Monday Outlook: HRI spin conceals real truth of stats
Predicament of skilled trainers like Charlie Swan shows extent of crisis
When Horse Racing Ireland announced its annual industry statistics for 2011, the press release headline boomed: "Growth returns to Irish racing."
In 2011, the number of horses in training fell by 12.8pc, with active owners, entries and on-course bookmakers' take all down 9pc. These are key indicators of the state of Irish racing, as opposed to figures that reflect specific niches.
The poster boy stat that the HRI blurb honed in on was that of bloodstock sales, which was up 19pc. An upsurge in sales returns has been undeniable, but it is also a red herring in the context of what it is purported to portray. Thoroughbred sales are export driven, so while a spike is good for breeders, vendors and traders, they are an extremely dubious reflection of the state of racing as an industry.
In truth, sales returns aren't even accurate barometers of sales activity. Many sale-topping figures are buy-backs or arranged buy-ins, and we have used the example here before of Slade Power, trumpeted by Doncaster Bloodstock Sales as one of its success stories, having been "bought" there for "just £5k".
Although independently consigned, Slade Power was, in fact, bought back by his breeders, Eddie Lynam and the Powers. In the world of thoroughbred sales, though, that constituted a £5,000 "sale", so the figures are inherently misleading.
When HRI released its 2012 stats, the header read: "Bloodstock sales continue strong growth." In 2012, horses in training fell by 6pc, owners by 12pc, entries by nearly 3pc and total on-course betting plummeted 21pc.
Of 2013, HRI's report told us: "Growth returns to key areas of Irish racing." Horses in training were down another half per cent, the number of owners fell 6pc and entries by 1pc, while the total held by on-course layers dropped 4.6pc.
Last week, HRI beamed: "Irish racing shows growth in key areas in 2014." In 2014, the number of horses in training fell by 6.4pc, owners by 6.2pc, entries by 12pc and on-course betting turnover flatlined, down 66pc since 2007.
What was most galling about the 2014 figures is that the contraction at the industry's core continued despite an increase in prize money of 6pc, with another 10pc extra due to be pumped into purses this year on the back of a 25pc increase in Government funding.
Sales were up again in 2014 and positive returns were recorded in attendance and sponsorship, but the sport is bleeding its vital assets - horses, owners and trainers. HRI noted that the figure for "new" owners grew by 4pc, which is a bit like trumpeting the customer who walks into a shop with its 'Closing Down Sale' sign up as an example of new business. It is a bit deluded.
HRI's chief executive Brian Kavanagh highlighted this influx of "new" owners, and bemoaned "declines in foal crops in 2009 and 2010" as though it were the cause of the lack of horses in training and the number of owners falling off a cliff. They are only loosely related.
If someone wants to own a horse, a horse will be found, in Ireland or abroad, notwithstanding that the lack of foals will drive up the cost of bloodstock. In short, Irish racing has lost its once loyal following, as enormous sums of media rights money distort the reality of what constitutes a viable business model.
Racegoers and punters have been largely ignored because tracks don't need to worry about anything other than increasing their number of fixtures, with around €50,000 in TV money winging their way for every meeting. People need to feel engaged with something to invest in it, but with the exception of the big festivals, tumbleweed swirls around tracks. It is better value and more practical to stay at home and watch on TV, so potential owners are not encouraged to come racing.
Despite real activity - including field sizes - plummeting, the number of fixtures has swelled by 16pc since 2004 to 355. It's all about the (media) money! Meanwhile, the Turf Club had its budget slashed by 24pc until the steroids debacle finally prompted an increase in integrity funding for 2015.
Our elite handlers, led by Willie Mullins and subsidised by supersized owners like JP McManus, Michael O'Leary, Rich Ricci, Barry Connell and Alan Potts, fly the flag proudly and with unprecedented success. The middle market, though, is a different world.
Trainers are going to the wall, a point emphasised by Charlie Swan's loss to the ranks. Incidentally or otherwise, Swan (below) made his announcement on Wednesday, hours after HRI insisted that Irish racing was showing growth. Swan's economics were of the real variety.
