Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 10 November 2015
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine
Harness Racing Industry Development Needs: Discussion
I ask members and witnesses to turn off their mobile phones. I welcome from the Irish Harness Racing Association Mr. Mark Flanagan, chairman, Mr. James O'Sullivan, treasurer, Mr. Arthur Cooper, consultant, Mr. Ryan Ferris, assistant, and Dr. Peadar Ó Scanaill, veterinary consultant. I thank them for being here to brief the committee on the harness racing industry in Ireland.
Before we begin, I draw to their attention the matter of privilege. Witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of the evidence they are to give to the committee. However, if directed by the committee to cease giving evidence in relation to a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any members or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members were reminded earlier of privilege as it relates to them. I understand Mr. Arthur Cooper will make an opening statement.
Mr. Arthur Cooper:
I thank the committee for allowing the Irish Harness Racing Association to appear before it. We have introduced some packages which give a profile of the association and include photographs of harness racing in Ireland from years gone by. I will come to those photographs a little later. Our aim this afternoon is to introduce ourselves, discuss the sport and the size of the industry, how we can assist in terms of the social issues and what significant economic benefits we can bring to Ireland.
Trotting is a globally recognised sport. It is to be found across 31 countries and is an industry valued at €13 billion. It is a horserace run at recognised racetracks and has a horse pulling a sulky with a driver. France is the largest country for trotting and other sizable trotting territories include North America, Sweden and Australia. France and Australia, in particular, look at the sport from a community-rural aspect.
Trotting is the largest horse racing sport in mainland Europe and is bigger than thoroughbred racing. The Irish Harness Racing Association, IHRA, is the globally recognised governing body representing Ireland and an active member of the world federation of trotting. The European Trotting Union, UET, is a collective group, with 20 member states. Ireland has observer status, and this past summer underwent an audit to be elevated to full member status. We will learn of the UET's decision later this year. For an organisation such as ours, the equivalent is a country joining the EU.
The IHRA does not deal with road or sulky racing. Our race meetings are conducted at recognised racetracks and officiated under the full governance of international trotting rules and standards. We believe we might be able to assist with the road racing social issues.
The sport in France has developed, with more than 230 individual tracks spread throughout the country, mostly in rural towns. In the information provided to committee members I have included a map of France which indicates the large number of tracks throughout the country. For the French, this is a sport based in the rural community and, unlike thoroughbred racing, it is the district farmer and his wife who has a horse or two to race. There are big owners and stables, which is natural, but it is important to remember the smaller participants, primarily from rural communities, are in many ways the important grassroots level for the French trotting community. The industry in France is worth more than €6 billion in direct economic benefits and generates more than 60,000 direct jobs. Thoroughbred racing and trotting can and do stand side by side to help to grow an economy.
Thoroughbred racing and trotting share racecourse facilities in most countries and they hold meetings on the same day and, frequently, on the same race card. This is a global phenomenon. The use of Irish thoroughbred racetracks is being prevented at present by Horse Racing Ireland on the basis of welfare, track and competition reasons. All of these are hollow and flawed arguments. At the end of September, the IHRA was able to conduct a meeting on the all-weather surface at the thoroughbred track in Dundalk. It was highly successful and only added to the standing of Irish trotting, with international guests in attendance. We had a meeting with Horse Racing Ireland this morning at which we received a 100% clean bill of health with regard to welfare issues and the track. A number of people from Horse Racing Ireland were present at the meeting in Dundalk, and those in attendance this morning stated it was very professionally run. The Turf Club, as an independent group, examined all of our horses and they all passed. There was not one issue with regard to welfare, which is one of the main arguments Horse Racing Ireland has put forward. A report has been prepared, which we went through this morning. Unfortunately, for a number of internal administrative reasons Horse Racing Ireland has not yet forwarded the report to the Department or the Minister, Deputy Coveney, but it will happen very shortly. It is a very positive report. Horse Racing Ireland and the IHRA will conduct stable inspections of our trotting horses and trainers.
