The ongoing suspension of the point-to-point season dominated Wednesday’s sitting of Dail Eireann as Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine Charlie McConologue was questioned on the matter by a number of TD’s during the Agriculture debate.
On January 13 it was announced that the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine would not be including point-to-point racing in the category of professional and elite sports permitted to continue behind closed doors, and therefore no fixtures could take place until further notice.
Ahead of next week’s announcement of a revised “Living with Covid-19” plan when it is expected that clarification on when point-to-point may be able to resume, eight TD’s, both from the government and opposition benches raised the suspension with the Minister questioning the logic of allowing racing to proceed yet preventing point-to-pointing from doing so.
Sean Sherlock, Labour TD for Cork East was the first to address the minister as he asked:
“I cannot figure out the logic of allowing racing to go ahead because of the importance of the racing and bloodstock industry, as the Minister said, but then disallowing point-to-point race meetings. I would have thought that these two endeavours were complementary and dovetailed with each other.
“If we can justify holding race meetings, then we can surely justify holding point-to-point meetings. I am a Cork person and I live in Mallow. There is a racecourse there and I recognise the importance of that aspect of the industry. I would like also to speak, however, for the people who operate point-to-point racing. Those meetings will begin to start from March. They are not technically cancelled. I am talking about places like Kildorrery, Dromahane and others which are vital to the local economy. I would like an update on the status of those meetings.”
Minister McConologue responded by stating: “I have had many representations from Deputies and Senators on this issue, and I know the challenge the pandemic has posed for horses in training and for an industry which has great value economically. It will be monitored and assessed in light of the public health advice.
Fianna Fáil Carlow-Kilkenny TD Jennifer Murnane O’Connor stated that she had spoken to both the Minister and Deputy Jackie Cahill on the suspension of point-to-pointing adding that it was a significant issue for the people in her constituency, while the Fine Gael TD for Clare Joe Cary emphasised the impacts the continuing suspension would have.
He stated: “There is considerable concern in the point-to-point community. As he will be aware, 37 point-to-point meetings took place In Ireland despite all levels of restrictions until 13 January when the sport abruptly ended.
“Point-to-point racing is the starting point for many of our National Hunt horses. The entire National Hunt breeding industry is now severely challenged and there will be a lasting impact on the industry, on sales, on breeding and on the livelihood of those involved in producing point-to-point horses if the season does not recommence shortly. The sector needs clarity.
“As the Minister will be aware, horses cannot simply be put away on a shelf. They need to be fed, trained and exercised. Successful protocols were put in place to ensure the safe hosting of all these events. It was no surprise that no outbreak of Covid was recorded in the hosting of any point-to-point events because they are all hosted in large open fields. I have spoken directly to the Minister on this issue and have tried to engage with his officials. I ask him to outline what he and his Department have done to ensure the safe return of point-to-point racing. In the revised plan for Covid, will point-to-point racing resume at the start of March?”
In response to his Fine Gael colleague, Minister McConologue said: “The Deputy and I have discussed this matter and a number of other Deputies have raised it with me.
“As he knows the public health advice must be put first throughout the pandemic. That is the backdrop against which we are working. I certainly understand and recognise the challenges closure has had on the point-to-point industry and the importance of that sector of the horse racing industry.
“The Government will consider that against the backdrop of public health advice. I certainly take on board the representations the Deputy has made on behalf of the industry.”
The impacts were further emphasised by Fianna Fáil TD Jackie Cahill, who had previously raised the suspension of point-to-point racing in a Dail Eireann sitting last month, as he pointed out that the point-to-point racing industry is now at a ‘critical juncture’.
Deputy Cahill added: “This is regarded as an amateur sport, but a significant amount of money is involved. The cornerstone of the National Hunt industry is point-to-point racing. Many small operators have considerable investment in bloodstock and point-to-point racing is their shop window to sell their horses. The people involved are professional trainers even though they are amateur in name.
“All these horses are sold between February and the middle of May. They need to be able to run them to have the shop window to sell these horses. The only way they can get them sold is by running them in point-to-point races to show what they are capable of doing.
“At the moment there are extra entries into races at racecourses organised by Horse Racing Ireland, HRI. Point-to-point trainers are doing that out of desperation. That is not the window they need to sell their horses. What they need is to have their horses jumping over a three-mile course to show their potential. If these trainers are not able to sell these horses this spring, the customers will not be there to buy three-year-old horses in the sales next summer.
