A significant step towards a potential split in Irish racing has been taken by a handful of racecourses.
A total of five of the country’s 26 racetracks have formed what they call United Irish Racecourses (UIR) on the back of a dispute with Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) over the distribution of media rights income.
There was confirmation at the weekend that the five courses – Thurles, Kilbeggan, Roscommon, Sligo and Limerick – have taken the dramatic move, claiming that trust in HRI has “collapsed”.
In a report in Saturday’s Irish Field, a UIR spokesman didn’t rule out other, smaller racecourses joining them.
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It is the most public demonstration yet of long-running dissatisfaction between some tracks and HRI over how much money the industry’s ruling body gets for providing data in relation to daily runners and riders.
UIR insists the semi-State body’s take has risen in recent years. It also maintains the payment system favours bigger tracks with more prestigious black-type races. HRI owns and operates four tracks: Leopardstown, Navan, Fairyhouse and Tipperary.
“Prior to 2012 we were always in receipt of part of the massive government grant to racing, whereas from 2012 onwards, HRI have taken hundreds of thousands of euros from us in data charges.
“Much of this money has gone towards funding major capital development on the big racecourses. This has killed the development of many small racecourses and the creation of jobs in rural Ireland,” UIR’s secretary and Kilbeggan managing director Paddy Dunican said on Sunday.
The issue has come to a head on the back of a proposed new five-year media rights deal that is due to start in 2024.
Although all tracks own the rights to their pictures, legislation is in place so that the commercial sale of those rights is organised for all 26 courses as a whole by a HRI media rights committee.
That committee is chaired by the Punchestown boss Conor O’Neill and includes HRI’s chairman, Nicky Hartery.
In October that committee gave “preferred bidder” status to Satellite Information Services (SIS) and Racecourse Media Group (RMG), which operates the pay-per-view channel Racing TV.
That ruled out any opposing bid by the Racing Partnership Group which has Arena Racing Company involved and is linked to Sky Sports Racing.
SIS/RMG currently hold the rights in a deal estimated to be worth in the region of €40 million a year to Irish racing.
It is believed the new SIS/RMG offer is worth even more, with even the most ordinary single race worth up to €8,000 to the track it is taking place at.
Nevertheless, how the money is divided up and, particularly, how much HRI keeps for providing data is at the heart of a wrangle that has torn down any semblance of a united front.
“HRI agreed in 2016, that they would facilitate an ‘independent review of the allocation of media rights monies’ but they are consistently resisting commencing this process, for frivolous and unmeritorious reasons,” said Dunican. “It was based on this assurance that UIR signed the agreement with SIS in 2016, and trusted HRI.”
In theory, any split would open the potential for tracks to do their own separate media rights deals, producing the prospect of bidding battles such as take place in Britain between Arena Racing Company and Jockey Club racecourses.
“HRI should be taking no more than 2 per cent for their pre-race data, similar to the market value established in England, where each racecourse has the right to do their own negotiation.” said Dunican.
“However, in some of the smaller racecourses, HRI takes 20 per cent, but only takes half this from some of the race meetings at larger racecourses by the way the contract is structured.
“This error has naturally resulted in a division in AIR [Association of Irish Racecourses], with larger tracks attempting to prevent the anomaly from being corrected,” Dunican commented.
The Kilbeggan boss stressed the new body wants what is best for Irish racing generally, particularly in relation to exposure of the sport while also being conscious of dwindling attendances.
A HRI spokesman said on Sunday: “The HRI media rights committee, established under statute, is chaired by the chairman of the Association of Irish Racecourses, and is currently working through a new media rights deal for Irish racing.
“This committee has consistently delivered strong media rights deal for the 26 racecourses of Ireland.
“AIR and HRI will continue to work towards concluding a new deal for all racecourses as well as ensuring a benefit for the racing and breeding industry in Ireland.”