This morning, we also discussed with Horse Racing Ireland the importance of ongoing access to Dundalk. Both parties agreed, and it was stressed, that Dundalk can potentially be an interim location for us to hold meetings and be able to export our product, which I will discuss in a moment. Horse Racing Ireland insisted that from a longer-term perspective Dundalk is not the home for harness racing. We will seek a track, or a number of tracks, throughout the country. Dundalk was highly successful and can act as a stopgap solution from an international export perspective, but on a long-term basis we need to find an alternative solution.
The IHRA has entered a mentoring programme with the French governing body, LeTROT, whereby horses will be purchased at a subsidised rate, prize money contributions amounting to €150,000 or more are paid directly to us and educational opportunities are offered.
Importantly, there is scope for Irish trotting to be exported to France where commissions payable will amount to a minimum of €50,000 per race meeting we would export to France. Thoroughbreds do not receive anywhere near that amount of export money from markets outside the United Kingdom, and it is not just to France. There are other potential export markets. We are in discussion with countries around the world for Irish harness racing to be exported, and we will receive commission.
Additionally, apart from this opportunity, we have an Irish horse which is in Australia for the richest series in the southern hemisphere, the Inter Dominion. In 1993, the Irish thoroughbred, Vintage Crop, was the first international horse to travel to Australia to participate in and win the Melbourne Cup. Another Irish horse, Meadowbranch DJ, now has the opportunity to achieve similar success. There is a lot of interest in him, being the first international harness horse to race in the series. The three heats and final will take place later this month and also into December.
Currently, both France and Australia are making financial contributions towards the development of harness racing here in Ireland. As noted, the Irish Harness Racing Industry, IHRA, has no association whatsoever with road racing. Europe does not have this problem. One reason for that is the strength of the European trotting industry. The sport is offered in many rural towns and is presented under the governance of trotting rules, with prize money and betting opportunities.
Members will notice that we have provided a number of photographs within the pack to illustrate the sport in Ireland in the past. One of the photographs shows trotting being held in Jones Road, on the site of what is now Croke Park. That was in 1900. Another photograph shows trotting being held at the RDS show in 1922, and another is of trotting being held in Raheny, with huge crowds, in 1945. Trotting is not unfamiliar here in Ireland.
By supporting the IHRA, road races can be integrated, as they have been in Europe over many years. They have access to races at tracks, with prize money under the rules of racing governance, and with betting opportunities. In France, for example, the last race of each meeting at Bordeaux today is dedicated to amateur drivers. That is where the local community can race against themselves, and they receive full pari mutuel urbain, PMU, coverage in France.
On Tuesday, 14 October, the budget was handed down. The thoroughbred and greyhound racing industry saw a combined increase of 9%, or €6 million. In addition, the Traveller community received an increase of 27% to €2.7 million for advancing horse projects for urban and Traveller horse owners. The IHRA submitted and requested a total of just €375,000 for development and veterinary issues. The IHRA was allocated zero.
As noted, other countries assisting financially include France and Australia. The IHRA is on the verge of becoming a key component within the global trotting industry. This will occur through developing export markets for Ireland and creating other industries and jobs in Ireland, including in breeding, where we now have our own stud book. Breeding of horses in Ireland is an integral part of the economy, and that is where we have a terrific opportunity to develop Trotteur Francais horses for export to Europe, and into Sweden and France in particular.
There are also the opportunities from an international tote trotting hub. From a tote perspective, revenue is key to any form of gambling industry. That is an area we are trying to develop. We are in discussions, and we have a meeting with the Department of Justice and Equality tomorrow regarding the Gambling Control Bill currently being drafted yet not one euro has been found to assist us in the development of this industry for Ireland where we can rapidly produce real, direct economic benefits.
The IHRA is seeking funding for ongoing business development, veterinary needs and longer term funding to develop dedicated tracks for trotting.
We are hopeful that our positive and self-generated progress will be noted and acted upon.