“That will feed down into the yearling and foal sales next autumn so everyone in the breeding chain will be severely affected. It will have a huge impact on our national hunt breeding, from which it might not recover. People are ringing me every day who are under extreme financial pressure. They have heavy financial commitments based on the possible sale of these horses. While they obviously did not know what the horses would make, they knew they would sell them in the window between 1 February and the middle of May.
“HRI has run horse racing perfectly within all the health guidelines. Thankfully there have been no clusters at any of the race meetings it has had, and there have been three or four a week. When point-to-point racing was running last November and December we had no clusters either. I am confident that, with the proper protocols in place, the same will be true again.
“I urge the Minister, for the sake of the industry and for these small men who are involved in national hunt breeding, to give consideration to allowing point-to-point racing to restart when making recommendations for 5 March. It is hugely financially important and it is the small man in the industry who will suffer.”
In response to Deputy Cahill, the Minister stated:
“As regards Deputy Cahill's point, this is something on which he has made many representations to me and we have discussed it at length. I take on board the importance of the point-to-point sector in the overall horse racing industry and the financial implications of it being closed.
“As I pointed out previously, that was done against the backdrop of the public health advice and the importance of keeping people safe. That has led to very significant challenges but it will continue to be considered by the Government and the Cabinet as public health advice evolves.
“I take on board the Deputy's representations and the impact this is having on the sector at the moment.”
Fianna Fáil TD for Cork East James O’Connor (pictured) said that although the damage being done was significant, the situation was not irretrievable.
“As the Minister is aware, my family is heavily involved in thoroughbred breeding and horse racing in Ireland. However, I am speaking today on behalf of the thousands of people in Cork East whose livelihoods depend on the point-to-point industry, thoroughbred breeding and the training of horses for racing,” he said.
“The damage that is being done by the decision of the Department to delay the return of point-to-point racing is significant, but we are not yet in a situation where it is irretrievable. I ask the Minister to act urgently to allow the resumption of point-to-point racing.
“As he has acknowledged, there is a very delicate ecosystem in terms of breeding and the impact it has on racing pedigrees and, later in the year, on sales. We need to ensure horses are allowed the opportunity to run in order to build their pedigrees. It is important that urgent action be taken in this particular area. I ask the Minister to respond to that point.
Independent Waterford TD Matt Shanahan followed this up by further emphasising the impacts of the prolonged suspension as he stated:
“Point-to-point activity has been closed for many months despite our national hunt and flat racing continuing successfully during the pandemic. Point-to-point racing is vital to the national horse racing industry of which it is a significant component. It provided more than €45 million in export sales to the UK in 2019.”
He added: “It supports veterinarian, farrier, horse transport and feedstock jobs in rural counties and with 66 courses around the country, point-to-point is the form of horse racing that most touches rural Irish society. It is here also that the Irish horse racing financial model filters through to rural Ireland.
“The point-to-point season finishes at the end of May and I ask the Minister to please look immediately at allowing this safe activity to recommence, to allow the trade continue and to safeguard livelihoods and our hard-won horse racing industry which delivers wider benefits to so many.”
Verona Murphy, Independent TD for Wexford has already been vocal in her opposition to the current point-to-point suspension which she described as ‘totally unacceptable’.
“[Point-to-Pointing} is in crisis and facing very grave consequences if the Minister does not devise a way to allow point-to-point to return in the next two weeks. The impact of the Minister's decision to halt point-to-point, stating it is not an elite sport, shows a very poor understanding of the importance of the point-to-point industry nationally.
“Halting the ability of horse owners and handlers to establish value by being able to run horses, sell them and then use the sales revenue to purchase three-year-olds for next season in Goffs and Tattersalls is vital to the continued prosperity of the national hunt industry in Ireland.
“County Wexford is a world leader in point-to-point racing which employs thousands of people countrywide. This is totally unacceptable. Point-to-point proceeded successfully from October to December without incident. It has a proven track record of being able to hold its events safely and behind closed doors. Will the Minister confirm he will ensure this Government can come up with a remedy before its actions ruin another sector?”
Fianna Fáil Cork South-West TD Christopher O’Sullivan concluded the representations on point-to-pointing as he stated: “I wish to echo the concerns raised by other Deputies with regard to point-to-point racing.
“I would love to know the measures that will be taken to cushion the impact the cancellation of point-to-point racing has had on the entire thoroughbred industry. The Minister should rest assured that it is having a significant impact on breeders, trainers and owners. When can we expect point-to-point racing to return? It is of vital importance throughout the country.”
Following those eight representations, Minister McConologue replied: “I take on board the Deputy's representations regarding point-to-point racing. The issue of the importance of the point-to-point racing sector has been raised by several Deputies. I have taken those points on board.”