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Dublin: 6 °C Thursday 27 February, 2020

Johnny Ward: Racing needs to find common ground with Green Wave or risk being swept away

Irish industry has to up its game and start thinking green, writes Johnny Ward.

Following Thursday night's card at Leopardstown, racing continues at the Curragh this evening.
Following Thursday night's card at Leopardstown, racing continues at the Curragh this evening.
Image: Oisin Keniry/INPHO

THE 2019 EUROPEAN and local elections were dominated by a controversial swing and a less controversial swing.

One could hardly have forecast Bailey’s on the Rocks. Sinn Fein’s struggles and the rise of the Greens were, in contrast, pretty predictable. However, who could have envisaged such a seminal surge towards Eamon Ryan’s party, so long an irrelevance?

I took to Twitter to laud the electorate’s appreciation that, when it comes to politics right now, nothing really matters – Brexit included – except climate change. Many replies were negative.

“History doesn’t lie,” a bookmaker told me. “Look at their record in government last time regarding hunting and the greyhound industry. All they are good for is attempting to ban and take control of people’s lives.”

The strength of the Greens (almost 10% of seats) across the EU suggests they will be the swing force in Brussels. They could look to partner with mainstream parties in order to have a bigger say in the EU reform agenda.

The Irish Greens entered three candidates in the election, electing two (Grace O’Sullivan and Ciarán Cuffe); the other, Saoirse McHugh, was a 50/1 chance with bookmakers in Midlands-North West who very nearly got in too. The party could be the most popular in Dublin at the next general election – an astonishing potential rise from one in 100 to one in five.

Racing has more than its share of self-serving people who can barely talk about anything else; it is all they know. Many therein fret about the Green swing – with good cause.

The Greens’ 2016 manifesto included a pledge to push for bans on hare coursing and fox hunting. It was “opposed to all blood sports, and (would) bring in legislation to end hare coursing, fox hunting, hare hunting and mink hunting”.

On the back of the Green tide, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar – whose Fine Gael has been hugely supportive of horse-racing, like its predecessor in Fianna Fail – essentially conceded his party had to up its game on climate change. It was a grim reflection of politics in this country – even modern, apparent straight-shooter Leo bows to populism – recalling the old Irish political maxim: “These are my principles, and if you don’t like them I’ll change them.”

We better ape the Greens for votes, whatever about the future of the planet.

Fine Gael will act selfishly. Racing’s selfish interest is that the government backs prize-money. In Britain, a crisis awaits. Joseph O’Brien recently revealed how he brought a filly to England not long ago; she won, came home and the owner actually lost money after his horse won.

The Greens will now appreciate that they have an appeal across the country. Alienating farmers has done them harm in the past but they could well gain rather than lose votes by having an agenda that is somewhat hostile towards racing. There are many who resent our sport, despite Irish racing being a world leader.

So, with every chance of the Greens in power in the next government, racing needs to start thinking green. And racing has been useless in this regard, the sport’s main contribution to the debate an utterly self-serving campaign against wind-energy.

This reached extraordinary levels when Annemarie O’Brien, wife of champion trainer Aidan, said high-voltage pylons and wind turbines were the biggest threats to Irish bloodstock in the history of the industry back in 2014.

Trainers live a healthy life in clean air and they are not destroying the planet – but we need to be realistic too.

Last Friday, leaders of a consortium established by Niall Quinn used a stakeholders’ forum to tell Sports Minister Shane Ross to push for increased State funding of football. As it stands, the State contributes €2.5 million per annum to the FAI. In a Sunday Independent piece, Ross said that the “nation cares about soccer” and the “national passion deserves better”.

Quinn’s team pointed to the support received by the racing and greyhound racing industries which collected €80m last year from a levy on all bets in Ireland – including on football.

Ross’ political opportunism reached Father Ted/Alan Partridge/Apres Match/Worse Again levels with his astonishing behaviour at Dublin Airport Tuesday. He is batting for football right now.

When asked if racing should be concerned about the changing political landscape, Horse Racing Ireland CEO Brian Kavanagh was diplomatic.

“Racing and breeding have a positive environmental story to tell. It is low-intensive use of land compared to other forms of agriculture, low emissions and limited use of pesticides,” he said.

“In that sense, the increased environmental awareness seen in recent elections is probably a welcome development.”

Kavanagh needs to lobby the Greens, as do trainers and jockeys, as to racing’s hugely positive role in rural Ireland. Everyone from trainers to racecourse managers need to ask themselves: how can we become more energy efficient, and how can we show that racing is playing its part?

It goes without saying that without the Greens in power, government support for racing is not copper-fastened. With the Greens in power…

It is a quiet weekend’s racing, with just the Curragh (Friday) and Navan (Saturday), Sunday a welcome day off for many in the industry that never sleeps. Surely Little Clarinet can finally get her head in front for Joseph O’Brien in the TRM’s ‘Kurasyn’ Handicap at the Curragh (8.45).

At Navan, local runner Early Call‘s liking for the track likely will render him overpriced in the Arkle Bar Handicap under the excellent Ben Coen, doing his Leaving Cert right now.

Coen is a laid-back character who only last week was unsure what day the Leaving Cert started. Racing is his life, like that of many others. The Green Party sees things differently.

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Johnny Ward

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