Monday 19 August 2019

Move to online tax a step on right road

Crisis in Britain shows income must be secured from all betting streams

Identity Thief and Bryan Cooper on their way to victory in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle
Identity Thief and Bryan Cooper on their way to victory in the Fighting Fifth Hurdle at Newcastle

Richard Forristal

Irish racing isn't without its problems. Every year, twice a year, we see in the official figures the manner in which the sport is bleeding owners, horses in training and licence holders.

The domestic scene is beset by small fields and a proliferation of uncompetitive races.

Willie Mullins and Aidan O'Brien spearhead elite battalions that carry all before them in their respective disciplines, and we are lucky to have such industrial scale geniuses flying the flag both at home and abroad.

The reality persists, though, that the increasing concentration of power in the hands of the few continues apace.

A damning illustration of how that is manifesting itself is no longer in the small-field graded races but in some of the major handicaps.

When just 12 horses lined out for the €50,000 Cork Grand National earlier in the month, it was the smallest field - by some margin - to contest the race since 2009. Last week, the Troytown Chase at Navan, a more prestigious €100,000 event, attracted the same number.

You have to back to pre-boom 2002 to find such a paltry turnout for a race that should epitomise the equal opportunity theory behind such valuable handicaps.


Small fields in these sort of races are an indication of the manner in which the pool is shrinking. The spread of horses just isn't there anymore. That is undeniable and it is not a healthy long-term situation.

Then there are the abysmal standards that persist at so many tracks. Gordon Elliott has recently vented his fury at the glaring discrepancy between the exemplary way owners are treated at British tracks and the contempt they are shown here. "Night and day," is how he described it.

With the exception of a small few courses, it is a similarly unsatisfactory story across the board whether you are a racing professional or a punter or race-goer.

Indeed, last Friday night, Kevin Manning  was the latest jockey to go public with his ire, taking to Twitter to lambast the catering in the jockeys' room at Dundalk. Being charged €2 for tea and being served cold soup were chief among his grievances, and rightly so.

Dundalk races more than any other track in the country and therefore receives the biggest slice of the enormous media rights cake, so investing sufficiently in catering for the sports people at the centre of the show should be a fundamental prerequisite.

The impression of Irish racing as a sort of oddity in terms of integrity is another concern for those involved with the sport here.

On Saturday, the connections of four JP McManus-owned horses were hauled before the stewards for running and riding inquiries at Fairyhouse.

Pat Fahy was fined €1,000 for schooling Shantou Ed in public and Alan Crowe was suspended for a week and ordered to forfeit his riding fee, while the same sanctions were dished out to Tony Martin and Philip Enright for the performance of the John Breslin-owned Bobbie's Diamond for the same offence.

Rather than prompt any sort of indignant incredulity, the overriding reaction to the stewards' sudden bout of assiduousness was to ponder how Saturday's beginners' chase and maiden hurdle were any different to any of the others run here on a daily basis.

They certainly didn't appear to be, in the sense that two or three separate 'races' can effectively be identified within most of these contests.

Anyway, all this by way of preamble to acknowledge a positive element that is as unexpected as it was long in the making.

In the past week, British racing has been plunged into turmoil by the potential wholesale withdrawal from sponsorship of bookmaking firms at tracks owned by Jockey Club Racecourses, with crown jewels like Cheltenham's Gold Cup, Kempton's King George VI Chase and Haydock's Sprint Cup among those seeking new sponsors.

If a firm isn't recognised as an 'Authorised Betting Partner' by dint of making a fair contribution to the British Horseracing Authority in lieu of its online trade, it is excluded from sponsoring at JCR tracks.

The plot is especially intriguing because the man driving the bold BHA stance is Nick Rust, someone with intimate knowledge of the machinations of major bookmaking firms' accounts, having been a senior executive at two of them.

Rust feels this is a game of chicken worth playing, and good luck to him, because non-betting sponsors are an endangered species.

