Brexit Interview - Andy Oliver

  By Alex Cairns       Andy Oliver has held a training licence since 2004. Before setting up his self-contained establishment on his family farm in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, he qualified as an equine vet and spent time with trainer Mark Johnston in Yorkshire, England. Having built his owner base thanks to consistent success from relatively humble means, his career took off in 2011 when Flowers Of Spring registered a first stakes success for the yard in a Group 3 at Gowran Park. The good results continued in 2012, with Group 2 wins for First Cornerstone and Sendmylovetorose contributing to a prize money haul of over €490,000. In 2014, Team Valor’s Panama Hat flew the flag, racking up five consecutive handicap wins. Panama Hat went on the next year to prove he was much more than a handicapper, scoring at Listed and Group 3 level as well as running second in the American St Leger.       Though stakes success has always been the yard’s ultimate aspiration, Oliver is also well known for sourcing good value stock and bringing along horses that might then be sold to race abroad. Sendmylovetorose was just a £5,000 purchase, and Oliver also handled future multiple Hong Kong Group 1 winner Luck Or Design and 2015 Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Dodging Bullets in the early stages of their careers.       The past two seasons have proven more challenging for the Oliver yard. Having had almost 300 runners on the Flat in Ireland in 2013, this number was down to 92 in 2017. Oliver has taken this time to regroup and recently finished upgrading his facilities. The revamped facility now features a five-furlong woodchip hill gallop, a seven-furlong woodchip gallop with a slight incline, and a three-and-a-half-furlong sand gallop. Such advanced infrastructure allows him to train any type of horse, whether Flat or National Hunt, and his 80 boxes have been steadily filling.       With a lot of work having been put in and difficult years weathered, Brexit is surely a complication Oliver could do without. It is still unclear whether a hard border will be instituted between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but we can assume that the UK’s new arrangement with the EU will affect trade, transport, staff, and many other fundamental aspects of the racing industry. These issues will have a strong impact in both Britain and Ireland, with Northern Irish racing finding itself in a particularly precarious situation.       European Trainer spoke to Andy Oliver to gauge his thoughts on how Brexit might affect his business.        1. What is your business model?       Racing is a great way of life, but ultimately it has to pay the bills and be financially viable. With this in mind, we are trying to design a multi-faceted model with various layers to it. Our primary offering is the training of winning racehorses and taking our owners to the big days. We can also bring a horse along to maybe sell at a later stage, as I have often done with horses that I have owned myself. Over the years, we had become more of a Flat yard, but we are diversifying again so as to be dual-purpose and keep the ball rolling year round.        2. Where do you tend to source your horses? How do you decide which horses to bid for at the sales?       The domestic sales in Ireland and the UK are where I do most of my buying, for yearlings and for National Hunt horses. I don’t have any particular preference for any sale and always just look to get value. The methodology I have for drawing up a list of possibles is based around conformation and ratings. As a vet, I will make my own physical appraisal based on my own criteria. Ireland is a very competitive scene, so in order to win a race with a three-year-old, they need to be rated around 83. So I will look at the mare and the progeny and see do they average a rating over 80 before going any further.        3. Where are the majority of your owners based?       Most of our owners would be Irish and some British. Looking forward, I hope to expand internationally because racing is a global business. We have had owners from America, Australia, and Qatar, and if you can get the results then you can attract owners from anywhere in the world these days. We have great horse people in Northern Ireland, but a lot of their interest would be in National Hunt, which is part of the reason I want to cultivate that side of the business again and offer that to more local people.         4. How might training in Northern Ireland be different to training in the Republic of Ireland?       I never made a particular choice to train in Northern Ireland. I just happen to be from here and this is where my family has always been based, so I established my training business here. Although there is great horsemanship in Northern Ireland and great horses have been produced here, there has never really been any significant training centre here. So I was breaking new ground in a way. Building the infrastructure, finding staff, and recruiting owners have been the big challenges, but I can’t say there’s any specific detriment to being in this geographical location. It’s very peaceful for the horses and transport has never been an issue. This is thanks in part to the legacy of the Celtic Tiger, which left us with a very good road structure, meaning all the tracks on the island are accessible to us. And with relatively few trainers being based in the north, we might even be more attractive to potential owners based up here.        5. How would you assess the general health of horse racing in Northern Ireland?       I think it’s pretty good and has really been improving over the last 10 years. The two racecourses in Northern Ireland, Downpatrick and Down Royal, have made huge strides. They have made the effort to address every aspect of their offering, be it the racing surface, hospitality, viewing, owner experience, stabling, staff facilities, or whatever you might care to mention. And they have been rewarded with full cards and packed stands. So there is a good appetite for racing in the north and hopefully even our local politicians are starting to realise that racing is a significant industry worth supporting.        6. What challenges do you think Brexit might pose for your business?       We find ourselves in a very particular situation because the border that currently exists between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will soon become the border between the UK and the EU. Nobody actually knows what the outcome of the current negotiations is going to be, which is difficult for any business owner as it creates uncertainty. It had been suggested that Northern Ireland would remain part of the customs union, so as to avoid the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland. This has some appeal in my eyes, as it would cause less disturbance and even encourage inward investment. A hard border would pose some challenge to us, as any horse brought across the border, whether it is to race or go to the sales, would have to be verified. We might also be affected with regard to staff. Because we have fewer horses at the moment, we don’t need as many staff and can find enough among the local population. If we did expand again, we may have to bring in staff from other EU countries or outside the EU, and we aren’t sure how that would work.        7. How often do you travel across the border with horses?       All the time. Horse Racing Ireland (HRI), the racing authority here, is an all-island body, so in my mind there is no border. We just go wherever we need to go. When we are busy we are crossing the border constantly, especially as there are only two racecourses in Northern Ireland, compared to 24 in the Republic. Currently, this travel is not an impediment at all, but it could be become one post-Brexit.        8. Have HRI provided any guidance on the potential impact of Brexit?       Obviously the horseracing industry is hugely important on the island of Ireland, be it economically, socially, or culturally, so HRI have a responsibility to work to ensure a prosperous future for the sport. With that said, just like the rest of us they really can’t know what is going to happen in the coming years and what the outcome of the current negotiations is going to be. So it is probably a watching brief for now and they will have to be ready to act in order to successfully transition to the new arrangement when the time comes.        9. Do you feel the government in Northern Ireland provides sufficient support for the racing industry?       I think the sport could certainly be higher on their agenda. It can be difficult for people up here who aren’t in any way involved in the sport to appreciate what a significant industry racing is and that racedays are just the end product of a large, complex system in which many people are involved. Of course, Northern Ireland has had its own particular challenges over the years and things have been dealt with by priority, but the profile of the sport is improving and people are beginning to understand that racing can make a significant contribution to the progress of life in Northern Ireland as a whole. Unfortunately our local government is not actually functioning at the moment, and that is holding everyone back.        10. Do you see any potential positives from Brexit?       In the horseracing industry, not really. I can’t see that there will be any advantage to it, unless we are granted some kind of special status. When the referendum was taking place, I could see that the border was going to be a huge issue, but it was undersold at the time and now we find ourselves in this very tricky situation. We are on this road now anyway and I will just be glad when it is all resolved and out of the way.        11. Where do you see Andy Oliver Racing in 10 years time?       For five years in a row we were among the top 10 Flat trainers in Ireland. Our last two or three years have been about investment and backing the quality of our service. I mentioned our multi-faceted, self-sufficient approach before and I want to build on the progress we have made with that. The ultimate aim then is to get the right owners on board, train the good horses well, and be there on the big days.

