Exports give industry a shot in arm but on-course bookies feeling the heat
The dramatic contraction suffered by the Irish racing industry in recent years might finally be easing off, with the publication of Horse Racing Ireland's annual statistics for 2013 hinting at some much-needed stabilisation in key areas.
With critical figures plummeting year on year since the recession took hold in 2007, an arrest in the general rate of decline rather than any meaningful growth constitutes some welcome relief for the sector.
As was the case 12 months ago, HRI's star performer is export-led bloodstock sales, which shows a massive 43pc increase at €133.4m due to continued international investment.
Commercial sponsorship and prize money show slight increases of 1.6pc and 2.5pc, while 2012's drop in average attendance of 7.2pc has recovered by 4pc to 3,458.
All the racing indicators remain some way below their 2007 peak, but a drop of 4.6pc in overall on-course betting suggests things may be bottoming out, as the corresponding decrease last year came in at a massive 20.8pc.
The €93.7m betting yield is down 67pc on 2007's €282.3m return and it is again the on-course bookmakers that have taken the biggest hit, their turnover falling another 6.9pc to €70.8m as modern betting technologies continue to impact on an already shrunken market.
The Tote has had to proactively reinvent itself in recent years to reverse some sharp downward trends and stay relevant, and its overall intake has grown for a second year in a row (up 6.9pc), while the state-owned pool facility's on-course take has returned a 2.2pc increase on the back of a 16.6pc decrease in 2012.
However, the country's ongoing economic difficulties mean that racing's struggle to attract new owners goes on, with a figure of 635 down 8.7pc on 2012, though the number of horses in training has steadied, a 0.4pc drop more palatable than 2012's 6pc reduction.
A raft of high-profile cross-channel successes, including record hauls at Cheltenham and Royal Ascot, saw Irish trainers' cumulative British prize money take grow by 38.1pc to £9.5m, with €8.3m (up 49.2pc) plundered in other international arenas.
HRI's chief executive Brian Kavanagh welcomed the stabilisation, but also sounded a continued note of caution, with the long-awaited and seemingly elusive amendment to the Betting Bill scheduled for discussion in the Dail today.
"There are many positives in the 2013 figures, but we remain acutely aware of the underlying threats to the future of the industry," Kavanagh stated.
"With overall funding cuts of almost 30pc since 2008, we are constrained in our ability to capitalise on the potential for growth in domestic and international markets. Competing racing nations are better resourced and challenging our position.
"The new betting legislation, set to progress early in 2014, represents the first step to a sustainable funding system, which will ensure that racing continues to produce an economic return to the country and that we can rebuild employment levels in an industry in which Ireland has great national advantages."
Kavanagh added: "The bookmakers' on-course decline continued and is a real concern for the future of the sector. It must be hoped that new betting legislation will create a more level playing field in the betting market."