horses. These achievements are built on a centuries-old tradition of breeding and racing horses that has established the Irish thoroughbred as a world leader.
Throughout the recession, demand for Irish thoroughbreds remained strong. This was largely driven by overseas buyers, who recognised that we have the best horses and horse people in the world. Last year, Irish thoroughbred horses worth €230 million were exported to 34 countries worldwide. Our bloodstock sales have grown every year since 2010, well ahead of the pace of recovery in most other sectors.
In recent years, we have also seen resurgence in foreign direct investment in Irish training and breeding establishments. International owners at the top level are buying into the brand of the Irish thoroughbred by placing horses in training here or keeping their breeding stock here. This is an important point, since breeding is where the added value lies. We should remember that the racecourse is where we establish which horses are the best of the breed in terms of speed, stamina and endurance. The range and availability of racecourses in Ireland is one of the keys to our success. Racing success and breeding success are linked and complementary. This is why it is so important that Irish thoroughbred racing is positioned within the agricultural rather than the sporting sector.
The Horse and Greyhound Racing Act 2001 specifies that one of the functions of Horse Racing Ireland is the promotion of the Irish thoroughbred horse. This leads to an essential starting point for today's discussion: the distinction between the thoroughbred and other horses. Another function of Horse Racing Ireland is the development of authorised racecourses. An authorised racecourse is one licensed by the Turf Club under the rules of racing, and these rules are specifically restricted to racing involving thoroughbreds only. A thoroughbred is a strict definition of a type of horse and this is the foundation of the global racing and breeding industry. In short, all thoroughbreds must include, down all lines of its pedigree for at least eight generations, horses registered in the general stud book or associated approved stud books. In fact, all modern thoroughbreds throughout the world trace back to one of three stallions: Byerley Turk, Godolphin Arabian and Darley Arabian. Other equines cannot be classified as thoroughbreds; it is an absolute distinction. This is the principle on which the entire global horse racing and breeding industries are founded. Members who are racing fans will forgive me for making this point, but the difference is frequently misunderstood and may have added confusion at times to the topic in hand today. The horses that compete in harness racing are not thoroughbreds. They are standard breds, a breed that has shorter legs, a longer body and a more placid nature than thoroughbreds.
In addition to my role as chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland, I serve on a number of international racing bodies. It is remarkable to see the extent to which thoroughbred horse racing has become an international business as well as the extent to which Ireland is placed to influence and benefit from this business. One example of internationalisation which I have heard referred to in earlier committee debates is the Longines Irish Champions Weekend, which was developed specifically to compete at the top level internationally. At this year's event in early September, CNN produced a documentary news item on the Irish thoroughbred industry which was broadcast in over 200 countries to more than 300 million viewers. Another illustration was what happened in Hong Kong last Sunday - I was lucky enough to be there myself. The Hong Kong International Races are the self-styled world thoroughbred championships. This is the most important race meeting in Asia. It was remarkable and a source of great pride to me to report that of the 55 horses trained in eight different countries competing for almost €10 million in prize money in the four international races, one third of them were born and raised in Ireland. Even better, two of the four winners of the international races were Irish bred horses, including Highland Reel, which was trained in County Tipperary by Aidan O'Brien. There was an emotional moment when, in the middle of Hong Kong on a sporting field, "Amhrán na bhFiann" was played with aplomb by the local brass band. This serves to illustrate that what happens in Irish racing and breeding attracts worldwide attention and business. Horse Racing Ireland is charged with ensuring that our reputation is enhanced and defended in the global marketplace. This is the context for my observations today about harness racing.
I emphasise that Horse Racing Ireland is not opposed to the sport of harness racing or any other equine sport in Ireland. However, they are not within our area of responsibility and it is not our place to take positions on their development. Harness racing is part of the sport horse sector, the non-thoroughbred sector. That sector has its own structures and operating procedures, whereas our responsibility, set out in governing legislation, is the administration, development and promotion of the Irish horse racing industry and the promotion of the Irish thoroughbred horse. Horse Racing Ireland has a duty of care to protect this €1 billion industry which is so ingrained in the fabric of Irish life. If we put it at risk, we would rightly face questions from the committee members and others over why we had not acted with greater caution.
One issue we have to consider as part of our risk assessment in respect of harness racing is the question of what would happen to Ireland's herd of thoroughbred horses if cross-contamination occurred and there was an outbreak of a serious equine disease.
There is no question that, in the first instance, the sales of Ireland’s thoroughbreds would stop. There would be other consequences in terms of liability, cost and reputational damage. Quite apart from veterinary matters, the staging of harness racing on authorised racecourses causes significant difficulties in areas such as fixture allocation, media rights negotiation and the operation of bookmaker betting, for which detailed arrangements are carefully set out in legislation.
These concerns were set out in a letter from me to the assistant secretary general of the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on 22 July. I will be happy to elaborate on them during our discussion, if necessary. It is because of our duty of care to the entire thoroughbred industry that we are so cautious in the face of risk. The safest direction in future is to maintain separation of the two codes, and in this respect we welcome the stated intention of the Irish Harness Racing Association, IHRA, to develop its own facilities. In our meetings with them the IHRA explained that while racecourses are useful potential stopgap solutions, in the long term they are not ideal, mainly due to the track configuration. This includes the all-weather track at Dundalk.
As members of the committee will be aware, a trial harness race meeting took place at Dundalk on 27 September this year under tightly controlled conditions which were approved by HRI. We have asked the Turf Club to produce a two-part report, the first being its views on the veterinary controls and welfare standards at that trial meeting, and the second being a similar assessment of biosecurity at a random sample of harness racing yards. Such yards would typically be small premises. Animal health is established and cared for in these yards, so the importance of yard inspections is paramount in avoiding what is called biohazard to other equines. HRI has met and is liaising with the IHRA and its veterinary adviser on this. Production of this report is imminent, with yard visits scheduled for January, and we would be happy to share the findings with the committee once finalised.
In conclusion, and as mentioned earlier, it is not HRI’s role to take a position for or against harness racing or any other non-thoroughbred pursuit. The thoroughbred racing and breeding industry is an agricultural industry and harness racing is a sporting pursuit within the sport horse sector, to which it is affiliated through Horse Sport Ireland, HSI. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, has stated before this committee that he will commission a report in the new year on the potential for development of harness racing in Ireland, and this is something we would welcome as the sport seeks to define its own path and overall direction.