I thank the committee for its time. Our chairman, Mr. Mark Flanagan, treasurer, Mr. James O'Sullivan, and our veterinary consultant, Mr. Peadar Ó Scanaill, can add their remarks if they wish.
Mr. Mark Flanagan:
Harness racing, or trotting as it is known in Europe, is a bigger sport on mainland Europe than thoroughbreds. Each of the countries support the development and funding of harness racing. It is a rural programme. There are 230 tracks in France and the tracks are probably within half an hour of each other. All the rural people can attend. As has been said, the husband and wife can train their horse and race it in the amateur programme. In addition, there is €230 million in prize money on offer in France-----
Mr. Mark Flanagan:
If one looks at the thoroughbred horse racing in Ireland, which includes the flat and national hunt, it is €50 million. The thoroughbred industry employs 17,000 in Ireland. In France, 60,000 people are employed in trotting. It is a huge sport. The president and general secretary of the UET, European Trotting Union, and the chief executive officer of Le Trot came to Dundalk. There was Group 1 racing on in Vincennes in Paris and they left that to come to Dundalk to support us in the development of the sport.
Mr. James O'Sullivan:
To elaborate on what Arthur said earlier about the social problems in Ireland related to sulky racing, we probably take the view that many of these social problems are due to not having a properly funded structure for trotting in this country. We believe that we have a part to play in solving some of that social problem. It does not exist anywhere else in mainland Europe. It exists in Great Britain but that country is in the same position as this country. It has the same problems. It has an unfunded trotting organisation, just as Ireland has. We believe there is a solution in that regard. The social problem exists as a result of not having a properly funded structure for trotting.
Dr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
Peadar Ó Scanaill is my name. I am a veterinarian in north County Dublin. In my locality, trotting has been taking place in Portmarnock since the 1960s and 1970s. My father was a veterinarian agus bhí sé ag obair ann chomh maith. He always used to do the work there. They never had money. This sport must be supported. The sport tries to do things correctly. It differentiates itself completely from what takes place on the road. What happens on the road must stop. It is a welfare issue and a problem. It is a shame to our nation that people can see some of the things that occur. Trotting is the opposite end of the spectrum, with no funding whatsoever. It is all from the pockets of the people involved.
In Dundalk we had a fantastic day out on the veterinary side. The Turf Club came in attendance. We were quite confident from the veterinary point of view. I had other professionals with me. There were four veterinary assistants as well as my two veterinary practitioners. The Turf Club came along and we were quite delighted to see it come with us. Obviously our work mainly covers the thoroughbred world, and then we do sidelines such as what the men with me are doing as well as eventing and so forth. We mimicked exactly what takes place on the racecourses in Fairyhouse, Leopardstown and so forth.
These people are as high, if not higher, in their standard of welfare and care of their horses. They are welcoming to any suggestions we in the veterinary profession make to them to ensure that they do the job properly. It is difficult for us as veterinary practitioners to continue giving this service because, in fairness, it is out of their pocket and they cannot possibly pay us current or correct rates. That is the reason I am here this afternoon. As independently as possible, although I have been working with them nearly all of my life, I wish to state that they are doing their best to promote the sport in the way it should be conducted. It might also be a help, as was suggested by Arthur, towards a solution to another problem they tend to get tagged with even though it has nothing to do with them.
Cuirim fáilte roimh na finnéithe tráthnóna inniu. Is deas go raibh an deis acu cur i láthair a dhéanamh.
I welcome the witnesses. I was very interested in their submission. I do not get the logic of where the problems are coming from. In other words, as far as I am concerned, this is just another sport and another way for people to enjoy themselves, and it is legitimate. The witnesses have outlined that it is common right across Europe - it is certainly common in America - and that there are no welfare issues, etc.
