Sunday 19 November 2017

'In terms of the icy grip, it's the worst I have seen since taking out a licence'

From racecourses to jockeys, trainers to bookies, the big freeze has had a chilling effect on the business of racing, writes Ian McClean

Ian McClean

I t may well be an ill wind but how would you describe the snow and ice that straitjackets a nation?

No more than any other facet of life and society, racing has been thrown into disarray as its disruptive influence reached the proportions of a Wikifreeze. There are few of racing's stakeholders who have not been affected -- even Steepledowns was rumoured to require an inspection -- and the impact of the weather will continue to be felt for some time to come.

One of the highest profile casualties is Fairyhouse racecourse, whose two-day Winter Festival, first scheduled for November 27-28, is now onto its fourth lifeline next Wednesday.

Speaking on Friday, racecourse acting manager Peter Roe was defiantly chipper. "I'm seeing grass this morning!" he proclaimed with the air of a man experiencing a eureka moment. "There are only four inches of snow on the track and it's plus four degrees outside -- I'm absolutely delighted." He goes on to qualify the statement. "At any other time I'd have to be certified, but given the fact that we were under nine inches yesterday and now we're down to only four, I couldn't be happier."

Happiness, of course, is entirely relative and Roe is still calculating the cost of multiple postponement. "We started a link-up with Meath Tourism this year and attracted 25 individual stalls. To promote the event we printed 100,000 flyers. As well as that as part of the Support Your Sport initiative we invested another 45,000 contacts. Overall in marketing and promotion alone the weather has cost us €30,000."

Racecourses, however, are not purely run on marketing expenditure. The caterers have lost 1,000 covers and have forfeited a further 1,000 in pre-paid sales. Indeed when Roe takes out his calculator to do a tot of the net loss to Fairyhouse on all fronts, he comes out with a figure between €200,000 and €250,000. And, if indeed racing does go ahead at the fourth attempt on Wednesday, he can expect to recoup just €40,000. The difference between a racecourse and say jockeys, trainers or owners in this situation is that for them postponement means deferred income.

"For us its a loss," explains the manager. "The economics of the thing are simple. To recoup a huge loss there are only two options -- increase income or reduce expenditure. And in the current conditions without being able to increase income, we have to look very hard at expenditure and double-think everything.

"There has been a jinx over the fixture the last few years. Three years ago we had the hurricane, last year we were waterlogged and now we have snow. It is very demoralising for the marketing team and everybody connected to the place."

Yet in spite of all, Peter Roe remains upbeat. "Most rescheduled fixtures turn into Mickey Mouse events and my biggest fear was that when trainers were asked to re-enter, that the better horses wouldn't compete. But we stayed in touch with Noel Meade, Willie Mullins, Paul Nolan, Charles Byrnes and those with multiple entries for the Grade Ones and it's fantastic to see all the horses standing their ground with the intention to run."

Of course getting a run into the horses is the main issue preoccupying trainers during the freeze. Henry de Bromhead summarises the dilemma: "This is a critical period for us as a stepping stone for Christmas. But now we're getting into the territory that rather than running now as a preparation for Christmas we may now be choosing between running now or Christmas. And many will be thinking about the bird in the hand. In terms of the icy grip, it's the worst I have seen since taking out a licence (back in 2000)."

Perched on a hill three miles outside Waterford, keeping the 35 horses on the move has been just one of many concerns. Unlike previous freezes, even the rudiments were problematic this time around. Rudiments like getting the seven full-time staff to the yard. And beyond that, accessing basics like bedding and feed for the horses. "To be fair, everyone has worked very hard to keep the show on the road. However, improvisation has been key. It took three hours to get bedding in for the horses."

Delivery of horse-feed has been impossible so the Henry mountain must go to Mohammed -- this time in a jeep and trailer. "We're luckier than most and it hasn't been a disaster for us because of our indoor school. We monitor the horses' weights and luckily none of them have ballooned."

The thing playing on the trainer's mind most in the context of Christmas is the preparation of stable star Sizing Europe for his intended target of Kempton's King George. "Listening to the forecast for next week is making me anxious. I need to get some work into him on grass and it looks as though if there is a few days' window then I'm going to have to grasp it."

Anxiety was the first sensation that exercised Barry Geraghty who admits that the first few days of the white-out caused him to feel a bit "itchy". After that, the knowledge that he wasn't missing anything (unlike when a jockey is injured or suspended) meant that he has been able to relax into it. He spent plenty of time building snowmen with daughter Siofra but admits the relaxation was easier knowing he could look forward to Cheltenham at the end of the week. He acknowledges the Cheltenham chink of light isn't one that shone equally on all his profession and that there are many jockeys unlike himself who are living from week to week. "It's been hard on fellas relying on it to pay the mortgage," he says.

On the steps of the weigh-room at Cheltenham on Friday, Geraghty was modelling an impressive-looking welt on his right thumb. Far from arriving courtesy of an earlier fall from Spirit River or the chafing of his reins, the blister he reveals arrived via the shovel he was using in a community effort to clear the snow so the Gaelscoil in Dunshaughlin could continue to operate last week. The weather it seems has had many unlikely ancillary effects.

Another party suffering from the cold are the bookmakers. By Paddy Power's own admission, it is hardly a complete surprise that there would be a freeze during the annual calendar. "It is something we expect and make provision for in our forecasts," he says.

On a personal level, Power sees the positive in the glut of quality racing (eg Cheltenham yesterday) that arrives when the snap abates. "But taking a more mercenary view we would have had more turnover if the Tingle Creek had been run as part of the Sandown card last Saturday than having it added to the Cheltenham card yesterday," he explains.

What has been characteristic of this particular freeze according to Power is how quiet the shops have been as people have been hemmed indoors. Diversification in recent years now means that those who do make it to the betting shops can still bet on French racing, virtual racing or Numbers.

The bookmaker has also observed an upsurge in betting on other sports, expecting that people are spending more time at home watching sports they normally wouldn't watch. I mean what else are they going to do? But whilst the extension of betting to other sports and the increase in on-line activity have both mitigated the impact on turnover, Paddy Power still estimates that overall turnover loss due to racing abandonments stands at about €30m.

At this stage many would support a bit of global warming -- if only the icy straitjacket weren't a symptom.

Sunday Independent

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