RacingOdds and Sods

Trickle down economics in Racing not working for the majority

Official instinct to focus on upping prize money overlooks where public funding could be better used

The technical description is Keynesian supply side economics. It is better known as the trickle-down effect, and it constitutes much of Irish racing’s financial model.

JK Galbraith even came up with an equine variation on the theme, his famous horse and sparrow theory – “If you feed the horse enough oats, some will pass through to the road for the sparrows.”

The problem with the theory though is that it doesn’t really work. Most economic wonks regard it as the reason why the global economy is in the tank with tiny elites getting richer and leaving everyone else to peck for comparative crumbs. Racing’s parish underlines the point.

Backed by the sport’s richest owners, Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott, and Henry de Bromhead exert such a grip at almost every level of the top-heavy jumps game that even the flat has turned into a more viable option for some of their competitors.


Nevertheless, it has resulted in unprecedented dominance for Irish-trained horses, including at the Cheltenham festival, along with repeated assurances that it is prizemoney levels that encourage the most powerful owners to have horses here.

It is hardly headline news that the most successful trainers, owners, and jockeys beat the prizemoney drum so vigorously. They are after all the ones benefiting most from it. But the lopsided reality remains that so many of their rivals are left scrambling for leftovers.

There’s also the problem of how rich owners hoovering up public money isn’t a very good look.

A couple of months ago, the People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy made great play of how €42 million of public money was paid out in prizemoney last year, pointing to how much of it went to hugely wealthy owners such as John Magnier, JP McManus and Michael O’Leary.

In headline terms it was an open goal. With the economy creaking and the health service gasping, Murphy’s outrage got lapped up, hardly surprising as forking out millions to billionaire horse owners rather than nurses and guards is a hard sell in the court of popular opinion.

Still, you don’t have to be any kind of after-the-fox Tory to recognise Murphy’s argument as simplistic.

Whether you paint Government support in terms of being a subsidy or a stimulus, horse racing here remains an international success story worth up to €2 billion overall with thousands of jobs tied up in it.

The political orthodoxy remains, for the moment, that the €72.8 million racing gets this year is a value bet.

The more pertinent prize money question is how effectively the model works. No one can argue this rising tide has raised all boats. And, on the back of such significant State investment, racing needs to operate more strategically than simply upping purse value levels at every opportunity.

This year prizemoney in Ireland is at a record €68.6 million. Horse Racing Ireland will contribute 62 per cent of that. It is €1.7 million more than the previous 2019 record. This is a sport with no shortage of sectors where €1.7 million could make a much more obvious and effective impact.

One relates to professional race-day stewarding and the discrepancy between a professional industry being largely policed by well-meaning but unaccountable amateurs. Paying and equipping a panel of centrally-based professional stewards would be an important signal of intent.

So would financing more and improved animal welfare schemes, particularly in relation to horses after their careers are over. Ensuring that racing is seen to do everything possible for the good of its central participants is increasingly going to be seen as an investment and not a cost.

A sport leaking spectators could also use extra resources to encourage people back racing through increased promotion, perhaps even including the option of subsidised admission and catering.

In comparison it’s hard to see what €1.7 million more in prize money actually delivers, no matter how many top professional trainers and jockeys make the case in favour. After all they have skin in the game.

Owners aren’t going to turn it down either. Michael O’Leary’s logic is that prize money covers his training fees. Yet it hasn’t stopped him dramatically cutting back on numbers in recent years because he’s basically not that bothered anymore.

It underlines a simple point about ownership. Anyone depending on prizemoney to own a horse probably shouldn’t have it. This is a luxury item. An industry is built around catering for it but whether you’re a sheikh or a syndicate, ownership is a financial indulgence, not a requirement.

Britain’s most successful trainer of all time, Mark Johnston, has repeatedly pointed out that most owners, given a choice between getting five grand for winning or 10 grand for finishing runner-up, will opt to win. They can afford for it not to be about the money.

Yet the default instinct move for racing’s authorities always seems to be blunt prizemoney increases that wind up not leaving very much for the game’s sparrows. Call such a system whatever you like, but it’s not working for the majority.

And those same authorities would do well to keep in in mind how political orthodoxies fluctuate.

Something for the weekend

A year ago, John McConnell won Doncaster’s Grade Two Hurdle with Mahler Mission. He’s back on Saturday (2.40) with GRAND SOIR. This dour stayer has won his last three races over three miles on good ground and gets those conditions again.

EL CAPITAINE (3.21) would be a poignant Fairyhouse winner on Saturday. Formerly trained by the late Andy Lynch, this will be a first runner for his son Michael. Based on a decent run at Leopardstown over Christmas he has good claims.