We can discuss this at a private meeting next week, but I would be fascinated to hear the HRI side of the story, which would be one way of progressing this. I believe the best way forward in any situation, if there are counterarguments, is to hear both sides. One can then make a judgement but one should never make a judgement by hearing one side only. However, I am intrigued as to what are the HRI's problems. I could have foreseen two issues, one of which is the organisation of the people organising the harness races and that is something that would be addressed by proper codes of conduct and behaviour. I wonder whether the HRI would argue that the vehicles themselves would damage the race courses. Again, it does not seem to do any damage in other countries, although there might be an argument that the going is sometimes a bit softer in Ireland than in other places, so let us hear that out.
As of now, however, I do not know of any good reason for this problem. Nonetheless, we know there is a problem there and, therefore, the HRI must have some counterargument. To be honest with the witnesses, if we want to progress this, we will have to try to find out what the real argument is. Sometimes people give us arguments but is not really what is worrying them; rather, it is one they think is presentable. We will just have to find out what the logjam is and try to deal with that. This concerns the issue of access to courses, particularly where private people are willing to give the IHRA the courses but it is not able to get them because the HRI is overruling this.
The second issue is that of Government appropriations. I believe that, as an equine activity, harness racing should have access to funding. The committee has a study ongoing in regard to horses in general and the whole horse industry, literally from the thoroughbreds through the sport horses and every other kind of horse right down to horses in urban communities, in trying to take a holistic view and see how it could all be properly regulated, properly done and properly funded. Therefore, there is no reason I can see that we would not suggest to the Minister that the IHRA, subject to the normal checks and balances, would be funded either directly or indirectly, but that funding would be made available. I believe the IHRA request is quite modest and amounts to a few hundred thousand euro. It is not exactly the biggest such request we have ever received.
I would like to address the issue of road and sulky racing. It is interesting that there are two sports in Ireland which take place on the road. One is sulky racing, and we heard much talk about that, and the other is the favourite Cork sport of bowling, where they close all the roads in the evening and throw bowls along the road. The great and the good of south Cork or west Cork are into this activity in a big way. I do not know if it has got over the border into Kerry yet.
I have always taken a very strong view that Travellers have a legitimate interest in horses as part of a very long tradition, just as rural people in different parts of the country are more involved with horses than those in other parts of the country. At the same time, we have to regularise the position and that can only be done by providing the facilities to allow it to be done in a structured fashion. I think it would be great for their own safety as well as for the public good if we could provide them with the places to train and run the horses.
We have discussed this publicly at the committee with the representatives of the county managers association and the county chief executives association, so I see that as a big upside here. We tend to go solving problems in a negative rather than a positive way but we should try to solve this one in a constructive way.
Those involved in harness racing have put a distance between themselves and those involved in sulky racing and said, "We are not them". I accept they are not them but I think they should embrace them, as long as they comply. This would be hugely positive because there has been enough exclusion in this country. If we could encourage them to get involved, so long as they abided by all the rules, all the better. It is a win-win situation and I believe it would be hugely beneficial.
In that regard, I know the IHRA thought there was €5 million which was not spent. Unfortunately, that money was for Traveller housing. That money has certainly been put back in the pot. Anyone dealing with Traveller housing will know there are no houses for Travellers. It is not that there was no use for the money as ten times that money could have been used usefully. This was about the total inability of certain authorities in this country to come forward with plans to deal with that. I ask the IHRA not to go after that €5 million and to leave it for what it was meant for.
The money should come out of the funds already going to horses. We should be absolutely clear that this is where the money has to come from. There is no reason the industry or the recreation, call it what we want, the IHRA wants to promote would not get its fair share of funding. However, I also have to say I have been passionate in advocating that horse projects for young people from urban backgrounds would get some slice of the action from the moneys we give to horses, and that would include those involved in sulky racing because there is an overlap between the two things. Any investment we have made in horse projects, particularly around Dublin, has been hugely beneficial in terms of giving a legitimate outlet to young children in urban areas to love animals, get to know them, treat them in a fair way and not abuse them.
