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Funding crisis 'threatening' future of racing at Down Royal and Downpatrick

By Cate McCurry

Down Royal and Downpatrick racecourses could be forced to close amid a funding crisis.

Representatives for Northern Ireland's only horse racing courses said they had been starved of resources and money.

Their future now hangs on the outcome of a Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) consultation, the findings of which will be published within weeks.

Bookmakers pay a licence fee to DARD which goes into the Horse Racing Fund. Down Royal and Downpatrick use that money to cover costs. Last year, that money was cut almost in half, from £2,000 per bookmakers' shop to £1,123. The racecourses recorded a loss afterwards.

Chairman of Down Royal, Jim Nicholson, said racing was in a "crisis".

"The industry is starved," he added. "We're getting to the stage where courses make a loss and we do the job voluntarily. We're concerned about keeping the doors open. We could be looking at the loss of 575 jobs."

A DARD spokeswoman said the dispute was between bookmakers and the courses. "DARD will continue to engage with both main parties with a view to setting a rate that is reasonable for all parties," she added.

Mr Nicholson told the Belfast Telegraph the industry could not endure two years of sustained losses and would not be able to commit to fixtures in 2017.

He also accused DARD of being "disinterested and unwilling to step up" and safeguard approximately 600 rural jobs that depend upon the survival of the racecourses. He said their suggestion of around £4,400 per shop would safeguard to future of racing in Northern Ireland.

The Down Royal chief added: "We need this decision to be made before the Assembly closes for business in a few weeks as we would like this put through from 2016 so we are not missing out on another year of funding.

"I have said that over the next three years, with proper funding, we can create 800 jobs, but if we don't get the funding we will not be able to do that, plus we will lose some 600 jobs.

"This is crucial. We have contributed £50m to the local community and economy over the last 14 years so it's a valuable industry."

Adrian Eastwood, chairman of the Northern Ireland Turf Guardians' Association, which represents bookmakers, said that local firms across Northern Ireland had provided "significant investment" to assist Down Royal and Downpatrick racecourses over the past 25 years.

"Both racecourses are profit-making businesses that have continued to make significant developments to their first class facilities over the past six years," he added.

"(The racecourses were) strengthened by more than £3.5m received from off-course bookmaker contributions to the fund over that period.

"In addition, the Northern Ireland racecourses receive approximately £930,000 annually via off-course bookmakers from media rights."

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