Donn's Articles » Budget


Best case scenario: Michael Noonan stands up in The Dail this afternoon and says, first things first, before we get into children’s allowance (consider renting out your third and fourth-born for a few years) or VAT (2% more on a Mars bar – price not chocolate) or PAYE (we said no change, right?), the racing industry has been waiting long enough, so here are the details of the new betting tax, and here’s how it’s going to fund racing for as far into the future as the home straight at The Curragh stretches.

Realistic scenario: Betting tax and the funding of horse racing will not be linked, and the spread on the number of times that racing gets mentioned in the minister’s speech is accurately priced at 1.5-2.5.

The truth is that, for the vast majority of Irish people, betting tax and the funding of racing is not even near the radar. When you are wondering how you are going to pay your mortgage next month, or when you are booking a one-way ticket to the UK or America or Australia in January, then the intricate detail of the betting tax structure is the last thing on your mind.

If you think about it at all, you probably get annoyed at the amounts of money that are being put up in prize funds in the current climate for fat-cat owners to race for, in the same way as your blood boils when you hear of golden handshakes and pensions for top public servants and bankers, or a €35,000 pay rise for a government advisor.

But that is to miss the point.

Racing has an image problem. The sport of kings. Wealthy owners racing their horses for sport and getting paid for the privilege.

The first part of that is correct. The majority of racehorse owners are wealthy individuals. There are still some syndicates and racing clubs around, some left over from the Celtic Tiger era (remember that?), but most individual racehorse owners are men and women of means.

The second part, however, really isn’t true, and that is where the image problem lies. The vast majority of racehorse owners do not make a profit from owning racehorses. They are people who made or make their profits elsewhere, and who choose to spend it on racehorses and on racing. It is a leisure pursuit, not a business and, like all leisure pursuits, it costs money. They are huge net contributors to racing.

You can legitimately argue that racing could not go ahead without the punters or the bookmakers or the trainers or the jockeys or the racecourses, or without any of the other groups of people like valets and stable staff who grease the cogs of the game, but the contribution of racehorse owners is crucial to what is a multi-billion euro industry in Ireland, with all its off-spins. It is an industry that provides employment for between 14,000 and 17,000 people. We know that horse racing is a sport at which we excel, in which Ireland continually punches well above its weight internationally, but it is not only as a sport that it deserves significant government support, it is as a key industry.

To that end, prize money is crucial. How many owners would you lose if prize money fell by another 10%? Maybe none, maybe some. By 20%? By 30%? Who knows? But if you lost one, it would be too many. There is no way of knowing what the knock-on effect would be. And if someone like JP McManus or Michael O’Leary or Barry Connell or Rich Ricci or Paddy Wilmott or Alan Potts were to decide to cut back significantly or to get out of the sport completely, there is no telling the extent of the havoc that could be wreaked.

Horse Racing Ireland have done remarkably well to maintain prize money at current levels of late. Case in point, only one race run at Fairyhouse on Sunday (the bumper) was worth less than €18,000 to the winner, on a day when, across the water at Warwick, three of the seven races were worth less than £3,000 to the winner, none was worth more than £5,000, and the winner of the bumper took home £1,642.56.

More needs to be done, however, in general education on the importance of the industry and the importance of the prize money that underpins it. Willie Mullins wrote about it in his column in this paper on Sunday, but it shouldn’t be up to Willie Mullins to educate and inform people, and the message shouldn’t be limited to the trade papers. Of course, there is surely lobbying going on behind the scenes at government level, but more needs to be done at ground level as well: a trickle-up approach that would dovetail with high-level talks.

In the immediate term, for racing, as for most walks of Irish life, damage limitation is the ultimate goal from today’s budget. Going forward, however, the objective has to be a better understanding of the importance of the horse racing industry among the general public in order that future funding can secure a stronger foothold.

© The Racing Post, 6th December 2011