I thank all the witnesses for their presentations. I was not present at the Dundalk meeting but some close friends of mine were and they spoke of how well everything went off and how it was handled, as well as the benefit to the area and the local economy. Everyone I know who was there was very happy with the event.
Despite the amount of money allocated to the horse and greyhound sector every year - there are Supplementary Estimates every year in that regard - the IHRA asked for just €375,000 and did not get one cent. I believe that is very wrong and even disgraceful, given the potential to develop the industry. As the witnesses said in their presentation, the IHRA would hope to have a number of venues around the country where it could advance the industry. More and more people want to be involved in harness racing but are denied access to racetracks and do not have the facilities, which is inhibiting the growth of the industry.
I suspect Horse Racing Ireland sees the association as competing against it and for that reason, it is deliberately - I use the word "deliberately" - preventing the development of harness racing. I hope HRI will prove me wrong. Elitism in any part of life, whether in sport or elsewhere, is wrong. When people see themselves as above somebody else, or better than somebody else, or keep people down, I see that as wrong. The enjoyment of harness racing or any other sport which is there for young people and spectators to enjoy should be encouraged, once it is legitimate and, in this case, once it meets the welfare standards, which it has. Therefore, it needs to be encouraged and supported.
We, as decision-makers, although the Government is the decision-maker which we try to influence to make decisions, should do all in our power to ensure the IHRA gets equal treatment and is treated fairly, as it should be.
Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned there could be damage to tracks and so forth. My understanding is that all-weather facilities are essential for harness racing and Dundalk is an all-weather race track. All-weather tracks are well able to cater for it.
When one considers the support to the economy, the amount of money generated and the benefit provided by harness racing in France and other countries, I cannot see how an organisation or a Government in this country would try to prevent it proceeding. There is no reason to do that. I tabled a priority question on this for the Minister, Deputy Coveney, in the recent past and he indicated that he would consider the matter in a favourable way. I hope that will be the outcome.
The witnesses said they met with representatives of Horse Racing Ireland. I hope it has changed its position. I am aware from written reports that it had difficulties initially, and certainly in the recent past, as it saw harness racing as competing against its industry. If that is its current position and if a proposal is brought to the committee for the allocation of money to Horse Racing Ireland, I will certainly not vote for it in that case.
I thank the gentlemen for their presentation. I did not realise the extent of harness racing across the world until I read the presentation today and listened to the witnesses. It is very interesting. When one considers that France and Australia support the development of harness racing in Ireland but the Irish Government does not, it conveys a damning picture regarding the powers-that-be in this country and what appears to be the potential for a vibrant and well-followed sport.
Do the witnesses have direct contact with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine or is everything directed through Horse Racing Ireland? If they have contact with the Department, what type of response are they getting on this matter? Horse Racing Ireland has the remit to develop the entire horse industry across the country, so it should treat everybody equally and seek to foster and grow all horse-related activities. That is vital.
The tracks must be all-weather tracks and Dundalk is one such track. How many of the tracks in the country would be suitable for harness racing at present? If the development of new tracks would be required to develop the sport, the witnesses would be on a loser from the start due to the financial constraints.
Also, with regard to the road racing that has been mentioned by other members, does the IHRA have any contacts with the road racing community or has it spoken to its members about how it could assist or, perhaps, bring them on board, or is it too early in its development for that to happen? I believe it would be worthwhile and would make sense, given that a witness spoke about the final race on the card being for amateurs and open to people to enter and test themselves.
Overall, the industry appears to be positive and is one that should be supported. I look forward to the responses to our questions.
I thank the witnesses for providing us with such a fantastic information pack and presentation. I never thought of trotting happening on grass tracks. Does it only take place on dirt tracks or can it take place on grass tracks? With regard to it taking place on grass tracks, I was the marketing manager of a racecourse for ten years and I ran a grass track and protecting the turf for all our meetings was a full-time occupation. If I was running a race track and the witnesses approached me, it would be different because there are wheels involved. The weather here means there is a great deal of rain and there is soft ground, going to good ground, as a result. Perhaps the witnesses will comment on that.