Bookmakers have in recent times done nothing to dispel their reputations as parasitic entities by being rumbled for entertaining - in more ways than one - mug punters gambling other people's money away without considering how those individual's regular five-figure wagers are out of kilter with meagre five-figure annual salaries.

All the while, they close and restrict modestly successful punters, so sympathy for their plight is in short supply.

Ultimately, neither side will cut off their nose to spite their face, so a compromise is the likeliest outcome, however long that takes.

Since August in Ireland, though, a 1pc tax on online business has been imposed on bookmakers and a 15pc rate on commission for exchanges has been enforced. Those that don't pay up are denied a licence to trade in Ireland - end of.

The major firms are complying and trade paper The Irish Field has reported that a €3.3m haul for the low-key trading months of August and September suggests that a mooted €25m annual yield is plausible. That would be on top of around €27m raised via the existing 1pc tax on high-street bookies.

Now, it is worth reiterating that there is no direct correlation between what betting tax, which is derived from betting across all sports, raises for the government and what the government hands out to racing via the Horse and Greyhound Fund (€59m in 2016).

However, having influenced the strategy, it may strengthen Horse Racing Ireland's hand when it comes to its annual plea for funds.

So credit it where it's due. Maybe it is a small step in the right direction if it will help to provide some security for an industry that desperately needs it right now.

Cooper shows class in Identity Thief victory

Bryan COOPER initiated a Grade One brace for the weekend by partnering Identity Thief to a game triumph in Saturday's Fighting Fifth.

Wicklow Brave was sent off joint-favourite for the Newcastle two-miler along with Irving. However, the champion trainer's charge could never land a blow under Ruby Walsh en route to finishing third, while Irving bombed completely.

It was left to Identity Thief, a 6/1 shot, to fight it out with Top Notch, last season's Triumph Hurdle runner-up that had run second to Irving at Haydock a week earlier.

Cooper excelled on Identity Thief. He made the early running, but when Daryl Jacob sent Top Notch on at the halfway mark, the Kerry-born rider left him at it.

His patience was rewarded in grand style as Identity Thief recovered from getting in close to the final flight to battle past Top Notch for a neck victory.

The winner remains easy to back for the Champion Hurdle at odds of up to 33/1, and you couldn't really argue with that at this point.

A son of Kayf Tara, he is clearly a horse with a bright future, but the bare form would suggest that he still has improvement to find to mix it with the best over flights.

Stuart Crawford took the bumper at the track with the Anthony Fox-ridden Baby Bach, while Willie Mullins' Urano never figured in the Hennessy, though Mouse Morris' First Lieutenant ran a blinder to be third under Mark Enright.

After Smad Place's fantastic exhibition of jumping and galloping under Wayne Hutchinson, Alan King paid tribute to John Goggin, the popular 20-year-old stable lad from Bantry who sadly lost his life last weekend following a car crash.

Goggin's fellow west Cork native Gavin Sheehan enjoyed a memorable Hennessy Festival. The former champion conditional jockey, who hails from Dunmanway, bagged two winners there on Friday and three on Saturday to confirm his status as one of the game's rising stars.

Mullins was also out of luck at Carlisle yesterday, with Gitane Du Berlais fluffing her lines at odds-on for a second time this season. She was foiled by Emily Gray, which plies its trade for Kim Bailey.

Tweet of the weekend

Ben Curtis (@bencurtis)

Fury wins the heavyweight title… Didn't think he would but @ least now he can b cocky & get away with it #mouthpiecewins

The 2011 joint Irish champion apprentice Ben Curtis, who is now firmly established in England and got married to Ballybunion's Shauna O'Connor in his native Kinsale last week, reckons Fury might have bought himself some leeway.

Numbers Game

5 Winners Gordon Elliott plundered at Fairyhouse's two-day fixture, with Tombstone's deeply impressive maiden hurdle victory the big eyecatcher.

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