By Rico Biriah
If a company announced that it would generate 1.8 billion euros annually for the rural economy and sustain 29,000 jobs across all 32 counties, it would be very hard to believe such a statement.
You’d be right to think it was too good to be true. I mean that’s more money than the Irish economy benefits from events such as live music, exhibitions, comedy and theatre each year. It’s the same number of people that 450 MedTech firms collectively employ here in Ireland. But these mouth-watering figures are not an elaborate work of fiction. Nope, we are talking about horse racing, the ‘Sport of Kings’ – where no royal blood is necessary. Horse racing is an integral part of Irish society and culture, yet its contribution to rural Ireland often goes unnoticed.
For eons of centuries, Ireland has had a kinship with the thoroughbred horse. Champion racehorses are guided by our greatest asset: our people, from the stable staff, to the jockeys and ultimately to the world-renowned trainers who want to base themselves here. They too have realised that we have the perfect climate, plenty of soil and excellent prize-money. For many people, picking a winner is about pot luck. But a shrewd punter will scrutinise the ground, the form-book and the jockey. Watching a horse race are the most exciting few minutes you’ll experience in any sport.
This year, the Covid-19 lockdown forced racecourses up and down the country to shut their gates to the public. On 29 June last, only 10 racecourses were allowed to reopen but only behind closed-doors, the rural Kilbeggan racecourse which is 13 miles from Mullingar, was one of them. I went to meet Paddy Dunican, Managing Director of Kilbeggan Races, to find out about what impact the pandemic has had on the Westmeath racecourse that he runs.
“My role in running Kilbeggan Races is overseen by a voluntary committee of approximately 28 people from different backgrounds around Kilbeggan itself. So, it’s very much a community-based organisation with Paul Daly as Chairman and Tom Lynam as treasurer. Tom works very closely with me at the racecourse. Every member on the committee takes great pride in helping to develop and improve the racecourse that has gone from strength to strength.”
Dunican took over the day-to-day management of Kilbeggan Races in 1988 when there were only 3 race meetings a year. Under his leadership, all National Hunt race meetings increased to 9 a year with investment in the region of €5 million euros to develop racecourse facilities to a very high standard. The revenue from the Irish horse racing industry is substantial to the exchequer and as far back as 1945, the Government realised that it had to put in measures to ensure its survival through the formation of the Racing Board to oversee the industry. The Racing Board became Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) through a piece of legislation in 2001 with responsibility for all horse racing in Ireland and was also instrumental in promoting the industry worldwide.
The business model itself of racing has changed over the years. One of the biggest sources of income for Kilbeggan Races in the late 80s was from paying customers coming through the gates. Today, that accounts for approximately 30% of income. As Irish racing began to get noticed on the international stage, it opened up new revenue streams. Today, 55% of income arises from deals with organisations such as Sports Information Services (SIS), which provides content to the betting industry, and Racing TV – which allows people to watch off-site live horse racing through subscription models. Viewers are likely to be thrilled by watching one of the most dangerous sports in the world. Horse racing is the only sport in the world that has 2 doctors and 3 ambulances following the people at work, all the time.
Behind closed doors
When the entire country went into lockdown in March 2020, Horse Racing Ireland announced that all horse racing will take place behind closed doors and those restrictions have been in place since.
“We’re very lucky in Kilbeggan that we have great supporters and brilliant sponsors but the coronavirus has brought a huge amount of pain to people. We were given a 75-page document of very strict regulations that we needed to comply with, before we could reopen to facilitate race meets to go ahead behind closed doors. Although we are back at the moment, it’s purely to save the industry and jobs, and to continue the breeding and selling of horses. It’s very sad though, because there is no atmosphere without people, who would usually come along to support us.”
Kilbeggan Races has lost income that it would ordinarily expect to generate from ticket sales at race meets. “We don’t know what the reduction in income is going to be. But the loss of paying customers coming in the gates is a huge loss, about 30%, despite us still having pretty much the same costs to run an event behind closed doors. However, we have quite a lot of our sponsors who have stayed with us and have been very supportive and we have availed of the Government’s Restart Grant which was excellent in terms of support.”
Although the income has reduced, outgoings have not, as the track, fences, hurdles, etc., all still have to be maintained. This specialised maintenance work is being carried out by a team of part-time staff who are all waiting for the green light to open up again to the public.
The biggest event of the year at Kilbeggan Races is the AXA Farm Insurance Midlands National Handicap Chase. That race has now become one of the most significant chases on the summer racing calendar. It has been attracting very good quality horses, and over the years, the huge amount of work that has gone into improving the racetrack has paid off. We are now getting far better horses running at Kilbeggan.”
Despite not knowing when gates can open to the public again, Dunican remains optimistic and confident that Kilbeggan Races will weather the storm. “Covid-19 is here, it has brought huge changes but I am confident that Kilbeggan Races will adjust to those changes and move forward.”
I asked Dunican about skills that he has needed to run the racecourse during his tenure and he described how his job has become multi-faceted “When you act in the role of managing director of a small business, you first of all need management skills. You need marketing and public relations skills; you need financial skills; you need HR skills because you are managing people. The staff here are so dedicated and deserve so much credit for the way that they have supported me in my role.”
He added “We’ve been continuously developing the facilities here at Kilbeggan, so you need lots of skills on the building and development side. There is the management of the race track which is a land husbandry thing. You have the whole laying out of the tracks, the railings and erection of hurdles and laying out a track that horses can follow. You also have to get out and meet people and market it and brand it and raise sponsorship. So, it’s been quite a busy time. It’s been very challenging, it’s been interesting. It’s been daunting and nerve wracking.”
The horse racing industry is unique; it’s a very popular sport yet it is also an entertainment business. Dunican has expertly balanced these two areas extremely well. “Hopefully things will return to some kind of normality and we’ll all be back celebrating big times here at Kilbeggan Races again” he said with a confident tone.