Monday 19 March 2018

Making the rich richer is not the answer to racing's ills

Lean Araig (left) and Robbie Colgan edge out Modem (Robbie Power) to win the novice hurdle at Naas yesterday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Lean Araig (left) and Robbie Colgan edge out Modem (Robbie Power) to win the novice hurdle at Naas yesterday. Photo: Ramsey Cardy / SPORTSFILE
Richard Forristal

Richard Forristal

Willie Mullins got people's attention last week by calling for major increases in prize money, going so far as to suggest at least doubling the Cheltenham Festival purses.

When you see how the Arkle Trophy has fallen in value by 12pc to £85,425 for the winner since 2008, Mullins makes a valid point about sustaining the stature of jump racing's crown jewels. The £550,000 Gold Cup - up 20pc - is one of those that has kept pace with inflation.

Mullins also made a pertinent point about there being too many fixtures for the funding available, and called for something dramatic to be done to reinvigorate the game. It would be nice to think that fixtures might be slashed as part of an overall restructuring, but that will never happen so long as the media rights money continues flow.

While some form of two-tier strategy might work, little will change while the tail wags the dog. The main thrust of Mullins' assertion, though, doesn't stack up.

This is an industry that depends on the discretionary indulgences of wealthy benefactors. Horse racing and breeding is a massively important and intrinsic part of rural Ireland, but anyone getting involved in the end product as an owner accepts that it is a leisure pursuit that costs money. That's why the myriad syndicates that blossomed in the boom proved so fleeting. It is an expensive pastime.

The horsemen and women and all the ancillary trades that depend on big patrons' investments are the functioning components that make racing's engine work. They are the ones who need to make a living from it, and skilled practitioners are entitled to expect a reasonable return for their endeavours if they adopt sensible business models.

So long as there are sustainable levels of demand, breeders, trainers, traders, farriers, feed suppliers and jockeys should be able to compete effectively in their respective marketplaces. Right now, some of those marketplaces aren't as vibrant or dynamic as we would like, as a distressed economy and the concentration of power in the hands of so few has skewed matters.

By the same token, the financial clout of the few has enabled certain individuals and sectors to prosper beyond what might have been expected over the past 10 years.

Still, ownership in itself is a form of extravagance. Traditionally, many of our best jumps horses were sold to England, but the continued investment of the likes of JP McManus, Michael O'Leary, Rich Ricci, Graham Wylie, Alan Potts and Barry Connell have transformed racing in this country.

While Mullins observed that a Grade One win at Cheltenham would yield something similar to what a good horse might cost, it is this unprecedented rivalry among a group of extremely wealthy individuals that has driven up the prices of the best jumps horses, and it is significant how so many of them now use Ireland as a base.

McManus operates on a similar scale across the water, but there isn't the same spread of superpower ownership in Britain these days, compared to when Wylie, Robert Ogden, Trevor Hemmings and David Johnson were at their zenith.

Apart from the resident expertise that is available, part of the reason that Ireland is a more attractive destination for the ownership behemoths is due to the prize money levels. In Britain, they race for a pittance at the lower to middle end, whereas the minimum purse over jumps here is a healthy €8,000. In that sense, there is an argument to be made for prioritising base-level purses above all else.

Unfortunately, because so much firepower is so thinly dispersed, a lot of the better Irish races on an average weekend are uncompetitive or one-sided. The Champion Hurdle and Hennessy Gold Cup were epic, but we don't have the spread of horses or owners to justify the amount of graded races in what is a bloated programme. That has been the case for a while.

At Fairyhouse on Saturday, we had a €40,000 Grade Three with three runners, and five tackled the €42,500 Bobbyjo Chase. An aggregate 10 horses competed for €90,000 in yesterday's two Naas Grade Twos. Contrastingly, 15 ran in the Nas Na Riogh Chase in its new guise as a handicap. As a Grade Two last year, three ran; change is good.

In yesterday's €13,500 bumper, just two horses ran; again, both represented the powerhouses. In that context, it is hard to argue that pumping more prize money into the higher end will do much for the general health of the game.

Remember, last year's Irish Derby was worth €1.25m, yet one stable, the same one that had won it in seven of the previous eight years, was responsible for the first three horses home, so it's not that simple.

Certain events - Cheltenham in particular - have a prestige that nothing else can match. It is important to protect that and appropriately sizeable purses help, but Ricci, O'Leary and McManus don't expect to make money out of the game. When they buy a horse, they are buying a dream, and it is up to them if they want to spend six-figure multiples on such a precarious commodity.

That's their prerogative. Doubling prize money at Cheltenham in March is a nice idea, but it would only benefit a small percentage, chiefly those who need it least. It might also drive the cost of elite bloodstock even higher.

Ultimately, that would only alienate other owners and potential owners, a pool that we know is already shrinking by the year. That is the last thing the sport needs.

Ballybrit gala faces road block

The Galway Races committee, led by the redoubtable John Moloney, finds itself in a state of consternation as six proposed routes for a city by-pass threaten to see racing at Ballybrit jeopardised for a couple of years - or worse.

One of the routes goes straight through the course, or under it, as the case may be, with the construction of a tunnel the least desirable scenario for the track. Should that one get the go-ahead, the local authority would also acquire a compulsory purchase order on some of the facility's lands, which Moloney, who is in his final year of service, fears could have serious consequences.

The NRA is due to select its preferred route in April and the planning process will begin later in the year, at which point Moloney has indicated a legal challenge would begin. He is to seek a meeting with An Taoiseach to outline his concerns, and you'd hope that sanity will ultimately prevail.

Morgan wins in Moritz

Joanna Morgan ended her career as a pioneering jockey and Ascot-winning trainer when Princess Andorra won on the snow in St Moritz yesterday.

Paying tribute to Morgan, John Oxx said she had "gained the respect and admiration of her peers for her professionalism and determination".

Tweet of the weekend

Sam Twiston-Davies (@samtwiston): Awesome day, great to be part of a great team, their record says it all! Thanks for all the messages! Bring on the National for Rocky! - Paul Nicholls' jockey is pumped after Irish Saint and Rocky Creek's big wins at Kempton on Saturday, while Sire De Grugy erased memories of his Newbury spill with a similarly emphatic Chepstow rout. Gary Moore's title-holder is now vying for Champion Chase favouritism with Sprinter Sacre.

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