That such a popular, skilled and well-connected handler couldn't make it pay is indicative of the struggle many handlers are mired in, something that is disguised by the big-race successes of a few.
After Lord Windermere's Gold Cup triumph, a third successive Cheltenham Festival win for Jim Culloty, the Cork-based handler admitted the game had been trying even his celebrated patience.
Michael Grassick, who quit the job in 2012 to take over as chairman of the Trainers Association, said of Swan's decision: "I'm surprised it's Charlie but on the other hand I'm not surprised. Most I speak to say their fees are back to what they were 10 years ago. Charlie decided to get out before it got worse. Others don't have an alternative and are between a rock and a hard place."
I know big race-winning handlers who now operate on a reduced scale to the point of near anonymity, some of whom are pursuing other, non-racing careers. Small-scale operators are an endangered species, with field sizes at point-to-points also decimated.
There was a joke doing the rounds after Swan's announcement that many of his colleagues would be thinking, "Je Suis Charlie". Except it wasn't really a joke at all.
Expect more sobering reading when the Turf Club unveils its stats. In 2013, the number of licensed trainers fell by 3.5pc to 382, while the number of restricted licences issued was down double that to 291. Both were down 16pc from highs recorded in 2007 and 2009, respectively, and there will be more.
The figures are not those of an industry enjoying real growth, as we are being asked to believe, but of one still in crisis.
Bullets shoots down Sacre
Dodging Bullets excelled under a fine Noel Fehily steer to thwart Sprinter Sacre at Ascot on Saturday.
Paul Nicholls' vastly improved Tingle Creek victor looked in trouble when he was swamped by a seemingly tanking Sprinter Sacre three out. However, he got a second wind and Sprinter Sacre didn't.
It's hard to know what to make of Nicky Henderson's once mighty nine-year-old, as he emptied so abruptly that Barry Geraghty didn't even see the value in picking up his stick. Dodging Bullets is clearly no mug these days and Sprinter Sacre was found to have bled slightly, but the suspicion remains he will be one to avoid when even more serious questions are asked in the Champion Chase next March.
It was a fifth Grade One of the season for the exquisite west Cork-born Fehily, who initiated a double in the Grade Two mares' hurdle on Harry Fry's Bitofapuzzle. Dodging Bullets started his racing career in Tyrone with Andy Oliver, who acquired him for 8,000gns in 2009.
Incidentally, Lucky Nine was a fellow Dubawi yearling that the shrewd Oliver bought for just €9,000. Lucky Nine has gone on to win three Group Ones, which proves the long-held theory that Oliver has a fantastic eye for a horse.
Frankie Dettori bred Dodging Bullets and his Saturday got underway with the news that his boss Sheikh Joaan Al Thani had acquired Toast Of New York.
Jamie Osborne's charge was just denied Breeders' Cup Classic glory in November and the prospect of riding him in more big races like the Dubai World Cup was doubtless one of the reasons for Jamie Spencer's retirement u-turn.
Intriguingly, of course, Spencer's initial decision to pack up was prompted by the loss of his job as number one to Sheikh Fahad Al Thani, a Qatari cousin of Sheikh Joaan. You suspect Spencer won't be holidaying in Qatar any time soon!
Tweet of the weekend
Aidan Coleman (@AidanColeman)
Thanks very much for all the support, really appreciate it but I'm taking my ban on the chin and moving on.
Innishannon, Co Cork native Aidan Coleman rises above the BHA's decision to retrospectively sanction him for his Welsh National-winning ride pm Emperor's Choice with a four-day whip ban. Noel Fehily, Daryl Jacob and Barry Geraghty were others banned for their use of the whip at Ascot on Saturday, when they had six winners between them.
Brian Harding's age. From Jonjo O'Neill's home village of Castletownroche in north Cork, Harding won Saturday's Peter Marsh Chase aboard Samstown, 25 years after riding his first winner, Lucas Carton, for Kevin Prendergast at Down Royal. The New One scraped home in the Haydock card's Champion Hurdle trial on deep ground that doubtless didn't suit.