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Brexit cloud hangs over Irish racing ahead of Festival

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Dublin (AFP)

Irish racegoers will flock to England for the Cheltenham Festival this week with the threat of a no-deal Brexit looming over their industry.

Cheltenham has been a lucrative advertisement for Ireland's racing prowess, with Irish-trained horses often beating their English rivals in what is the most prestigious meeting in the jumps racing calendar starting on Tuesday.

The Festival also showcases many of the small breeders who are most at risk from a disorderly Brexit on the scheduled departure date of March 29, Ireland's former Europe minister Lucinda Creighton told AFP.

"The Irish-trained horses running at Cheltenham will have largely been produced by small breeders and owned by syndicates who will not be flying in by helicopter.

"For those small producers with tiny margins, delays and costs loaded on by transport and logistics poses problems post Brexit and risks potentially eliminating that part of the industry," she said.

Creighton, who is on the board of Horse Sport Ireland, said Brexit also threatens a wider racing ecosystem that employs 28,000 people and is worth some 1.5 billion euros ($1.7 billion) to the Irish economy.

"It is the farriers, the farmers that supply the hay and the people who provide the shavings and the grooms, the riders, people who supply the tack, the horse transportation," said Creighton.

"It is a huge business," she said, calling the industry "part of rural life in Ireland".

"It is a real priority and the consequences of Brexit damaging the racing industry are very real."

- 'Like falling off a cliff edge' -

As well as causing confusion for British and EU expatriates, a no-deal Brexit later this month could halt free movement of horses between the three powerhouses of European racing -- Ireland, England and France -- currently governed by a special tripartite agreement.

Henry Beeby, group chief executive of Ireland's premier bloodstock auction house Goffs and Goffs UK, said a no-deal Brexit would be "like falling off a cliff edge."

Beeby, whose company had turnover of nearly 200 million euros in 2017, said there is a proposed replacement for the tripartite agreement called the High Health Horse (3H) status.

No deal would mean that is off the table.

If British MPs in a vote on Tuesday approve the deal negotiated by Prime Minister Theresa May, that would allow for a transition period that would give politicians a chance to agree on the horse deal.

- 60% of sales under threat -

Beeby said he was concerned about the potential impact of no-deal also for his own company.

"Over 60 percent of our turnover last year at Doncaster Sales came from Irish horses," Beeby told AFP.

"We had a turnover of £50 million, so you are looking at £30 million being under threat.

"I am not saying all that business would stop but breeders or vendors would be more reluctant to come over if they have long queues to get them across as it becomes incredibly time consuming.

"It will have a major impact on bloodstock sales in the United Kingdom and Ireland."

Others are more phlegmatic about the future.

Leading trainer Jessica Harrington, 72, said she does not "lose sleep over things which are out of my control."

The endless debate has had at least some effect on Harrington, who trained Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Sizing John.

The ongoing uncertainty and political turmoil over Brexit in recent weeks have prompted her to name one of her horses "What Next?".

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