National Hunt industry needs a lift - HRI chief Brian Kavanagh
Betting figures down as jumping game's decline continues
Horse Racing Ireland's chief executive Brian Kavanagh has conceded that the National Hunt industry needs stimulation after yesterday's publication of the 2015 industry statistics confirmed the contraction at the sport's core continues unabated.
There was some consolation to be found in the Flat tallies, with the number of runners on the level up 2.7pc on 2014 to 11,560. The Flat has a distinct advantage over the jumps due to its global nature, which ensures a lucrative market for equine sales.
In keeping with recent years, domestic sales returned a positive yield and commercial sponsorship rose 7.5pc to €4.3m. However, there was little respite in the broader industry, and the blood-letting in the middle and lower tiers shows only a hint of stabilising.
Runners over jumps and total runners fell year-on-year to 15,488 (-4.5pc) and 27,048 (-1.6pc), bringing the collapse from the respective 2007 and 2008 peaks to 28pc and 22pc. Average field sizes also continued to shrink, down nearly 3pc on 2014 to 10.7.
Other key indicators remain in decline. The number of horses in training plummeted 4.6pc to 8,214, a collapse of 33pc on its 2007 peak; owners and new owners fell around 2.5pc each to 3,609 and 644, eye-watering falls from pre-recession highs of 36pc and 55.5pc.
The Tote continued its recovery with total turnover up 29pc to €79.9m, and on-course SP shops improved by 9pc to €10.6m at the expense of other track facilities. While overall betting figures had seemed to stabilise somewhat in 2014 following a stand-out 66pc crash in bookmakers' on-course turnover, in tandem with attendances, they have slipped again.
The Tote's on-course turnover fell 6.3pc to €13.3m, with total on-course betting down just 1.1pc to €93.2m. Total and average attendances also recorded slight declines.
The number of fixtures held rose by 1.2pc to 351, and that is among a number of contradictions that this correspondent has frequently sought to address in these pages.
Despite the numbers of horses in training, runners, owners and licence holders (the Turf Club will soon detail those statistics) all being on the slide for eight or nine years, the fixture list has swelled by 16pc from 2004 to 355.
Real activity has fallen off a cliff, but this is an issue that continues to be distorted by the sums of around €50,000 in television rights money that a track receives for simply hosting a race meeting.
In 2014, as part of HRI's strategy to improve activity levels, an extra 6pc was added to prize money. In 2015, prize money received a 10pc bump, and before Christmas it was announced that it would be up a further 6pc by €3.1m to €56.7m in 2016.
Each time, though, the levels of participation have declined, undermining the theory that increasing prize money is the solution to the sport's dwindling appeal. The ongoing fall in field sizes is proof of that, and the contingent erosion of competitive racing affects both betting turnover and interest levels.
The policy of simply throwing more money into purses is clearly ineffective, serving only to widen the gap between the elite and the majority.
This corner has repeatedly advocated more imaginative or collateral thinking. Kavanagh's remarks suggest that racing's governing body accepts a different approach needs to be embraced, although the flagging of increased prize money is a reminder that old habits die hard in the establishment.
"We continue to focus on improving the horses-in-training and ownership figures and the decline of recent years has started to slow down, which is positive," said Kavanagh. "With additional increases in prize money, further reductions in administrative costs and enhanced supports for trainers, we expect to see real progress in 2016.
"We are building on our commitment to increase prize money. Competitive levels of prize money will help us to attract and retain owners, which remains our top priority.
"It is encouraging to see a return to growth in the number of Flat entries, but National Hunt entries need stimulation. This year we will provide €100,000 to support the ITBA National Hunt Fillies Bonus Scheme, which has the objective of encouraging the sales of National Hunt fillies and also their being put into training in Ireland."
Leopardstown's Irish Champion Hurdle card on Sunday featured three long odds-on Willie Mullins-trained favourites - including in the two Grade Ones - four winning market leaders for the exceptional champion trainer in total and a fourth successful odds-on shot trained by Jessica Harrington.
It was almost a microcosm of the sport's current predicament, as bookmakers' turnover collapsed by 38pc since 2015 to €487,678 and attendance fell by 8pc to 7,533. The Tote was up 30pc to €492,811.
For all that it is a pleasure to marvel at horses of such majesty as Faugheen and Douvan, sport is about competition, and the concentration of power in increasingly few hands is placing the game on the periphery.
With betting on Irish racing in decline, a serious consequence is the potential yield for the state coffers.
There is no formal correlation between the revenue generated by the various betting streams and the sum HRI is granted annually, but, when a subsidy of almost €60m is being relied upon, the Departments of Agriculture and Finance would surely be keen to see a more promising outlook in relation to the industry at grassroots level and betting revenue.
The Critical Decline
Horses in training down 4.6% to 8,214: Most trainers continue to suffer a shrinking of their business, which has a knock-on effect for rural employment.
Owners down 2.6pc to 3,609, new owners down 2.4pc to 644: A sustained collapse in the industry's most crucial investors. No fresh blood, and that is something every sector needs.
Jumps runners down 4.5% to 15,488: As the strong get stronger, the level of opposition weakens further. Uncompetitive jump racing is increasingly becoming the norm.
Average field size down 2.8% to 10.7: Similar to above, with small, one-sided fields proving a turn-off for punters and spoils being spread about less and less.
Attendances down 1pc to 1.28m: Last year's slight gain at the gates is reversed, which is worrying as it was starting back from a low base.
On-course betting down 1.1pc to €93.2m: Gains and losses in the various entities, but the drop in footfall is reflected in on-course turnover. Punters continue to keep stakes small.