The stark contraction at the heart of the jump racing scene in Ireland continued throughout 2019 when the number of fully licensed trainers plummeted by nearly 17 per cent to 81, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board's annual statistics have revealed.
In 2017, when 93 National Hunt licences were issued, it constituted the first time in a decade that fewer than 100 people were licensed to train over jumps.
The peak was achieved at the height of the economic boom in 2005 when 121 held the equivalent licence, while just ten years ago 120 people still held NH licences, all of 25 per cent more than was the case in the most recent calendar year.
An increased concentration of power in fewer and more deeply-resourced hands and an increase in the cost of raw material has proved a significant deterrent of late.
The number of Flat licensees also dropped year-on-year for a first time since 2013 to 25 from 30, meaning the overall number of fully-fledged trainers has collapsed to 345 – down seven per cent on 2018 – the lowest level at any point in recent times, with the official published figures going back to 2005.
As a result of the reduced appeal of the profession, over the past couple of years the regulator has struggled to fill slots on trainers' courses.
"It is worrying that the number of trainers' licences fell in 2019 with a 16.5 per cent decrease in National Hunt licences noted," said the IHRB chief executive Denis Egan on publication of the stats.
"However, there may be more positive signs in the fact that we do have 16 people who are enrolled on a new trainers' course this year. The course was due to begin this month but is now temporarily delayed due to the current circumstances related to Covid-19."
Whip offences on the rise
The other startling figure among the annual statistics was the surge in whip offences, which has been well documented but still rose an eye-watering 78 per cent to 379. When the regulator announced sweeping new rules a year ago, it cited a 26 per cent spike to 213 as its justification for introducing a number for the amount of strikes permitted.
Now, after a raft of offences as riders struggled to adapt, that return has soared again, although Egan suggested that the breaches have begun to level off.
"This is as a result of the new, more stringent whip rules that were introduced in April 2019, under which the maximum number of strikes allowable was significantly reduced to eight," Egan explained of the rise.
"That said, we have found the rate of offending has been reducing as riders become more familiar with the changes."
The overall number of riders came in at 582, the highest number since 609 licensees were recorded in 2014, while the injury rate per fall dropped across both codes for a third successive year to 26 per cent on the Flat and 15 per cent over jumps. An improvement in the standard of back protector may be bolstering those figures.
"While there were a number of vertebral fractures, none resulted in spinal cord injury and there was no increase in visceral injuries in 2019," said the IHRB's chief medical officer Dr Jennifer Pugh.
"The impact of the higher standard Level 2 safety vest, which was introduced three years ago, continues to be monitored."
She added: "Concussion rates also continue to be monitored and the increase seen among National Hunt jockeys over the last two years and in Flat racing in 2019 may be attributable to quicker ground conditions for the best part of the year, along with better detection methods and a recognition by the riders of the importance of reporting symptoms."