HAVING been appointed to the role of chief executive of the Association of Irish Racecourses (AIR) in January 2023, former Curragh Racecourse manager Paul Hensey faced a number of important challenges in those early months.

“Obviously, I had to hit the ground running, as it was a very busy time for the association”, he said. “I was fortunate, in that my predecessor Paddy Walsh was still in situ, so I had the opportunity to work closely with him initially.”

The first big task awaiting Hensey was the completion of the new media rights deal. “The process was well underway, and at a crucial stage, when I came in. A number of racecourses had individual issues and concerns, so we had to work closely with everybody to find solutions to these issues”, he said.

“Media rights are at a delicate stage internationally at the moment and we are going into uncharted waters, in moving to a performance-based model and away from the streaming/licensed betting office model that we had previously. For that very reason, it was important that we stuck together. I firmly believe that our media rights are far more valuable when offered as one unit. Only time will tell how good a deal it will be for Irish racing but all aspects of this industry are intrinsically linked and a good media rights deal is a crucial cog in that wheel.”

Aside from the aforementioned, there is much going on within AIR at present. Hensey elaborated: “We are currently undertaking an overall review of the AIR card system (for racecourse entry). Another big change has seen the Association move offices from its long-term base in Fitzwilliam Square, Dublin, to Naas. Being in Kildare and closer to other industry headquarters is a positive and the office is now more accessible for people. The existing racecourse WiFi contract is also due for renewal shortly, so we have been working on those plans. Like many other businesses, racecourses are experiencing a lot of rising costs and the Association has been working to help in this regard whenever possible.”

Gambling Bill

The Gambling Regulation Bill has been an obvious concern for both AIR and industry stakeholders. Hensey said: “At a meeting with Minister Browne late last year, we were given a number of assurances regarding on-course activities.

“The Minister made a clear distinction between sponsorship and advertising - something that is very important to us. In that regard, bookmakers would still be allowed to have their logos visible around the parade ring and put branded rugs on winners of races that they have sponsored. The Minister also agreed to exempt authorised racecourses from some clauses in the draft bill that were causing concern regarding children on-site, ATMs and location of bars.

“The major issue, of course, is clause 147, the article which prohibits bookmaker advertising on television between 5.30am and 9pm. Racing TV has questioned the viability of continuing to operate in Ireland if that ban is introduced, so that is a huge concern as our product needs exposure to keep Irish racing to the fore internationally and to protect the 30,000 rural jobs that our industry supports.”

There have a good few racecourse personnel changes over the last six months with Michael Lynch appointed manager at Limerick, Ruth Morrison at Downpatrick and Aidan McGarry at Naas. Stephen Heffernan has taken over at Kilbeggan, following the sad passing of Paddy Dunican, which left his AIR colleagues stunned.

“It was a big shock to us all, as we had been with Paddy at the Association AGM at the Keadeen Hotel the previous Thursday,” Hensey said. “He served two terms on the board and a further two as vice-chairman of AIR. I served on the board with Paddy and knew him over 30 years.

“I can’t say we were always on the same side about everything but I always respected his opinion. The facilities and standard of racing improved dramatically at Kilbeggan during his tenure; it was great to see so many people coming together to help Kilbeggan to get back racing again last Friday and to continue Paddy’s good work.”