One of the many positive by-products of the system of better roads built in Ireland over the last decade is the patchwork of better views. Many of the new roads have cut through parts of the countryside that were never seen before, and lots of new vistas of our lovely countryside have been opened up.
On a clear, sharp winter’s day, some elevated parts of the country offer uninterrupted views for miles and miles. Many of the panoramas have not changed in two or three hundred years. Even today, the tallest buildings in much of Ireland are church steeples that were built in the 18th and 19th centuries.
This unusual fact underscores the lack of development in the countryside, and it is also an indication of the pattern of 17th and 18th century sectarian settlement. These landscapes, dotted with isolated churches, are the architectural telltale signs of dispossession.
As a result, the bragging rights for top ecclesiastical design go to the Church of Ireland, whose steeples are beautiful, typically needle thin and perfectly proportioned. And, of course, due to the plantations, the midland towns of Laois and Offaly are resplendent with magnificent examples of these steeples.
Isn’t it weird to think that the landscape is almost unchanged in 200 years and that the church steeples still give us markers centuries after they were built?
Even the most redoubtable Wesleyan couldn’t have imagined such unchallenged dominance. But back then steeples gave people natural maps of their own regions. People could measure distance from steeple to steeple, and the obvious extension of this measurement was the human urge to race between two steeples.
You can imagine two lads coming out of a pub after a few jars around this time of the year and declaring: “I’ll chase you from that steeple to this one!” This is where the racing expression a “steeplechase” comes from.
The first steeplechase ever took place in 1752, from the Steeple of St John’s Church of Ireland in Buttevant to St Mary’s in Donerail – 4.5 miles away. It was a two-horse challenge between Blake and O’Callaghan. They raced between the steeples, clearing whatever fences and obstacles they encountered, and so was born one of the most demanding and exciting contests in sport.
Fast-forward 260 years, and over the past few days in Leopardstown, Limerick and Down Royal, tens of thousands of us have been to the races and witnessed the finest of steeplechases.
A billion euro industry
Horseracing is deeply rooted in this country and it has been operated in a successful, commercial manner for a long time. The direct economic contribution of the industry to the Irish economy was €1.1 billion in 2012. Racecourses and festivals generate the greatest proportion of this revenue, accounting for €361 million in 2012.
The industry employs 16,877 people, most of whom are geographically dispersed. It is a national attraction – some 80,000 international visitors every year said that one of the reasons they came here was to go racing. In 2012, 1.19 million people attended horseracing events all over the country.
Right now, there are 4,463 racehorse owners in Ireland, 7,781 registered breeders and 704 licensed trainers. Ireland is the fourth largest breeder of foals in the world and the largest producer of thoroughbred foals in Europe, accounting for 40 per cent of the total. Ireland is the third biggest producer of mares in the world.
In per capita terms, the scale of the industry here is staggering, and Irish punters seem to display natural pride in their industry in the way we bet. The irrational tendency for Irish punters to back Irish horses is truly phenomenal.
We display an amazing weakness for backing an Irish horse even when the form tells us that a foreign horse has a better chance of winning. I asked the good people at Paddy Power for figures on Irish betting patterns, and the data confirmed what we all probably suspected: that we are deeply irrational.
In Paddy Power’s shops on the main streets of most Irish towns and cities, the average Irish-trained runner in a race in Britain takes 21 per cent more of the book than an equivalent British-trained runner.
The figures from Paddy Power’s online, phones and mobile business – by far the fastest-growing side of the business – are even more remarkable: the average Irish-trained runner, competing in a race in Britain, takes 24 per cent more of the book than an equivalent British-trained runner.
So today, at racecourses across the country, we will display all classes of irrationality, backing local over foreign horses and trainers, supporting the local industry – at least in theory. In practice, however, the house always wins. The real money is taken from the punters by the bookies and very little is given back from the bookies to the industry.
Off-course betting in Ireland generates €1.35 billion from horseracing as well as the rapidly expanding online betting industry. This return is many times that achieved by breeders, owners and trainers, whose contribution to the thoroughbred industry far outweighs that of the betting industry.
The off-course betting industry redistributes only a fraction of this turnover via the 1 per cent betting levy. And obviously, the online betting industry redistributes nothing to the thoroughbred industry or to the national exchequer.
In Ireland, only 1.6 per cent of betting turnover is returned to Irish racing. This compares to 9.6 per cent in France, 26 per cent in Argentina, 14 per cent in Italy and 6 per cent in Japan. Is it time that the betting houses pay more back into the industry that treats them so well and gives them such a decent living?
The reason this is a crucial question is because for the industry to expand it needs both public and private investment. Given that it generates so much cash for the gambling industry, maybe some fraction of this huge gambling windfall money could go towards the industry rather than only maintaining the bank balance of the bookies?
This afternoon, as you continue the 200-year-old Irish tradition of betting on the steeplechase, consider for a minute, where exactly does your money go?