Tuesday, 1 June 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
The Minister of State, as a good Kildare person, will know all about the racing business but without horse and pony racing, there would be no Irish racing industry to enjoy. This business is the essential foundation for all young jockeys to learn the skills and competencies to enable them to become top-class jockeys in Ireland and abroad.It is a sport for males and females from all walks of life. People start at the age of eight or younger, and there is no upper age limit. It is good for people's well-being. It creates a great love of animals by many young people. It is not just people from the farming community who enjoy horse and pony racing. Many families from urban areas enjoy this wonderful sport. All of the people involved in it are volunteers. We all know of the race meets around the countryside that bring so much enjoyment each year, for example the races in Loughrea, the Dingle races, Frenchpark in Roscommon, and Geesala in Mayo. The meets are huge for the local communities. Of course, because of the pandemic this has all been hit. The volunteers who run these race meets are now looking forward to getting it all up and running again. They do not get any funding.
Horse Racing Ireland has a budget of €76 million. I understand, however, that it cannot fund them. Brian Kavanagh and Denis Egan from the Jockey Club sympathise with these small racing volunteers but, as far as I am aware, they cannot fund them. We need to look at this to see if there is some way we can get some funding for groups like the midlands horse and pony association, the north-west racing committee, the southern racing committee, the Dingle races, and the people in Frenchpark in my county. Sponsorship has disappeared because of the Covid close down.
The aspect of well-being is a very important point in all of this, and especially for young people. It is an open air sport, which is very important when we are moving out of Covid restrictions and being told to get outdoors as the safe way to go. For those people to get up and running and to re-establish themselves, they need funding now. They have very little money left in their accounts. Many of the people involved are using their own money to get much of the work done. There are huge costs involved with insurance and the chipping of animals. All of this is being done very well and is very well looked after by the people in control. One can imagine, however, all of the cost there.
This sport is really the foundation that opens up avenues for the likes of Rachael Blackmore, Barry Geraghty, Bryan Cooper, Nina Carberry and Katie Walsh. It goes on and on. Just look at the successes those people have had. Look at the pride they have brought to Ireland. They all started at those pony and horse races up and down the country. The Minister of State will understand this very well. I believe it is vital and important that we as a Government look at this issue and that we try to organise a funding stream that will back this up. Again, I put it to the Minister of State that all of the people involved are volunteers. It does not just open up avenues for jockeys. It also opens up opportunities for owners of horses and for stable people to go on and make a good career. This is the training ground and the base. This is the rock on which our racing business is founded and we must support it. If we do not, then these volunteers will disappear and the ability of people to enjoy this outing will be gone.
I thank Senator Murphy. It is my pleasure to welcome my good friend the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon. This may be the first official opportunity I have had to congratulate him. It may be a bit late, but it is never too late.
I congratulate the Leas-Chathaoirleach too. It is good to see him in the Chair.
I first must apologise that the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, was unable to make it to the House today. I am happy to take this Commencement matter on the Minister's behalf.
Horse Racing Ireland, HRI, is a commercial State body established under the Horse and Greyhound Racing Act 2001, and is responsible for the overall administration, promotion and development of the horse racing industry.
The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, IHRB, is the regulatory body for all horse racing in Ireland. The board is a company limited by guarantee. The Turf Club and the Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Committee transferred their regulatory functions, together with related assets and liabilities, to the company under a business transfer agreement on 1 January 2018.
Under Section 12 of the Horse and Greyhound Racing Act 2001, my Department provides funding to HRI on an annual basis. My Department has allocated €76.8 million to HRI to assist the horse racing and wider thoroughbred industry in 2021. This is an increase of €9.6 million or 14% on the 2020 allocation of €67.2 million. HRI has informed me that it has never provided funding to pony racing as the sport does not fall within its remit, the equines involved are not thoroughbreds, and these meetings have not been recognised by the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board, IHRB.
Horse Racing Ireland and the IHRB have indicated that they are in dialogue with the various pony racing organisations. The issue of pony racing was also discussed at a recent HRI board meeting. HRI and the IHRB are due to meet with representatives of pony racing organisations again in the coming weeks.
To date, HRI has had a number of virtual meetings with representatives of various pony racing organising committees around the country in response to requests for a closer and more formal relationship than exists at present. Such a relationship would involve some form of recognition by the IHRB, including the removal of the ban on attendance at pony racing for licensed individuals and some form of financial assistance through Horse Racing Ireland.
Before Covid-19, approximately 40 pony race meetings were held mainly between the months of June and September. The pony racing circuit has been a fruitful source of talented jockeys, as Senator Murphy has outlined. The Senator has named many of the famous jockeys who now grace the largest of international stages and who represent Ireland extremely well at Cheltenham and all of the big race meetings across the world. I accept that many of those riders started in pony racing. It is acknowledged that, historically, many top riders have had their first experience of race riding on the pony racing circuit.
The board of HRI has informed the Minister that discussions on the matter will continue, but it must be stated that ultimately pony racing is outside HRI's remit, which is confined to activities on authorised racecourses. Any involvement will be limited to a discussion and advisory role only.
I have attended pony racing in Dingle while there on a family holiday. I have seen the excitement and the enthusiasm of the people. I do not for one minute discount the passion that Senator Murphy has displayed on the matter. Pony racing has a long history where it has stood on its own two feet. This is always a challenge for such an organisation that has survived for such a long period, notwithstanding the role it has played in providing jockeys to us.
I very much welcome the engagement by HRI and the IHRB with the pony racing associations for the discussions and advisory support they can provide into the future.
I appreciate that the Minister of State has given such a comprehensive reply. I am delighted there will be discussion and a recognition of how important the matter is.
If we do not support the sport now it will die out. It will affect Irish racing hugely. No young talent will get the chance to become a jockey. No disadvantaged child will get the necessary training he or she would need, unless they can all afford to own their ponies, which is impossible. I know where the Minister of State's heart is on this. I know the Minister of State and the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, will deal with this. I ask the Minister of State, Deputy Heydon, to go back to ensure that in some way we can get a small amount of funding for this group.
I have done some research on this. David Egan, who started out pony racing earlier this year won the €20 million Saudi Cup. Only a few short weeks ago Rory Cleary from the Athlone region, won the 2,000 Guineas on a horse called Mac Swiney. Again, he and his family have been huge supporters of pony racing, which is where they started.
Last night I was researching the Geesala races. One comment came up from an attendee at the 2019 event: "I'm still discovering the delightful gems in my own area - 50 plus years on. The Geesala races today was an absolute delight". I rest my case.
Senator Murphy is right that pony racing gets to the heart of the rural pursuits that are so intrinsic to so much of our history. It is so important. That is why the engagement that is happening between the HRI and the IHRB about strengthening those connections matters because, for a long time, pony racing has stood on its own and managed without support but also without that close contact. Any dialogue taking place about its future and which gives the opportunity for the pony racing organisations to highlight and verbalise exactly where they see the threats to the future of the organisation is very much to be welcomed. The briefing back to the Minister on this point has been that there will be further engagement between Horse Racing Ireland, the IHRB and the pony racing associations. I thank the Senator for raising this important issue.