Friday 15 December 2017

Industry figures trimmed

Alarming stats show no end to crisis as ‘horses in training’ numbers plummet

Mike Flaherty hard at work as the last-minute preparations are completed at Ballybrit ahead of the Galway Festival next week
Mike Flaherty hard at work as the last-minute preparations are completed at Ballybrit ahead of the Galway Festival next week
Pat Smullen will renew his association with Michael Stoute’s Royal Ascot winner Snow Sky in the race
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

The indecipherable cocoon that is the Galway Races will provide its annual duty of a short-term boom after Horse Racing Ireland’s six-month statistics confirmed that the industry is still in contraction.

Around 150,000 revellers will descend on Ballybrit next week, with last year’s Ladies’ Day total of 35,577 a record for a day at the races in 2014.

A week in the mainstream media portraying packed stands and unbridled merriment helps to paint a positive picture, but the underlying truth is more sobering.

In keeping with recent years, export-led bloodstock sales were the poster boy of yesterday’s HRI statistics, showing a year-on-year increase of 7.4pc to €39m. Attendances and sponsorship also continued a welcome upswing, gate figures growing by 3.9pc to an average of 3,470 and sponsorship up by 6.25pc to nearly €3m.

However, the rate at which many of the critical figures underpinning racing’s product are haemorrhaging is showing no sign of abating.

In 2007, the total number of horses in training hit a high of 12,188. That return plummeted annually to 8,613 in 2014, a 29pc drop on the 2007 figure. Yesterday, the six-month tally came in at 6,720, down 6.8pc.

A raft of other fundamental indicators all returned further negative yields, with new owners (6.5pc), active owners (5.5pc), field sizes (6pc), entries (5.2pc) and runners (3.6pc) among the most alarming declines.

Track betting returns thrived on the increase in attendances, with on-course bookmakers’ trade up 4.8pc on the corresponding 2014 figure to €34.7m and total Tote betting also recovering by 23.6pc to €34.1m.

Along with the sponsorship upsurge, those figures reflect an improved sentiment in the broader economy, all of which makes the ongoing crisis at grass roots level all the more ominous.

The contractions are set against a backdrop of a prize money increase in 2014 of 6pc to €48.6m. A further 10pc of €5m was set aside to be pumped into this year’s funds, and the six-month figure duly rose 9.6pc to €24m.

The number of fixtures and races held were also both up by around 3pc, but the sense that the spoils are increasingly being shared by a shrinking base is unavoidable, with annual Turf Club statistics also highlighting an ongoing reduction in the number of trainers holding licences.

Elite handlers like Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott, Aidan O’Brien, Dermot Weld and Jim Bolger continue to fly the flag with aplomb, supported to a large degree by a collective of wealthy patrons such as JP McManus, Gigginstown House Stud, Coolmore and various Arab royalty. Nonetheless, the reality for those trying to make a living at the middle to lower end of the market is far more bleak. 

“While most of the figures are positive, we are concerned with the horses in training and ownership figures which remain a priority for improvement,” HRI’s chief executive Brian Kavanagh said of yesterday’s publication.

“There are signs of a real recovery in the domestic economy which will lead to further buyer confidence and we have increased the resources in Irish Thoroughbred Marketing to ensure that ownership is facilitated and encouraged as the recovery continues.”

Unusually, there is no Irish-trained runner in today’s featured King George VI & QE II Stakes at Ascot. Golden Horn remains a short-priced favourite to become just the fourth horse to win the Derby, Eclipse and King George in the same year.

Following persistent rainfall at the Berkshire venue yesterday, though, he might yet be denied the chance to create history. John Gosden has said that he will walk the track this morning before making a decision on his participation, while the French raider Flintshire was scratched from the £1m showpiece on account of the deteriorating ground yesterday evening.

Pat Smullen will renew his association with Michael Stoute’s Royal Ascot winner Snow Sky in the race.

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