IN a normal January, the chairman of the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders’ Association would be dusting off his blacktie suit and preparing his address to be delivered at the opening of the ITBA National Breeding and Racing Awards in The Heritage in Killenard, Co Laois. Not this year.
“Between Covid and Brexit, I really got dropped in it!” says John McEnery of Rossenarra Stud in Kells, Co Kilkenny, who began his two-year term as chairman in May. “Des Leadon was due to be chairman but he had enough on his plate with being on the pan-European equine industry Brexit task force.”
The ITBA awards will still go ahead online and the organisation has been busy throughout the pandemic. Some of that work is visible, such as organising online training and webinars, and preparing “essential travel” letters for breeders who have to transport mares and foals, while plenty more goes on behind the scenes, such as lobbying Government on behalf of thoroughbred breeders.
Speaking to The Irish Field last June, John said racing and breeding needed a stronger voice in Government. In the meantime, racing has arguably done well in securing and extra €10 million in funding, and being allowed to carry on while other sports have stalled.
“We are going the right way by focusing our efforts on working through Horse Racing Ireland,” he says. “Brian Kavanagh [HRI chief executive] is widely respected and he will be a big loss when he steps down from his post. Every part of the industry in Europe knows him and he knows how they all work.”
While John commends HRI and the IHRB for keeping racing going, he does not understand why racehorse owners are not allowed see their horses run. “A few days I have been stewarding at Wexford and you walk past four stands with not a person in them. Surely to God they could let in a few owners?
“Owners might not be deemed ‘essential’ now but they will essential when the sales come around. They should be declared essential. They buy the horses, they pay the bills, and they like to see them perform live. When I have a runner I never miss a day they run. Watching on television is not the same, you might as well be watching someone else’s horse.”
John agrees that the bloodstock sales held up surprisingly well in 2020. “It was great that we had sales at all, some liquidity, people have some money coming back in. The foal trade was a pleasant surprise and the mares’ trade was unbelievable, even in Goffs.”
He applauds the sales companies for the huge effort they put in to stage sales safely. “They did well to get going, any sale is better than no sale. I think they could have been stricter on the masks. I suspect some of these face coverings, snoods and so on, are not really the same as a proper medical mask. I’m not sure we will get away with that in future.”
John found it a nuisance himself not always being able to be in the sales ring when making bids this year but he accepts that spaces indoors are limited. He has warmed to the growth in popularity of pre-sale videos though nothing beats seeing a prospective purchase in the flesh.
“The videos were very good, every bit helps. It was a big step forward and I think it will continue to go that way. We got in people to make videos of our horses and we did some ourselves. Before I went to the [Goffs November] mares’ sale, I was able to do all my footwork at home, but I still had to see the mares in real life before I would buy it.”
John has also been impressed by the series of ITM-commissioned videos of stallion farms which have replaced the Stallion Trail for 2021. He expects breeders and stud farms will be ready for action when the covering season kicks off again next month.
“The ITBA is preparing ‘essential business travel’ letters now for breeders who will be taking mares to stallion farms. It’s farming activity and breeding mares is essential for business.”
Foals will be born, mares will be covered, and the thoroughbred industry, famed for its resilience, will persevere. With a fair wind, we will see owners and then racegoers back on track later this year. And maybe in 12 months’ time stud farms will again open their gates to the public for the Stallion Trail.
Hopefully too, the ITBA chairman will have to put on his dickie-bow and make that speech.