Some things in life are abstruse. I often lie awake at night, pondering the difficult questions life has to offer, the ones it can never seem to provide any semblance of an answer to.
This week, I found myself scratching my head at another abstruse instance. It wasn’t along the usual calibre, but I still can’t seem to wrap my head around this – the government’s policy on what sports are ‘elite’ and what’s not.
A particular point of reference goes to the field of point-to-point racing, a key player in an already threatened industry, that could now be decimated as a result of a baffling level of incompetence from those who don’t really want to hear about it.
The government’s attitude to sport right now reminds me of when it’s Halloween night and you’re at home. You decide that this year, because you’ve always been good to the kids, you’ll give it a skip this time. The lights are off but there is someone home – you’re just not really that bothered about the whole thing. Come back to me whenever I am. The funding scenario is a bit of the same, you’ll give someone a fiver if it gets them off your doorstep.
The point-to-point sector is clinging on right now to the hopes that it will be allowed to resume come March 5th. I wouldn’t hold my breath if I were those involved. Point-to-points were recently removed from exemption on restrictions that allow elite and professional sports to continue behind closed doors.
This grassroots level of a sport that Ireland is thriving in is a key first step in supplying the jump racing industry with some of its greatest stars. The suspension is now putting all of this at risk. Some of the greatest horses of all time found their feet ‘between the flags’.
If trainers aren’t allowed to put their assets in the shop window, then there’ll be a huge impact on stable space, cash flow – and in that instance, there is a knock-on effect on all those involved behind the scenes. I know that Ruby Walsh’s recent opinions on the point to point scene came in for criticism, but he is right in noting that the core essence of the trade was built upon an amateur ethos, evolving over time to a point where a division of those now involved are most certainly professionals. With this taken into consideration, how can the sport no longer be classed as ‘elite’? Ruby himself is a talent that rose to prominence on the point scene. Is there another Ruby waiting in the wings that now might miss their window of opportunity?
A significant number of traders use the point-to-point meets to show off stock they’ve purchased at young ages in an attempt to turn profit on their investments. This business is already risky enough, without the government smashing down the gavel with another hammer blow to an industry that lost the vast majority of its core period in the Spring of 2020. February and March are critical in advertising the talents of three and four year old horses.
Trainer Colin Bowe recently raised a good point, there’s not enough racecourse bumper opportunities to compensate for the loss of the point to point, with the gap between three mile points and maiden hurdles far too considerable to suffice as an alternative. GAA has also fallen victim to the government’s u-turn, but in the argument with racing – there’s a seasonal aspect involved.
There is a narrow window for these races to be run, with quick ground often an issue of contention. There comes a point where if you go beyond the Spring, there’s nothing until next Spring. The GAA can go ahead whenever it wants – the vast success of the 2020 Winter Championship proves that. The impact on the point to point industry goes beyond sporting terms, it starts to play with livelihoods.
Point-to-points are the lifeblood of rural racing. They are important dates in the social calendar, supported by parishes across rural Ireland. They’re a traditional facet of rural Irish life. COVID of course has played havoc with this, but it hasn’t just affected race lovers, owners and punters – there’s also breeders, prospective buyers, jockeys and volunteers who all pitch in to make each meeting a reality. Talent that we possess in abundance may now be getting missed out on, all upon the virtue of a sudden change of heart and policy and the glaring absence of a worthy explanation.
It’s infuriating that so many things that seem to have had little effect on surging case numbers fall victim to tighter restrictions, be that facets of our everyday lives or the things we enjoy as pastimes. I reckon it’s improbable that much of the winter COVID surge had anything to do with point-to-point racing or inter-county GAA, but with national morale now at rock bottom, the knife might as well be twisted in further. Cancel the Premier League and Six Nations next, and tell us we’re not allowed to watch anything other than the news and the Department of Health briefings.
Ireland is making tremendous strides in racing, so much so that this year’s Cheltenham Festival could likely be the most successful yet in terms of Prestbury Cup standings. When the successes start reeling in, the government will be among the first to extend their congratulations – while entirely in the knowledge that they choose to ignore, that this is an industry that they have decided to stifle without any significant causes for concern that they can shed light upon.
James O’Connor TD of East Cork highlighted the issue in the Dáil this week. One particular line struck a chord with me – ‘The damage that has been done to the industry is significant, but we are not in a situation where it is irretrievable.’ Were the livelihoods of those involved in our more populist sports under threat, I can’t help but feel a solution would be likelier reached.
If there is a thaw on the way, I fear it may not come soon enough.