Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Comfortably Numb

Mon 8th Jan 2018, 08:43

Christy Roche retired last week
©Healy Racing Photos
Horse Racing Ireland likes to characterise the state's financial support not as a subsidy but a stimulus. Subsidy is too loaded. Stimulus sounds much better. Except it's not accurate. By definition a stimulus is a reinvigorating jolt. It's impact is finite. The purpose is supposed to be to boost a sector until it's sound enough to stand alone. The Horse & Greyhound Fund is now 17 years old. That's stimulation to the point of numbness. So it might be no bad New Year Resolution for racing's brass to consider planning for a future without infinite subsidy.

It's a long-term thing because a lot of people have a lot invested in keeping things just nicely as they are. And why wouldn't they. Racing here exists in a financial playpen other major jurisdictions envy.

There's no link between the industry's finances and the amount of betting turnover it generates. It gets its funding mechanism automatically topped up by a government prepared to hand out all tax revenue to a sector generating about 12 per cent of turnover. So it's hardly surprising a lot of people are very happy with how things are.

It is pretty much perfect from the viewpoint of those within Irish racing. It lives up to its side of the bargain by providing rural employment, lots of sales and a sense of prestige that comes with doing something it does better than anywhere else in the world. And in return it gets state money to do with more or less as it pleases in its own air-tight little bubble.

Who wouldn't want that to continue, especially since Irish racing's international reputation has rarely if ever been higher. But it's naive to presume the bubble can continue indefinitely. Maybe not, today, maybe not tomorrow, maybe not even soon; but someday racing has to be able to stand alone. The sooner it acknowledges that, and starts properly preparing for it, the better.

That doesn't mean maintaining a low-level drone about increasing betting tax and having it all go to racing. For one thing that doesn't change reliance on government and the fluctuations in political favour inherent in that. You don't have to be any kind of 'Pinko' to ponder how politic is racing's sense of entitlement in comparison to a multitude of other hard-pressed areas in public life.

But if the political future is uncertain, the technical outlook is less so.

The algorithm that allows tax generated by individual sports to be precisely measured and distributed according to turnover probably already exists. Since betting revenue generated online will only increase it's likely to be only a matter of time before all sorts of different sports start demanding a slice of the action they're generating.

In such a climate arguing for one sector generating a small percentage of turnover to get all the dividend will be a stretch, no matter what kind of employment or prestige justification is employed. Much more likely is that racing will have to hustle for as big a percentage of the betting pie as it can. It will have to stand or fall on its own merits just like everyone else.

Such a prospect is quite a culture shock for a sector grown so dependent on state largesse. Plenty though will maintain there's little point even thinking like that given the current legislative, political and financial garden is so rosy. It is certainly the attitude of many leading figures within the sport.

However a lot of them are also business people who pride themselves on their hard-nosed, bottom-line ruthlessness, self-consciously tough balance sheet merchants to whom the very idea of subsidy, dependence or, dare we say, benefits, is anathema. And it's a good bet that if you presented them with racing as it is, as a commercial business proposition, they'd laugh you out the door.

At some point that contradiction has to be grasped. With time has come a certain numbness to the privileged financial position racing here enjoys. Failure to plan for a sustainable stand-alone future risks a very cold and very sharp shock. And that would be an admission that 17 years of stimulus has ultimately failed.

Having had a week off, and filled it in the typical holiday pastime of fighting flu, I've returned to lots of concerned queries about whether or not Faugheen was got at? And believe it or not, the answer is I don't know. Apparently not every test done on the horse is complete but nothing has shown up to date so at least no one else appears to know either.

It's the nature of the game though that even if every possible test comes up negative some will still insist there's something sinister about Faugheen's run at Christmas.

It was such a perplexingly awful run that that's inevitable. Sizing John ran like a sick horse. Faugheen hardly ran at all. In such a scenario an open door policy for theories of all kinds always occurs. And in such a scenario the timely distribution of factual and accurate information is in everyone's interests. Because vacuums fill anyway.

As Raz De Maree and Alfie Spinner fought out their Welsh Grand National finish, the story wrote itself - gallant veteran 13 year olds proving there's plenty of life left in them yet. It was almost cosy down the media burrow with plentiful dollops of nostalgia and fondness for the gallant old geezers heart-warmingly putting youngsters in their place.

Yet it only required a single error, one bad step, or a physical problem at the end of three and three quarter miles to turn that story in a very different direction, one where old horses cruelly pushed into racing for too long would be the top. That only a matter of days separated both of them from being 12, as distinct from a more emotive 13, only emphasises how arbitrary such narratives can be.

One of the finest racing careers came to an end with Christy Roche's retirement from training. It's only when you glance back at names such as Like-A-Butterfly, Grimes and Youlneverwalkalone that you recall how significant Roche's training career was. But it was always going to pale in comparison to a truly superb riding career.

Few mistook Christy Roche for a stylist in the saddle and in his pomp he also had to fight the fashion for favouring overseas based pilots when it came to big races.

Fashions fade however, unlike the sort of substance that delivers seven jockeys titles to someone competing against other champions such as Kinane, Eddery and Murtagh. And Roche can still boast a Derby Triple Crown that eluded both Kinane and Murtagh. Secreto's 1984 Epsom success added to Assert's Chantilly-Curragh double three years before.

It's every jockey's fate to be a 'Marmite' character for punters. There are some people within racing who hold quite a jaundiced view of Christy too. But from a personal point of view he has never been anything but helpful and friendly. Here's to a long and happy retirement for a very significant figure.

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