Richard Forristal: Dundalk's jumps proposal set to fall at first hurdle
Published 11/12/2013 | 23:31
The ceremonial speeches made at Horse Racing Ireland's annual awards are not known for bleak realism, and Monday's latest contributions didn't veer off script.
As a celebratory affair, wholesale platitudes are understandable. Still, it is lamentable that the Leopardstown bash has become synonymous with the Minister for Agriculture, Simon Coveney, presenting his yearly update on the elusive legislation that is intended to bring revenue from remote betting sources into the tax net, which in turn is hoped will provide a justification for increasing HRI's State aid.
It is a benign initiative but its implementation is complex and unwieldy, and there is a sense that pursuit of this golden goose distracts from the lack of a viable alternative. Crucially, the goose's eggs won't be ring-fenced for racing's consumption.
HRI's budget was cut for a sixth time in October to €43.4m. The Minister said on Monday that the new bill "will go through the process of finalisation in the new year" continuing successive governments' tendency to kick the can down the road.
He also reiterated that the streamlining and cost-cutting measures between HRI and the Turf Club recommended in the Government-funded Indecon report of July 2012 would be implemented "before the end of year... or as close as possible".
Fact is, HRI's funding for 2014 is down 29pc on the €61m high of 2008, yet on Monday Joe Keeling and Brian Kavanagh, HRI's chairman and chief executive respectively, advocated increasing prize money next year. Keeling also committed to push for a 10pc reduction in costs for owners, trainers and jockeys for 2014.
Like HRI's state hand-out, the industry's critical statistics (horses in training, owners, betting turnover, licence holders) continue to contract, and the regulator's integrity budget has plummeted 23pc in five years.
Those in attendance on Monday, though, could have been forgiven for thinking Christmas had come early. The congregation also heard that Dundalk's executive has submitted a planning application to build "the world's first all-weather, floodlit National Hunt track".
In 1994, England's experiment with all-weather jump racing came to an abrupt end after 13 equine fatalities in two months on unforgiving synthetic surfaces. You will struggle to find a jump-jockey that would support the prospect of its resurrection. When horses and jockeys fall on a synthetic surface, they don't slide.
"It's like having a head-on crash at 30mph," one rider stated just four days prior to the discontinuation of the concept 19 years ago. "When the horse hits the floor, the floor doesn't give so the horse has to. That means a broken bone, back or neck."
Why Dundalk would want to resuscitate such an X-rated topic was unclear, as it was only in 2009 that HRI's All-weather Review Group concluded that there was "no surface presently available that would accommodate jump racing".
However, it transpires that the proposed all-weather jumps surface isn't really all-weather at all. The subsequent explanatory comments of the track's chief executive Jim Martin were more revealing than his headline-grabbing "world's first" bent.
"It will be turf with underground heating, so frost or snow won't stop us," Martin went on to say. "There is no all-weather surface like polytrack suitable for jump racing, so what we have designed is two big straights that tie in with the main course.
"The bends will be the same but the straights will be manicured lawns that are perfectly flat, with underground heating that will drain very well."
He said discussions had taken place "primarily" with HRI in relation to funding the project, which he estimated would cost €3.5m. Dundalk had just been crowned Racecourse of the Year, so Martin grabbed his chance to launch this ambitious concept.
However, for a track that had the fifth worst average attendance in the country in 2012, it's difficult to see how such an extravagant expense can be justified. Martin cited Kempton as an example of how the concept can work, but Kempton was and is a premier jumps track first and foremost.
They are not comparable business models. Traditionally, waterlogging is a far more pertinent concern for Irish jumps tracks than frost or snow. Short of putting a roof on, the proposed new facility would be as vulnerable to a deluge as any, for all that the drainage will doubtless be done to a tee.
On the assumption that it would be safe to have horses galloping through a wet, muddy surface that has an undersoil heating system -- which have been hit and miss at British football grounds -- coursing underneath it, there is also the issue of lighting and shadows, something that is certain to prove complicated for jumpers.
Trainer Noel Meade was quoted as saying that "it would be a novelty more than anything," though he seemed decidedly cool on the idea. "I don't see it as being a big thing. It's their idea and they are funding it, so we will have to wait and see."
In keeping with the annual theme running through so many of the HRI Awards speeches, seeing really will be believing. Bleak realists won't hold their breath.