I thank the committee for its focus on the thoroughbred racing and breeding industry as part of its deliberations on the challenges of Brexit and for inviting us to appear before it today. I am here on behalf of the Alliance for Racing and Breeding. The alliance brings together the associations for jockeys, trainers, stable staff, owners and breeders. It represents approximately 10,000 people, most of whom rely on thoroughbred racing for their livelihood. I am also a recent ministerial appointee to the board of Horse Racing Ireland, HRI, and I understand that the committee will hear the views of that organisation at a later session.
Shane O'Dwyer has comprehensively dealt with many of the key issues, so I will try to avoid being repetitive. I will focus more on horse racing than on the breeding sector. Some 80% of people living in Ireland believe that horse racing is an important part of our heritage. Irish people value the national prestige its success brings to the country. In no other international sporting activity have Irish people succeeded as much or as consistently over decades as in horse racing. This is not just due to one or two individuals but has been achieved through the work of many trainers, jockeys, stable staff and, of course, their famous horses. Proximity and ease of access to racing in the UK is a key element in these achievements.
However, the sport is really the shop window and the springboard for a much larger agricultural and rural industry - breeding. Ireland’s racing successes have built the brand of Irish bloodstock and the UK offers many of the most prestigious races in the world, which are currently easily accessible to Irish trainers and owners. We are fortunate to have many natural advantages for horse racing in Ireland: climate, limestone, great pastures, the best bloodlines and superb horsemen and women. We do not talk as often about our disadvantages, such as our geographical position as an island surrounded by water and our comparatively small population. Unfortunately, Brexit could bring those disadvantages into sharper focus.
Horse racing has always been organised on an all-island basis and two of Ireland's 26 racecourses are in Northern Ireland. Nine out of ten horses racing at Downpatrick and Down Royal are trained in the Republic of Ireland and they receive capital development grants and prize money support from HRI. This will be a focus for the committee's future meeting on all-island bodies. It is almost impossible to imagine Irish racing without British racing and vice versa. Of all the sectors the committee will meet, we maintain that ours is the most highly integrated. As much as Ireland relies on Britain as a buyer of its horses, Britain at present relies on Ireland to supply the racehorses it needs, both in terms of number and quality. They are, in effect, twin industries. British racing is an important proving ground, especially for Ireland’s future breeding stock, stallions and mares.
Ireland's foal crop is almost twice as big as that of the British, but British racing is much bigger than our sport here in Ireland, thereby providing opportunities to Irish jockeys, stable staff and trainers.
In 2016, just over 2,500 races were run in Ireland, compared to 10,000 in the UK. Ireland had nearly 29,000 runners compared to the UK’s almost 90,000. Last year, Irish trained horses ran 1,471 times in Britain, winning €17.5 million in prize money. We had 309 British trained runners in Ireland who took home €4 million.
At a prestigious level, Ireland's reputation is very high. In Cheltenham this year, there were a record 19 Irish-trained winners. More than two in three races were won by an Irish-trained horse. At Royal Ascot last year, one in three races was won by Irish-trained horses, and 63% of the winners were foaled in Ireland. Looking at the race card of any meeting in the UK, it is clear from the names how many Irish jockeys are working there, but there are short-term and long-term threats arising from any changes in this status quo.
Ireland’s easy access to British racing is very appealing to overseas investors and we would be very concerned that any impediments to this could be a disincentive to racehorse owners to keep their horses in training in Ireland. Furthermore, the possibility of the UK introducing incentives for its industry over time is a real threat, especially if racing in Ireland is still excluded from the usual state aid exemptions for agriculture and thereby limited in the scope of its competitive response.
British racing is not a replaceable market for the Irish thoroughbred industry. Unlike many other Brexit hit sectors, unfortunately, we cannot create or develop large racing industries in other EU countries such as Denmark, Germany or Portugal or adapt our product to suit new markets. As members heard from Mr. O'Dwyer, there are approximately 200 thoroughbred horse movements a week between Ireland and the UK. That accounts for half of all horse imports and exports to the UK. France would have half that number and is the next closest in that regard. The implications of a hard border, therefore, would be severe for both people and horses.
While it is the hope and expectation of industry parties in the UK and Ireland that the tripartite agreement that exists between Britain, France and Ireland will endure, the mundane logistical challenges of moving horses through border controls and checkpoints needs to be worked through. Thoroughbreds are highly sensitive animals, selectively bred for their flight response for the past 300 years. Horses in training are young equine athletes, at peak fitness. Any new delays that can increase time in horse boxes stuck in queues at ports could prove extremely difficult for trainers and their staff to manage and still permit the horse to perform to its maximum potential on the track.
For some major racing events, it is not unknown for jockeys to race in both Ireland and Britain on the same day, for example, travelling from Haydock to Leopardstown by helicopter for Champion Stakes day. That is not common, but it is a very exciting occurrence for the racing public and can be important to owners. It is essential that Irish jockeys are able to freely work and ride in the UK, which is great grounds for them to gain experience, and that they can move easily between the jurisdictions.
There are also the threats of virtual borders. With close and positive working relationships between the sport’s governing and regulatory bodies, we hope that there will not be any future divergence in veterinary and racing regulations. The importance of a level playing field as regards availability of medication and control of those therapeutic treatments will be essential, as we know from horses running in other jurisdictions that it can become problematic.
From an economic point of view, racehorses are luxury products and any downturn in the UK economy will be felt in Irish racing and breeding. While sales figures for Irish bloodstock have held up in the past 11 months since the Brexit vote, the drop in the value of sterling has already seen stallion fees here reduced, and it is making boarding a mare in Ireland more expensive for British based breeders. Media rights, which are negotiated fees paid by bookmakers to show Irish racing, will be paid in sterling from 2019, and this brings further uncertainty.
Turning to solutions, which I know are the members' focus, the committee will understand that anything other than the current integration and ease of movement for people and horses will have significant negative consequences for Ireland. Some of these issues are outside of Ireland’s control. However, this industry has proven its resilience in the past so with support and goodwill from the authorities in Ireland, the UK and Brussels, solutions can be achieved. These may include the development of clear customs and border protocols applicable to thoroughbred horses to facilitate ease of movement and traceability. Technology may offer solutions here but there will be a cost in implementation. An example of that is when there were tailbacks at Dover because of the issues in Calais. The UK authorities issued red As for everybody transporting animals to allow them be taken out of the queue and let through. Thoroughbred horses are at another risk level entirely from a standard livestock consignment, therefore, we believe that the thoroughbred industry needs its own clear protocols.
A professional sports person category could permit jockeys to move easily between the jurisdictions. We need clarity that thoroughbred breeding and racing are considered agricultural activities. Domestically, the resolution of a secure and sustainable funding model for the industry would provide some certainty as we move through challenging and unprecedented times.
I will conclude by saying that the other major racing nation in Europe is France. Their industry is extremely well supported through funding from betting, and while there are risks to France, they are fewer. It is up to Ireland, therefore, to keep the concerns of thoroughbred breeding and racing on the Brexit agenda during negotiations and we look forward to continuing to work with the Minister, Deputy Creed, and the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine in that regard.