All bets are off as UK trainers take aim at poor prize funds
Irish authorities keen to avoid situation that is stifling racing across Britain, writes Aisling Crowe
A lone horse walks around the parade ring. Instead of the usual array of brightly bedecked jockeys standing at the centre of knots of people dotted around the lawn, there is only one.
Sam Twiston-Davies stands at one end, chatting to Carl Llewellyn, waiting for the bell to ring. When it does, Llewellyn gives him a leg up. The young jockey pulls his irons even shorter than normal and he and Moulin de la Croix take a couple of turns round the ring and then walk out onto the track. They amble to the last fence, turn and canter back up the track. Twiston-Davies salutes as they pass the winning post. The walkover is complete and the prize money secure.
This happened at Worcester racecourse last Wednesday night. A group of Britain's leading jumps trainers, frustrated at the low levels of prize money on offer, decided to make a stand. They targeted one of several races run at the midlands track that night that fell below the minimum tariff agreed between racecourses and the Horsemen's Group.
The total prize fund for the 9.10 Novices' Hurdle fell £900 short of the minimum of £3,900 for a race of its calibre that the Horsemen's Group set out in its tariff scheme.
Originally, they planned a boycott but the track would have retained the money, so they came up with a different plan. Trainers declared their horses to run but withdrew 11 of them on Wednesday, leaving the Nigel Twiston- Davies-trained horse as the last one standing. He would have a walkover and the winners' purse would be distributed among the trainers to cover the £140 fines they each incurred with the remainder donated to the Injured Jockeys Fund.
Wednesday's protest may not be isolated. There is talk of further similar action to come as trainers face rising costs, owners fail to pay bills and horses are removed from Britain to race in countries with more attractive prize money.
Funding of racing is a hot topic in Ireland right now. The industry awaits the government's proposed new betting-tax legislation. The administration wants to replace State funding for the industry with revenue generated from a tax on the profits of bookmakers and exchanges. The economic collapse had a huge impact on racing, with owners forced to reduce the amount of horses they have or leave the sport entirely. Many trainers are struggling to keep afloat.
So could a similar scenario unfold on an Irish racecourse? It's highly unlikely, according to Jason Morris, Horse Racing Ireland's (HRI) director of racing.
"Compared with the situation in Britain we have deliberately adopted a policy of trying to keep prize money levels in Ireland high, so the minimum prize money for an Irish race is €7,000. This is significantly higher than the figure protested about in Britain last week," he says.
Financing the sport is a difficult proposition in the current economic environment, as HRI is operating from a reduced funding base. From its peak in 2008, HRI's budget has been cut by 26 per cent.
As a consequence, the total prize money on offer in Irish racing has been reduced by a similar amount, from €60.4m four years ago to €44.3m in 2011 -- its lowest level in 10 years. Owner numbers are declining and the number of horses in training is also at its smallest for a decade.
"The minimum prize money for a race was around €9,000 at its peak and it has been our policy since the outset to maintain a high minimum level of prize money," says Morris. "There has been a significant drop in government funding and prize money levels have fallen by a similar amount.
"Given the economic situation and the decline in the number of owners and horses in training, we decided to keep prize money levels up to try and attract inward investment from overseas owners. Irish prize money is attractive compared with Britain. However, we are keen to get it back up -- but we offer decent prize money. We are very keen to maintain a minimum value in prize money," he says.
For the vast majority of owners, the potential financial gains of ownership are not their motivation for becoming involved in racing. Making money from owning a racehorse is not a viable investment -- especially in National Hunt racing -- and many owners are at a financial loss through pursuing their passion.
On the flat, there is the possibility of earning as people endeavour to create stallions from high-class colts and turn talented fillies into successful broodmares, but it's not quite that simple.
The policy of keeping prize money levels at a decent amount appears to be paying off in terms of keeping and attracting foreign investment in racing on these shores. Some of the biggest players in the bloodstock world are based here, with more owners sending horses from abroad to race here. Prominent English businessman Andrew Tinkler, CEO of the Stobart Group, has horses being trained on the Curragh for the first time this year. Over jumps, the pink and green spotted silks of Rich Ricci, chief executive of corporate and investment banking at Barclays in London, have become a familiar sight in the winner's enclosure after many of Ireland's most prestigious races.
HRI has submitted proposals to the Government regarding how racing will be funded in the future as the Cabinet drafts the betting-tax legislation. "We have made our case about what we feel is the best way of funding racing but, ultimately, it is for the Government to decide what to do," Morris says.
Whatever the outcome of the betting-tax legislation and the possibility of further action in Britain, scenes such as those at Worcester are highly unlikely in Ireland. Crowds remained at Worcester on Wednesday evening to witness the novel spectacle of a walkover. But as novel as it was, it's not something anybody involved in Irish racing would like to see played out on our racecourses.
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