After football, horse racing is the second biggest spectator sport in the UK. Thousands flock annually to the two biggest jewels in its crown – the Cheltenham Festival in March and Royal Ascot in June.
Racing goes on all year round, with the exception of Christmas Day, at some 60 courses across the country. The racing industry supports thousands upon thousands of jobs, not just in the actual training, running and keep of the horses, but also, for example, in the betting industry both online and on the high street.
Even a cursory glance over the list of entrants, for a standard six or seven race card in this country, reveals that a significant proportion of the horses running are bred in Ireland and France respectively, and therefore imported from those countries, often as foals or yearlings.
Add to the mix the number of horses which cross the Channel and the Irish Sea respectively, to race here, usually at the highest levels, and the need for a fast, efficient and regulated form of horse transportation is obvious. And it is not just one-way traffic, as many horses bred and based in the UK make the journey to race in France and Ireland where the prize money is better than in the UK. Such opportunities to compete internationally have produced some of the sport's greatest moments, races and rivalries. Cheltenham would not be Cheltenham without the Irish and let’s face it, the British love to win at Longchamp.
International movement under a Tripartite Agreement
The efficient movement of racehorses internationally is governed by a Tripartite Agreement (which is a derogation from the EU regulations governing the position) between the UK, Ireland and France, underpinned by a requirement that all horses travelling are in the best of health, as regulated by the respective veterinary authorities in those countries. The result is no long and arduous checks and delays at border crossings, with most horses travelling by air and getting there and back within one day if necessary. But will the Tripartite Agreement withstand a hard or even a soft Brexit?
At grassroots, what would it mean for the number of horses we need in this country to make our horse racing competitive and to continue to attract support from the betting industry, not to mention the huge value in broadcasting and television rights. Whilst many more horses are imported each year to this country from Ireland – so arguably the Irish breeding industry would be hit much harder than our own by the imposition of tariffs, duties and taxes – the UK racing industry has fought hard in recent years to increase the number of horses in each race and to up the number of racing fixtures around the country. It could not have done so without the import of so many good horses from Ireland, in particular.
So the insistence from Number 10 Downing Street that the UK will leave the Customs Union will bring no comfort to those who believe such an exit would bring a shuddering halt to the current free movement of horses regulated by the Tripartite Agreement. And it is not just the horses, but many of the horsemen – jockeys, trainers and stable staff who come from Ireland, in particular and it would be unthinkable that we might be forced to restrict their movement in the participation of horse racing in the UK.
Sport in the UK post-Brexit
Probably no one gave much of a passing thought to the hugely damaging impact on UK horse racing, of the UK leaving the European Union on the morning of 29 June 2016, but many are thinking about it now and the protection of the whole vast industry, as the Government again picks up the reins shortly ahead of the next and crucial round of trade negotiations with Monsieur Barnier and his team, as the future of the sport in this country is at stake.