Tuesday, October 18, 2011
By Stephen Dwyer
Brian Kavanagh is sitting at his ease in a small suite overlooking the final furlong at Leopardstown racecourse. It is a midweek evening meeting at the Foxrock venue where two of the seven races are valuable Group 3 events. He is due to meet delegates from Morocco, Korea and Turkey who are over to purchase bloodstock. The minister for agriculture will be here too, promoting the Irish horse. Meeting ministers and foreign delegates is all in a day’s work for the CEO of Horse Racing Ireland.
I ask Kavanagh about his interest in horse racing and am surprised to learn that the Monkstown native had no family background in the area. As a teenager working in his Uncle’s butcher shop Kavanagh would place bets in the local betting office, and thus the interest in racing and particularly racing pedigrees was fuelled from there.
Qualifying in commerce from UCD and later as an accountant, he joined the Curragh racecourse, a venue he would manage for five years before he joined the turf club as their CEO. In 2001 when Horse Racing Ireland was founded, Kavanagh was announced as their CEO, a position he has held since. He is a man who describes his position as “a labour of love” and recognises greatly that the opportunity he has received to develop the industry.
Analysing horse racing at present he is quick to point out that the rate of growth during the height of the boom was unsustainable but feels that the industry has levelled off somewhat. Recognising still that discretionary spending is down, he shows clear admiration for trainers and owners for being so resilient; “they realise that the next horse coming into the yard could be the next Arkle or Nijinsky, that’s what keeps the dream alive”.
It does not take the CEO of Horse Racing Ireland to point out fact that the quality of the Irish horse is amongst the best in the world. Most people with a passing interest in the sport know this and it is reflected in the races run here. Kavanagh concedes; “HRI operate a fundamental policy whereby 10% of all races are black type, this is a figure much higher than other comparable countries and in Ireland it is very hard to win a race”.
Kavanagh is well-travelled; he has visited the finest racetracks in the world, across to the racing city of Meydan, to Sha Tin in Hong Kong and most of the tracks in England. Yet for all these tracks he would still prefer to be in Galway on a festival night or Leopardstown at Christmas. He is a man who values substance over flair, atmosphere over finery.
The serious subject of offshore betting tax is then discussed; it is a topic that Kavanagh believes should be addressed. “It is fundamentally unfair that a bookmaker who buys a shop on the high street pays his license and taxes when someone standing outside using a computer that connects to the Isle of Man does not”. As a realist, he knows he lobbying against powerful interests, corporate types in the betting exchanges do not let the bit slip easily (Betfair’s revenues last year were €575 million). More tax netted from the bookmakers and exchanges however would be directed into initiatives like RACE, the training programme for apprentice jockeys and supporting jobs within the industry.
Flicking quickly from the challenges faced in HRI, Kavanagh recounts recent success stories such as Sea the Stars who he points out “was conceived in kildangan near Monasterivin, born in the National Stud and trained at the Curragh and went to stud at Glintown near Kilcullen. Apart from the times he left the region is has never been outside Kildare, Sea The Stars is a true lilywhite!”. It is evident his love for the sport transcends professional career.
Around this time each year the board of Horse Racing Ireland put the finishing touches on their budget for the forthcoming season. Last December a raft of cost-cutting measures were implemented due to a €1.6 million reduction in funding from the Government. These measures included a 5% decrease in all prize money and cuts in administration and racecourse services. Brian Kavanagh is chaired with the responsibility of announcing these measures. Horse Racing Ireland has been hit with financial cuts during the last number of years with a drop in Government funding from €76 million in 2008 to €57.2 million for 2011.
Whatever the budget reveals this year there are few people in Ireland with the knowledge about horse racing that Brian Kavanagh possesses and fewer still with the conviction to apply it.