Farm Ireland

Tuesday 23 January 2018

Globe-trotters on track to keep noses in front

Resilient ITM are working tirelessly to breed success and beat recession

GREAT SHAKES: Michael O'Hagan and Irish Ambassador to India Ken Thompson (navy jacket) hand out a trophy at an ITM-sponsored race in India.
GREAT SHAKES: Michael O'Hagan and Irish Ambassador to India Ken Thompson (navy jacket) hand out a trophy at an ITM-sponsored race in India.

John Rainsford

The effects of the economic downturn have been felt in the bloodstock industry both at home and abroad over the past two years. Between 2006 and last year, the number of mares at stud in Ireland declined from a high of 19,251 to 18,851, with the resulting foal population showing a decline from 11,748 in 2005 to 10,167 in 2009. In cash terms, the Irish sales aggregate for the period reveals a colossal fall from €145m to €67.5m.

Despite this, chief executive of Irish Thoroughbred Marketing (ITM) Michael O'Hagan remains optimistic about future prospects for the industry.

ITM promotes Ireland as the leading source for the production and sale of quality thoroughbreds globally for owners, breeders and buyers. It is funded partially by the Irish Government via its agency -- Horse Racing Ireland -- and by the Irish bloodstock industry.

"The breeders' foal levy is vital to our success as we get a share of that money every year," said Mr Hagan.

"However our budget has taken a hit over the past three years, falling from €1.9m to €1.3m. As a result we have had to adjust how we spend our reduced budget, getting greater value for our money."

Budget limitations have resulted in new tactics for the marketing body.

"Strangely we travel more often and we have placed a new focus on our online work with website and contextual advertising working well for us. We continue to target racing publications and send out our own online publication to those who have requested it," added Mr O'Hagan. "Our primary job is to sell the Irish horse breeding success story."

ITM was established by the Irish bloodstock industry to promote the country abroad as the market leader in thoroughbred horses.

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It is an impartial, non-profit-making organisation aiming to be the first point of contact for overseas buyers seeking information on Irish racing and breeding -- mainly through its Inward Buyer Programme.

The agency is heavily involved in public relations, marketing and advertising both at home and abroad.

Teams from ITM regularly travel the world to attend bloodstock sales and race meetings. They also visit the stud farms and training stables of industry professionals who are global leaders in the area.

"One of the first things we did was to get a list of Irish embassies and consulates around the world. There were 125 addresses in all. These people did not know that we existed previously, and we started to use them for promotional purposes and got them to keep their eyes and ears open for us around the world.

"Our success is built on reputation, reliability and relationships. We have two core mantras. Firstly, the answer is 'yes', no matter what the question. We want to be a 'can do' first point of contact.

"Secondly, if we do not know the answer we find someone who does. We never say 'no', we always say 'yes'."

ITM frequently attends Government trade missions and international equine trade shows and conferences. It has one simple mission statement: to encourage overseas people to buy horses in Ireland.

To this end, Michael and his team travel to countries as diverse as India, Korea, Spain, Turkey and the UK. They help foreign buyers to get visas to attend horse sales in Ireland with assistance from the various overseas embassies. Enterprise Ireland also acts as its eyes and ears in countries where they are not currently represented.

"Our markets include places like Morocco, which has traditionally specialised in racing Arab horses but now wants to breed thoroughbreds. To this end I visited Rabat recently over two days and got their minister for agriculture to meet our minister at the residence of the Moroccan ambassador in Dalkey," Mr O'Hagan added.

"As a direct result of that meeting, 55 mares were bought by Moroccan parties last year. Our policy is never say 'no', there is always a way around it. We are always thinking outside the box," he maintains.

"Recently we were invited to travel with President Mary McAleese when she visited Japan, Korea, China and South America and we were consulted, together with semi-State agencies, as to what we needed from these visits. This is important to us because in places like Asia it is your standing in society that counts.

"When they see you with the Taoiseach or the President they are inclined to be more deferential to your needs. One recent contact which was followed up by the President led to purchases totalling €3.5m at Goffs last year."

ITM uses the vast portion of its budget to support these kinds of success stories and spend as little as possible on travel and accommodation while doing so.

"We are always sitting at the back of the bus from that point of view," he said.

"I spent 120 nights last year abroad visiting places like Morocco, North and South America, Singapore and India. We sponsor races in places as diverse as Chile and the UK. We would try to get as big a bang for a buck as we can."

India and Turkey buy approximately 150 in-foal Irish mares each year and Michael clearly believes that face-to-face contacts are the key to ITM's success. Goffs has its yearling sales in September, while sales for broodmares are held in November and National Hunt sales in June. ITM's role is to get as many buyers as possible to attend.

"We had 100 requests for specific race DVDs in 2009 and approximately 60 horses were sold as a result," said Mr O'Hagan. "We are always interested in new ways to promote the industry and last year we gave a prize of a leased jeep branded in ITM livery to the leading trainer in the Cheltenham frequent runner programme. During 2009 our winner was Paul Nichols based in Somerset. We are thinking of new promotions like this all the time."

Despite the challenges, the ITM chief executive remains resolutely optimistic. "Our industry is in recession, like everywhere else, with the numbers of mares at stud falling drastically in the period 2006 to 2009," he claimed.

"However, we are a resilient nation which has traditionally been prepared to work its passage. We are penetrating new markets all the time selling an Irish breed which is still renowned the world over.

"There are 12,000 horses in training in Ireland worth nearly €240m a year to the economy. That is the business we are pursuing all the time for Ireland.

"The overproduction of foals has been addressed with a 20pc fall in numbers born over two years. We are promoting 'responsible ownership' policies now. It is far better to see owners taking a mare out of the breeding cycle.

"Breeders and vendors are focusing on producing what the market wants today, namely quality thoroughbreds. We as an agency must work harder to bring buyers here. The number of new stallions standing in this country fell from 24 to seven this year alone. Competitors in France and the UK are snapping at our heels. However, ITM will continue in its appointed role of pushing the product from one end of the global market to the other," Mr O'Hagan added.

Irish Independent