I was appalled to see in the presentation that HRI had the power to come between the IHRA and a private race track. If Deputy Eamon Ó Cuív owns the race track in Galway, for example, the delegates cannot ask him if they can pay him to use it. He said, "I wish they did." I have been involved in different parts of the horse industry. My daughter is a showjumper, but we do not hang out or have anything to do with the showing or eventing people, even though we are all involved in the horse industry. They are different bodies. In the case of thoroughbreds, flat racing and national hunt racing are two different worlds. Tillage farming is different from dairy farming and beef production is different from sheep production. It is, therefore, not simple. Horses have four legs, but we all live in different worlds that are worlds apart.
Does the industry have a business plan for the Government? I would love to see it. Representatives of the thoroughbred industry appear before the committee and have an amazing record. The industry is ranked as one of the best in the world. We have the best breeders, export many amazing thoroughbreds and the industry employs an amazing number of people in rural areas. Do the delegates have a projected plan for who the industry might employ? I am also anxious to hear a projection for betting and tax revenue and what the delegates think could happen. Then, to be honest, it would be a no-brainer and we would have to put a case, if people want to have this sport in this country.
What will we do? The track in Dundalk was a great success, but what other tracks are there? It cannot all be based in Dundalk. The rest of Ireland must be considered.
Let us say I wished to become involved in trotting. How would I get my horses fit? Obviously, if I intended to train them, I would wish to train them in a trotting fashion with a harness. Would I have to work them on the road or would I need a track?
I echo the sentiments of other committee members. I, too, am interested to hear how we could help with sulky racing and bring in those involved in order that we can stop the obvious cruelty that has been occurring. It would be wonderful to get the veterinarian and welfare side right in order that sulky racing could be brought under control. I am interested in hearing any further commentary on that issue the experts may have to make.
The point is that there is an activity taking place that is not properly supervised, yet there is an organisation that is engaged more or less in the same activity in an organised, structured fashion with proper governance. It seems ridiculous that the two cannot be married to deal with the problem. However, there are infrastructural issues which have been highlighted.
Mr. Mark Flanagan:
We have views on the Traveller issue and why there is road racing in Ireland. Mr. Cooper said in his presentation that throughout Europe there was a proper, functioning trotting industry that was well supported and integrated into the community. We do not have that here. While we race horses and have the tracks in Portmarnock, we do not have the support of the Government or funds. There is no road racing in France, Sweden or elsewhere. That is because these countries have properly structured harness racing that is supported by the government and well integrated. That is missing in this country.
There are members of the Traveller community involved in harness racing. We do not prevent anybody from participating. As long as one fits the criteria to apply for a licence, one can own a horse. Billy Roche is our leading driver this year. He will represent Ireland in Vincennes in France in the first week of December in an international race. He will wear the Irish colours in Vincennes which has one of the biggest race tracks in the world. It holds 60,000 people and is spectacular. Billy Roche is a settled Traveller and a tangible success story. There was a background where he might have been on the road five or six years ago, but he integrated and saw the potential of the sport. He enjoys his racing.
He is now the leading driver in Portmarnock and has represented this country in Vincennes in France. We also have eight drivers competing at Argentan in France at the end of November, where they will race against eight of the top drivers in France. We are competing on an international level and Dr. Ó Scanaill will confirm that the association is doing everything with regard to veterinary controls and testing procedures. We are doing all of this but we are not funded. We tested at every single race in Dundalk for 1,000 different products and all the tests were negative. We have a sport trying to do its best on a professional level but not getting the support or the funding.
