Why horse racing in Ireland is a multi-billion-dollar industry

The importance of horse racing to Ireland
The importance of horse racing to Ireland

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Story highlights

  • Irish horse racing and breeding continues to thrive
  • Ireland boasts 50 thoroughbreds per 10,000 people

(CNN)It's a country at the center of the thoroughbred industry, despite a population of fewer than five million people.

And with 28,000 people employed within Irish horse racing, it also provides a boost to the country's economy.
"Ireland is the third largest producer of thoroughbred horses in the world, which is quite incredible for a small country," Brian Kavanagh, Chief Executive of Horse Racing Ireland (HRI), told CNN.
    "It is the second highest in terms of the value of the horses sold, so when you take the fact that it's a country of four-and-a-half million people, compared to places like the United States and Australia, it shows the relative importance of horse racing in Ireland."
    There are 50 thoroughbred horses per 10,000 people in Ireland, according to a new study produced by Deloitte -- far more than most racing nations and 10 times higher than Britain, France and the US.
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    One in four people consulted said they were interested in the sport. Meanwhile, racing and breeding generates 1.8 billion euros ($2.5 billion) each year.
    "The great thing about the business is that it's spread throughout the country, in a lot of rural communities and rural towns," said Kavanagh. "That's the platform for a wonderfully successful international business."
    "I think 21% of the top flat horses in the world last year were bred in Ireland. It's a big export business for our country, a great sport and the punters love going racing."

    'An agricultural country'

    Irish horses were exported to 36 different countries in 2016, according to HRI's annual factbook, with overall bloodstock sales growing for the seventh year in succession.
    Over 1.3 million people went to domestic races, while it was the first year on record that Irish-trained horses crossed the line first in the Champion Hurdle, Cheltenham Gold Cup, Grand National, Epsom Derby and Epsom Oaks.
    But what's behind such sustained levels of success?
    "There are a few reasons," said Kavanagh. "We have a good climate. The rain and our soil structure -- limestone based soil -- is good for raising young horses.
    "It gives them good durability, and it's good for bone structure. Irish horses have a reputation for being horses that will last you a long time.
    "We've got people that are very used to handling horses and very good with horses. And we've had strong government support down through the years.
    "Essentially Ireland is still an agricultural country," added Kavanagh. "Most people are one or two generations removed from the land, so there's still that affinity with the horse. That leads to a high level of understanding and interest in the business."

    Where next?

    The industry continues to thrive but Kavanagh is conscious there is always more to be done — particularly in light of the uncertainty brought about by Britain voting to leave the European Union.
    "We need to develop on the international side of things and ensure we protect the quality of the horses being bred in the country," he told CNN.
    "Brexit is a worry for us. We need to maneuver our way through that and just make sure the industry is in a strong and stable position going forward."