By Alex Cairns

Andy Oliver has held a training licence since 2004. Before setting up his self-contained establishment on his family farm in County Tyrone, Northern Ireland, he qualified as an equine vet and spent time with trainer Mark Johnston in Yorkshire, England. Having built his owner base thanks to consistent success from relatively humble means, his career took off in 2011 when Flowers Of Spring registered a first stakes success for the yard in a Group 3 at Gowran Park. The good results continued in 2012, with Group 2 wins for First Cornerstone and Sendmylovetorose contributing to a prize money haul of over €490,000. In 2014, Team Valor’s Panama Hat flew the flag, racking up five consecutive handicap wins. Panama Hat went on the next year to prove he was much more than a handicapper, scoring at Listed and Group 3 level as well as running second in the American St Leger.

Though stakes success has always been the yard’s ultimate aspiration, Oliver is also well known for sourcing good value stock and bringing along horses that might then be sold to race abroad. Sendmylovetorose was just a £5,000 purchase, and Oliver also handled future multiple Hong Kong Group 1 winner Luck Or Design and 2015 Queen Mother Champion Chase winner Dodging Bullets in the early stages of their careers.

The past two seasons have proven more challenging for the Oliver yard. Having had almost 300 runners on the Flat in Ireland in 2013, this number was down to 92 in 2017. Oliver has taken this time to regroup and recently finished upgrading his facilities. The revamped facility now features a five-furlong woodchip hill gallop, a seven-furlong woodchip gallop with a slight incline, and a three-and-a-half-furlong sand gallop. Such advanced infrastructure allows him to train any type of horse, whether Flat or National Hunt, and his 80 boxes have been steadily filling.

With a lot of work having been put in and difficult years weathered, Brexit is surely a complication Oliver could do without. It is still unclear whether a hard border will be instituted between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, but we can assume that the UK’s new arrangement with the EU will affect trade, transport, staff, and many other fundamental aspects of the racing industry. These issues will have a strong impact in both Britain and Ireland, with Northern Irish racing finding itself in a particularly precarious situation.

European Trainer spoke to Andy Oliver to gauge his thoughts on how Brexit might affect his business.

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