Mr. Mark Flanagan:
The Dundalk track may not be 100% suitable but it is 90% there. The facilities at the Dundalk track are outstanding. The head of the European Trotting Union, UET, and the general secretary and the CEO of French racing visited the facilities at Dundalk. They were amazed by the Dundalk track which is one of the best tracks in Europe for thoroughbreds and for harness racing. They were impressed that the track was floodlit. Premium harness racing meetings could be held at that venue and we could get €50,000 upwards in revenue per meeting. Projected figures from French meetings would show €75,000 per meeting. The thoroughbred industry gets €40,000 per race meeting. The French betting agency, PMU, has given us clearance for 2016 and all we are waiting for is clearance from HRI. Legislation allows HRI to dictate to privately owned racetracks what events they can and cannot hold.
Mr. Arthur Cooper:
The legislation on Horse Racing Ireland contains a reference to authorised racetracks. We have been looking at this issue for the past couple of years and we have brought it to the attention of the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission on the basis of a number of issues, including the reference to authorised racetracks in that is it anti-competitive. Dundalk is a privately owned racetrack and its board is very much in favour of having us there. However, up until the end of September, HRI had the ability, which it exercised, to say it was an authorised racetrack and, therefore, it would not be permit this to happen.
Leaving the Dundalk racetrack aside, as it is an all-weather one, what is the objection of HRI to other tracks? Has it given a reason as to why it will not give permission to the private tracks? What is its argument against this?
Legislation gives HRI the power. Somebody can give me power in legislation to do all sorts of things but, as it is discretionary, I do not have to exercise that power. Why is HRI using the discretion given to it by the legislation to block the race meetings?
Mr. Mark Flanagan:
We have documents dating back to 2010. This has been going on since 2008. We held two successful meetings in Dundalk in 2008 and we have been excluded from having any other meeting. We looked for meetings in Wexford and in Killarney. We had negotiated with the people in Killarney, we had booked hotels and we had a date set for a two-day meeting but all of a sudden, that was pulled from under us.
It is somewhat ironic that within an hour, Second Stage of the Horse Racing Ireland Bill 2015 will taken in the Dáil. We carried out pre-legislative scrutiny of that legislation but this issue did not appear on our radar.
It is scheduled to be taken by the committee in approximately three weeks' time, probably by early December. This Bill is quite a significant piece of work and much pre-legislative and other work have gone into it. We will meet the Minister next week to discuss the horse and greyhound racing fund, so while the witnesses' timing may have been better one year ago, it is nevertheless opportune at this point in time.
Mr. Mark Flanagan:
We have racing at Wexford, at Naas racecourse and we have had racing at Clonmel in the past. We race on grass. Many of the tracks in France are grass and are shared facilities where a thoroughbred would race on them and a trotting race would also race on them. The wheel does not make any difference; it is the hoof prints and our hoof prints are the same as a thoroughbred hoof prints. As long as it is not soft-going then we are more akin to what the flat horse needs where we need fast-going, but we can also go on soft ground. In the UK there is an annual two day race meeting at the Musselburgh racecourse and there are no problems there, but we seem to have a problem with allowing both types of racing in Ireland.
We would like to put a plan in place around Ireland to have race meetings in Sligo, Limerick, Kerry, Wexford and Waterford. This gives everybody a chance to participate. This sport is known as a working man's sport all over Europe. It is accessible for the working man or a husband and wife. I have attended races in France over the last number of years and it is amazing to see couples coming to the races in their sulky and the husband racing the horse in the evening where the prize money on offer can be €14,000; the minimum prize money in France is €10,000. The programme they have is unreal.
The French agencies are supporting us by giving us some prize money - they provide a third of the prize money for French trotting racing at the moment - but they also provide us with an arrangement where we subsidise the buying of race horses. We signed an agreement with the French two years ago which allows for the breeding of a horse in Ireland which is then permitted to go back and race in France. In France international races only account for 10% of the calendar and 90% of races are for French owned horses. However, if a horse is bred in Ireland through the Trotteur Français programme it is allowed to enter races in France with a prize fund totalling nearly €230 million. There is also a huge breeder streaming programme which generates €29 million in breeder's fees. If a horse is bred in Ireland but races in France a breeder would receive a breeding premium because of the signed agreement with France which allows us to breed horses in Ireland. This is a huge opportunity for the industry in Ireland.
