Tuesday 21 November 2017

HRI revolution needed for sake of racing

Thursday in Dáil set to be car crash for rubber-stamp rump that the board has become

Bainne, with Oisin Orr up (right), on the way to winning the Stephen Quirke Memorial Apprentice Handicap at the Curragh yesterday. Photo credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Bainne, with Oisin Orr up (right), on the way to winning the Stephen Quirke Memorial Apprentice Handicap at the Curragh yesterday. Photo credit: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Johnny Ward

I was ready for bed on Tuesday when a text arrived from a recognisable figure in racing, one who does not work for Horse Racing Ireland.

"Brian Kavanagh is the best person for the position of (CEO) of HRI for the coming years. I can't see how your musings are doing him or racing any favours. This is the business/sport which has been good to you... it's plain to see that you may also be jeopardising your own prospects in racing."

The curious and telling thing about Kavanagh's reappointment has been that racing itself has been bizarrely ambivalent. This person, at least, apparently had an opinion on it.

A jockey argued I was "going OTT on it". He added: "I'm not sure anyone who reads the racing in the (Irish Independent) is hugely interested in racing politics. I'd like to read about racing please." So would I.

When I joined this paper, my main concern was writing a weekly column. Colleagues said there is not always something to write about. This is my third article out of four Monday Outlooks that deals with the HRI situation. If I've a regret, it is that it isn't the fourth.

The HRI board's appointment with the Agriculture Committee on Thursday can only make for car-crash viewing and the ramifications for racing render it a hell of a lot more of a story than when Don Poli is making his seasonal comeback. Chairman Joe Keeling, a terrific businessman in another life, has found out about the complexities of being a chairman of a semi-state.

He'll face a grilling - along with board members - which he must be looking forward to like getting a wisdom tooth removed without anaesthetic. One thing Keeling knows is that he will have to be there on Thursday. What we don't is who'll be there with him.

Sidestepped

The HRI board, patently sidestepped in the lobbying of government to reappoint Kavanagh on a third term, is a disparate mishmash of factions, lackeys and leakers. It is a notional cross-representation of all strands of the sport that seems little more than a rubber-stamp rump.

Sinn Féin and the left in general could gorge on Thursday's offerings. Their agenda is a broader exposure of Fine Gael ministers' shoddy handling of a shambles that has ensured a third term for Kavanagh but also an attitude towards the sport that is turning sour.

The board members are obliged to tell the truth. The proceedings are recorded. They will have to explain why the reappointment of the CEO - the primary function of a semi-state board - was achieved after nearly two years of lobbying behind their back, yet they voted for it anyway.

Keeling told the 'Irish Field' last January, over a year after he wrote to the Department of Agriculture looking for another term for Kavanagh: "I can't speak highly enough for HRI... Brian is great."

Keeling added: "For a semi-state body, they're brilliant." Keeling, a hugely successful businessman, seemed to forget he was a semi-state chairman when ignoring the HRI board while lobbying for Kavanagh. His position seems untenable.

Keeling also went on to say that the Turf Club "(wasn't always) as accountable as (it is) now... We can't just say, 'There's the budget and pay out the money'."

Yet that seems to be HRI's attitude to the €60m it gets from the state in one sentence. In 2012, the Indecon report stated "significant concerns over the low level of government ministerial control over the process of decisions on membership appointment of the HRI board." It further proposed a value-for-money assessment on behalf of the state. This hasn't happened.

The government is frequently told that racing is great. Rural Ireland needs it and all is rosy. However, many of the figures paraded are deeply misleading. Imagine a League of Ireland club counting the players and referee among attendance figures. Racing, however, does the obvious equivalent. Most trainers are struggling badly. Owners are leaving. Bookmakers on track have been utterly decimated, though of course HRI is by no means to blame for all of this.

Racing in Ireland could not survive right now without two things: the state's yearly handout and media rights money, where tracks get a staggering figure per meeting from SIS.

HRI is fortunate to have in its CEO an innately talented negotiator. The media deal signed this year secured the tracks' short-term future and Kavanagh, says one racecourse CEO, "was absolutely central to a brilliant deal."

The SIS money is a boon but there is no atmosphere at racing any more and, simply, too many fixtures. HRI's response seems to be another all-weather track in Two-Mile Borris.

HRI's CEO is a man of exceptional talents, always on call, a grafter with an enviable international standing; it is easy to see why people want him to lead Irish racing. However, in HRI giving nobody else a chance of going for the job and the government going along with it, it is an entirely dispiriting affair and anathema to the notion of so-called "new politics".

People in racing will believe that the sport is doing well under Kavanagh and Keeling. They should look to an uncertain future in Irish politics, with its increasingly militant left, and observe a growing hostility to state support for a sport dominated by multi-millionaires, some of them tax exiles, while other sports and interests lose out in state funding.

The very least that should come out of this debacle is a revolution in Ballymany as to how the HRI runs itself. Then, one may find, the leaking would cease.

Ride of the week

Oisin Orr, whose coolness belied his years, on 12/1 Bainne at the Curragh.

Quote of the week

"The boys (the winning syndicate) were getting a bit fed up and to be honest so was I. I'm just happy to have a winner."

- Michael Hourigan after Undressed ended the yard's 11-month wait for a winner yesterday.

Tweet of the week

Keith Donoghue

(@donoghue_keith)

Well done @CKKilkenny93 time To get back Ridin out now!!charity race 2017 what u think @AP_McCoy #UpTheDubs #meathforsam2017 @bernardbrogan

- Keith Donoghue, with a photo of an impressively stylish Ciarán Kilkenny riding out.

Gamble of the week

Black Hawk War at Limerick on Saturday was beautiful. Friendless all day and out to nearly 5/2 on Betfair, his price smashed into 11/10 in the blink of an eye. The result went to plan too.

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