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Johnny Ward: All-weather track in Tipperary could see Dundalk suffer greatly

There is clamour for a second all-weather track among trainers in Ireland, but Tipperary is not the answer.

Dundalk is hugely popular with the country's top trainers.
Dundalk is hugely popular with the country's top trainers.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

EARLIER THIS WEEK, Horse Racing Ireland issued a fresh, expected and somewhat unexpected update on the mooted second all-weather track in Ireland.

Tipperary, we were told, is to become Ireland’s second all-weather venue, in theory. It was, of course, barely a secret in Ireland, with more than those inclined to cynicism noting that the proximity to Aidan O’Brien’s Ballydoyle stables, with all those Coolmore-owned runners, would mean there was no other option on the table.

Naas and Gowran were, theoretically, in the running; enigmatic billionaire Luke Comer also had ideas for a track modelled on Belmont Park on the Dublin-Naas road. However, everybody knew for some time that only Tipperary was being considered viable.

The Racing Post’s headline was on the button – “Tipperary selected for new all-weather track – but there’s no cash to build it” – and the hope, at least my hope, is that this will remain the case.

aidan-obrien-on-the-gallops Aidan O’Brien at his Ballydoyle yard earlier this year. Source: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

HRI boss Brian Kavanagh, who has been extolling the benefits of another all-weather facility, admitted: “Tipperary is the selected venue but we can’t go ahead with that until out funding situation is resolved.

“The (HRI) board has asked for 18 months to resolve that. The evaluation is completed and Tipperary was selected, which probably wasn’t the biggest secret in racing, but until they have the funds to progress with that, we’re at a standstill.”

HRI has more things to be concerned about. It requested, perhaps ambitiously, for an increase in the government’s 2019 funding of €67.2m, but failed. In order to cater for increased spending elsewhere, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board was left with €200,000 less in the integrity services budget.

Integrity in racing remains of paramount importance, something we will get to another time. Back to the possibility of a second all-weather track, and the clamour for one among trainers in Ireland.

The refrain rarely deviates from a couple of arguments: Dundalk is too far to travel for most trainers and ballotting of low-grade horses is as bad as or worse than ever. Neither argument is compelling.

Dundalk was chosen in late 2004 as Ireland’s first all-weather track. Most will forget that it beat off Tipperary back then (and a proposed site at Abbotstown, where horseplay of a different kind is the norm nowadays).
 
As for ballotting, horses get ballotted because they are little or no good. Keeping the majority of these in training is economic folly and racing should not be beholden to trainers who need slow horses just to pay bills.

It is difficult to consider Dundalk anything other than one of Irish racing’s success stories. Rather like how my knees struggle on weathered astroturf as I get older, the ageing polytrack surface was criticised last year and this, but remedial work has gone down well and the track will be relayed fully next year.

Every trainer worth talking about uses Dundalk, Aidan O’Brien is happy to run some of his best prospects there, and it has always maintained a healthy balance between catering for high-quality steeds who are suited to synthetics and low-grade handicappers, of which there are and will always be too many.

Ballotting is frustrating but bad horses are not entitled to run every week. I’ve owned moderate horses and if you cannot get a run in Ireland there is an obvious solution: go to Britain. It’s less expensive than you’d think, sterling is on the rise and racing is far less competitive there (because they have too many all-weather tracks, albeit with the option of three different surfaces).

Perhaps the key point is Dundalk’s location along the northeastern seaboard has served to revive yards away from the traditional strongholds in the south. Damian English, Ado McGuinness, even Anthony McCann in Monaghan, would be lost without Dundalk – as would many others.

If Tipperary gets a second track, it is hard to see how Dundalk could not suffer greatly. Aidan O’Brien would presumably run few horses there, whilst the plethora of training yards in Tipperary and Cork would likely stay local, unless Dundalk became the BDO to the PDC where only slow horses ran.

Lastly, what is the point opening up an all-weather track, which will race mainly at night, essentially in the middle of nowhere? Dundalk is very popular with parties, is a fantastic facility for the spectator and has been a boon in a border area battered by the recession. 

Gowran, which in my view is far too rural a track to be considered for all-weather racing, looked into the concept. Eddie Scally, its manager, told the42: “It’s well-documented by trainers that there is a need for a second all-weather track and they’d ask for something more accessible than Dundalk.

“We felt we were an ideal location for it and did a lot of exploratory work, attempting to put in an outer track, but the number of fixtures being offered wouldn’t justify the cost.

“There’s a huge cost involved, even with the infrastructure we have here already; we were willing to go some of the distance but would need to be guaranteed 30-50 fixtures, whereas they are being offered in the region of 20 fixtures. You’re at a break-even point at around 30 and that is based on current media rights prices.”

The media-rights money, which keeps tracks going in Ireland, is also dependent on the well-being on betting shops in Britain, which cannot be taken lightly given the changes to FOBT regulations over there. William Hill said some months ago that it was closing 700 shops.

With dog racing in peril, possibly terminal decline, racing can attract more urbanites who like a bet and a night out. A Dublin-based all-weather track at somewhere like the Phoenix Park would be a gift from the dogs but, short of that happening, we should be more than happy with Dundalk.

Turf Range was cruelly denied when tipped here earlier in the month. He’s a knocking each-way bet in the nightcap at 5/1 with Betway this evening at our beloved Dundalk (8.15). 
 
Earlier on, Settle For Bay looks weighed to prove a class apart, the David Marnane stable back in form, in the Crowne Plaza Leading Jockey & Trainer Awards 2019 Handicap.

The Crowne Plaza is one such business that has profitted due to racing returning to County Louth. Ireland’s most popular racetrack has played its part in an extremely challenging decade or so for the border region. That should not be underestimated.

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Johnny Ward

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