Mr. Arthur Cooper:
I work in France and over the summer season many of the racetracks on the map are turf tracks which are used for both flat and trotting races. They are frequently used for PMU meetings and as a commentator I could call a trotting meeting on a grass track at Dieppe or other tracks around the country. Therefore, a number of those meetings do go on a normal racetrack particularly in summer.
Dr. Peadar Ó Scanaill:
Senator O'Brien asked about the training of horses. It is similar to training an event horse or a single horse. Trotting is akin to eventing and show jumping where the trainer has just one or two horses. It is not like being Willie Mullins or Tony Martin where a large space is required. Trotters use small tracks in their own fields and it is a summertime sport. It is a little like eventing where one will also go out onto the road to trot the horse, or when one gets a hunt horse ready one will use the road somewhat. But broadly it is in fields and in the same way they build a menagethey will also build a track. There are plenty of tracks around where neighbours share the facility.
Deputy Ó Cuív and Senator O'Brien made reference to the matter of welfare. When any child or any young person minds a horse it usually brings out the good in that person and anything that encourages that is good. When some people look at the road racing they say it is all bad but it is not. There are many very good children involved who have nothing else to do but they do have an interest in keeping horses. It is educating those children and bringing them in to a fold. This is a huge step forward.
Mr. Arthur Cooper:
The French agencies have also offered us the opportunity to send a young person - who wants to get into horses - down to Grobois, a large training facility south of Paris. They will provide a week of education about trotting in France. They are supporting us to send young people there annually to learn more about that aspect of the sport.
Deputy Ferris mentioned the competition issue. It was interesting that at Horse Racing Ireland this morning we were talking about the Dundalk meeting. One of the bookmakers who was there that day elected to offer betting on the Curragh. He was also racing that afternoon. The problem was he did not take a bet. He actually said the bookmakers supervised it. They said he did not take a bet. It is totally separate, from a competition perspective, it is horses and gambling but it is a totally different coach and a totally different set of people who are involved, with the result that bookmakers could say they want to bet on it, as in the Curragh, but there is no interest from the said group of people.
To summarise, Mr. Mark Flanagan mentioned earlier that it is a workingman's sport. I wonder if that is the reason for the blockage with the horse racing fraternity? We have the tracks and we have the support in terms of international sport and we have the people who are interested in racing but we just do not have the goodwill of the governing authority in the country.
Mr. Mark Flanagan:
To summarise, that is basically it. We have the tracks. For now we can use Dundalk. We have a five year plan but when we can demonstrate that we can create revenue then the race tracks will come. We can use tracks around the country and we can use Dundalk. Dundalk is an interim solution. In five years time I see us as having our own dedicated harness racing tracks.
I thank the representatives for the insight they have given the committee. We have had our eyes wide opened by much of what they have said. I suggest they submit to the secretariat the five year plan and also the observations on the Horse Racing Ireland Bill 2015 for the members as it is coming before the House this evening and will be discussed tomorrow and probably next week again on Second Stage. Committee Stage it is scheduled to come before this committee in December. All the proceedings today are on the public record so people will have an opportunity to observe them which, no doubt, they will. The representatives have heard the flavour of the response - it is not patronising or anything else. People have given their genuine objective observations of what they see. It would seem fair that at least some financial token of acknowledgment would have been forthcoming. I think the Minister did undertake to engage positively with them. As a committee we have put it on our agenda to discuss privately, next week, how we can be supportive, if that is the will of the members of the committee. We will keep the representatives informed of what we do in that vein.
Again I thank the representatives for appearing before the committee and giving us that insight into the sector. Thinking about it, I hitched around a good part of Australia a long time ago. The only problem I had was that none of those fellows with the horse floats and a sulky on the back would stop to give one a lift. Other than that I did go to the races in Melbourne when I was over there, it was like going to the dogs. It was a completely different experience but very exciting.