Wednesday 21 March 2018

Something's got to give as Turf war gets serious

Cutbacks to the Turf Club's 'Integrity Budget' are a source of concern for many in racing, writes Johnny Ward

I T is improbable that the belated decision of the Turf Club Officials Association to call off today's scheduled strike action at Leopardstown and Clonmel is anything other than a temporary reprieve for Irish racing's regulatory body.

Talks at the Labour Relations Commission (LRC) lasted over 13 hours on Thursday, after which it became apparent that the Turf Club may indeed have secured a stay of execution. On Friday, the strike -- which would have featured starters, judges, handicappers and stewards' secretaries -- was called off, but the body's chief executive, Denis Egan, and its disgruntled workers will repair again to the LRC on Tuesday.

If subsequent negotiations run aground, the Turf Club has agreed in writing to go to the Labour Court at the earliest available date. On that basis, the thinking among the workers is that they have gained considerable ground in what is a dispute that Irish racing could have done without.

It is a complex matter, with some sympathy for the workers within racing, though their plight is nothing like as serious as that which stable staff, who are losing their jobs all around the country, face. At the heart of the dispute is the Turf Club's need to cut costs as a result of the most recent Budget, in which funding for racing was cut once again.

At the start of this month, nearly nine out of ten Turf Club employees voted for strike action following threatened salary and expenses cuts; changes to contractual and working conditions; and the slashing of the Club's integrity budget.

Such renegade action is very rare in racing, which often has to be dragged reluctantly away from a somewhat anachronistic modus operandi. Egan was aghast, pleading: "Everyone in this country is trying to stay afloat, given the economic climate. We are no different. Our integrity services budget has been cut from €7.9m to €6.4m for this year by HRI, a result of its budget being reduced by the government cutting funding. We have to cut costs to survive and 77 per cent of our costs are staff costs. We have to take our share of pain. No official has lost (his or her) job and no job will be lost, provided agreement can be reached."

The Turf Club Officials Association (TCOA) members, while unhappy that working conditions are to change for the worse, are also extremely concerned by the slashing of the integrity budget. This, they claim, will make a mockery of the Turf Club's stated raison d'etre, which is "(to look after) the integrity and the reputation of Irish racing both in Ireland and internationally".

In 2005, for example, the checking of racehorses' microchips -- to determine their identity -- took place at all 313 race meetings. In 2009, it was enforced at only 69 meetings. Back in 2006, a horse called Mesopotamia was declared to run at the Galway festival but was discovered to be another horse altogether when its microchip was checked pre-race. As the horse apparently known as Mesopotamia had already run twice for his trainer at the time that year (finishing second both times), it was an obvious embarrassment to the Turf Club.

Egan, talking to the Racing Post at the time, blamed HRI budget cutbacks that year. "Had this happened last year," he stressed, "it would have been picked up before (now) . . . last year we had a veterinary assisting our veterinary officer at all meetings and running microchip checks on all horses . . . the annoying thing is that because of the cutbacks we've not been able to have an assistant doing that job this year."

If, in 2006, Mesopotamia were allowed to run twice before being detected as a different horse, how many times has the wrong horse gone to the races since, with all its obvious connotations for those studying the form? In 2009 -- when microchip checking took place at only 69 meetings out of a total of 352 -- four horses were confirmed as having the wrong identity and there was one more case at a point-to-point.

It seems certain that more escaped the authorities, although when officials appraised Turf Club management of their concerns in this area, they were told that the stewards had undertaken a risk management analysis and were content to make cutbacks, arguing that something had to give.

The TCOA is also alarmed that restrictions on drug testing of horses and camera facilities at its members' disposal (to detect horses not running on their merits) greatly undermines the role of the Turf Club. These concerns are based on their observations as the 'police force' of Irish racing and the TCOA is understood to be irritated by their motives being questioned.

According to former British Horseracing Board chairman Peter Saville, "if you don't protect the integrity of your sport, ultimately public confidence among betting people will deteriorate to the point where the financial structure of the industry -- which is based very much on betting turnover -- will wither away, eventually die and the sport with it."

Whereas in Britain there is a full department tasked with monitoring suspicious betting movements on Betfair, things were slower to get going here. HRI permits the Turf Club funding to pay one person to monitor the betting exchanges with a view to Ireland.

There are examples every week of horses drifting alarmingly on Betfair before running accordingly in Ireland. In January, a man who had been working for the trainer Charles Byrnes, was disqualified from racing for four months by the Referrals Committee of the Turf Club -- the first person in Ireland to fall foul of the rule prohibiting the laying of an employer's horses on the exchanges.

It is a tough time for the Turf Club, given the ignominy of having to deal with the workers' revolt and the closing down of its hotel at the Curragh last year -- which had been given as a gift by the Aga Khan. In this climate of financial austerity, it seems plausible that, given the duplication in resources and administration, a merger between HRI and the Turf Club could be realised at some stage.

With prize-money levels declining markedly, the temptation for trainers and owners to bargain with the rules becomes greater, the need to land a gamble all the more pressing. While the Turf Club will argue that cutting the integrity budget is unavoidable, the prospect of skulduggery thus becomes all the more likely.

Ten years ago, its then chief executive, Brian Kavanagh, emphasised the need for the Turf Club to stand alone, writing in the Racing Post that "strong, independent regulation" of Irish racing was "vital", adding that the stewards would "not allow the independence, authority or objectivity of the regulation of this critically important industry to be undermined".

A decade later, in his present role as HRI chief executive, Kavanagh has sanctioned severe cuts to the Turf Club's budget. The HRI will say it had no choice. The Government will say it had no choice. The Turf Club will say it had no choice. They will all agree that something had to give.

Sunday Independent

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