Friday 2 December 2016

CEO fiasco exposes racing's arrogance

TDs continue to probe HRI/government handling of CEO reappointment

Johnny Ward

Published 26/09/2016 | 02:30

Joe Keeling.
Joe Keeling.

These are trying times for a couple of Ireland's top sporting CEOs - though at least Brian Kavanagh won't feel compelled to scurry from questions about tickets in the manner of Fr Dougal Maguire when in the company of a woman.

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Horse Racing Ireland's chief, who began a controversial third term yesterday, has been silent. Generally helpful to the media, he declined to comment when asked by the Irish Independent. Nor would chairman Joe Keeling give a line; he pointed to a statement issued on Friday. The difficulty in getting questions answered emphasises that, at times, nothing speaks louder than silence.

If you missed it, a synopsis. Kavanagh was reinstated after Keeling lobbied government - in particular Agriculture Minister Michael Creed and Public Reform Minister Paschal Donohoe. That would be all dandy, except Kavanagh's third term is a gross violation of government guidelines: the CEO of a commercial state body should only serve a single term of seven years.

In Kavananagh's defence, this stipulation came during his first term; there was minimal outcry when he was afforded an exemption and a second term in 2009, successful after an interview process. The outcome might have been as predictable as an election in North Korea, but that is not really the issue: there was notional due process and few would have argued against his being the man for the job.

For his third term, there would no interview. As one trainer noted since, "if they'd gone about it the right way, they would still have gotten their man." Another called it "a joke".

Intriguingly, officials in the Department of Agriculture had lobbied officials in the Department of Finance to allow for the possibility of a third term as far back as 2011. Finance staff were not happy with this.

Creed said recently: "The chairman of HRI made a case for an exceptional extension to the term of appointment of the CEO, based on a number of business imperatives. The necessary ministerial consents were provided based on the case made and I understand the board approved the appointment on July 21."

This is where it gets especially ugly. Keeling was lobbying without consulting the board of HRI. Yet both ministers told the Dáil they endorsed Kavanagh after seeing a business case submitted by HRI's board. And Keeling said at a HRI board meeting that the Department advised him not to tell the board in the first place.

Keeling had emphasised the importance of transparency on becoming chairman. Professor Niamh Brennan, who established UCD's Centre for Corporate Governance, told RTE's Drivetime on Friday: 'The number one critical and most important decision of any board is the appointment of the chief executive."

Kavanagh reportedly signed his new five-year contract in July. Before and in all the time that since lapsed, not once has the business case been seen at a HRI board meeting.

Pawn

Disquiet exists that the state gives so much to racing, paying about half of prize-money in a game increasingly dominated by mega-rich owners. Here we have the government treated as little more than a pawn; a means to an end it seems.

Keeling apologised to the HRI board that the process had given rise to concerns because members did not have sight of the documents submitted to government. The board comprises nominally independent representatives from different strands of racing but how much power does it have? Somewhere between none and slightly more.

If HRI and the ministers felt this would go away, the past week was tough going. The Public Accounts Committee agreed to write to Creed, asking for a full explanation of the circumstances of the reappointment.

Michéal Martin probed Creed on September 16. Willie Penrose, Clare Daly, Paul Murphy and Eoin Ó Broin are others to question the Fine Gael duo. In response to Murphy, Creed said: "The case made... related to the short- and medium-term challenges facing the thoroughbred sector and the delivery of HRI's strategic plan, the specialist skillset and performance of (Kavanagh) and his membership on a number of prestigious international racing bodies."

Those who resent Kavanagh - his leadership style is not to everyone's liking - will still attest to his suitability to the job. He is seen as crucial to the Curragh's troubled redevelopment; he was hailed for helping the racecourses secure a lucrative TV rights deal from SIS earlier this year.

His ability is an aside. Why did the two ministers brazenly eschew protocol? Why were they told something by Keeling which was news to HRI's board? Did HRI think it fair to give no one else a chance to get the job?

Moreover, the Irish Independent understands that at least one of the relevant ministers was not originally in favour of allowing Kavanagh a third term. What changed?

Controversy surrounds the CEO's €190,000 salary - benefits bring it up to almost €250,000 - after it was revealed to be €26,000 above the specified range outlined by the Department of Agriculture. The salary is not the box-office story.

Irish racing has issues, including a bogus sense of entitlement and powerful vested interests that expect to get what they want. This controversy has the capacity to embolden a determined minority within government who are sceptical of the relevance of the sport, not to mention the agendas that dominate therein.

Those lobbyists may contend that shouting about our successes, from colt to stallion - and all those jobs in rural areas - will always be enough. They might reflect on the reality of a Fine Gael-Independent minority government with a limited life expectancy and the damaging PR shambles this is rapidly becoming.

RIDE OF THE WEEK

Kevin Manning on Ringside Humour at Dundalk on Friday. It looked a strong pace but Manning sat between the leader and the pack. He sent her on inside the 2f pole, using all his strength to get her home by a short head.

QUOTE OF THE WEEK

"It's something I've been thinking about for the last while and, after a few difficult years, my accountancy background told me we just can't make it pay any more."

Colm Murphy explaining his reasoning for retiring from training, aged 42, after 20 Grade One winners, including Brave Inca.

TWEET OF THE WEEK

Horse Racing Ireland @GoRacing Sep 23 Congratulations to Kerryman Sean McDermott who rode his 1st Grade 1 winner at Belmont Park yesterday on #Scorpiancer an ex @irishp2p horse

Good to see HRI keeping an eye on Irish riders abroad and better again to see the talented McDermott making a name for himself in the US.

GAMBLE OF THE WEEK

Palavicini Run at the Curragh on Thursday. Available at 12/1 (finished unplaced all six runs for owner/trainer Johnny Levins), she was sent off 5/4 and won easily. "It wasn't a plan... I don't bet myself," Levins insisted.

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