And so a new star of the flat racing season is born. In such a legacy industry as horse racing, where so much of the present and future is rooted – often irretrievably – in the past, shoehorning a Group 1 extravaganza into the into the established late season calendar might have seemed like folly, or worse.
But, in October 2011, Ascot managed to introduce British Champions Day by relocating and then embellishing an existing fin du saison card from Newmarket. Graced by the brilliant Frankel in its first two years, and strongly supported by QIPCO, racing’s biggest new sponsor, since inception, British Champions Day has established itself as a flagship climactic showdown with its series of divisional finals.
This year, British Champions Day follows immediately on from Future Champions Day, a Newmarket card largely comprised of juvenile events and showcasing many of the Classic aspirants of 2015. A two day Champions weekend? Whatever next?!
Well, how about two Champions Weekends five weeks apart? Shurely shome mishtake, shquealed the tradishunalishts. But no, this has been no clerical error. Rather, it is a case of the remaining major racing nation in Europe ‘catching themselves on’ (as they might say), and joining up the Group 1 dots into an event far greater than the sum of its historical parts.
Specifically, Ireland hosted its inaugural Irish Champions Weekend these past couple of days. And, like the British version, it was predicated on existing end of season prizes. Moreover, like the British version, it was well supported by QIPCO. And, like the British version, it was blessed by a favourable confluence. Where Ascot had Frankel, Leopardstown and the Curragh had good (to firm) ground and good (to very good) weather.
These gifts from the heavens cannot be bought, and it may have been a different story had those heavens rained on the impressive equine parade. But they did not. Rather, the junction of Leopardstown’s Champion Stakes card and the Curragh’s Irish St Leger meeting – spruced up with some strong Group action left and right – shone as brightly as the September sun in which it bathed.
Enough with the poetic (and, as ever, needlessly verbose) introductions, and to the meat of the meet… Did Irish Champions Weekend (ICW) work? Was it a success with the punters? Did it swell Irish racing’s coffers? And did the quality of the racing justify the pomp and fanfare that preceded it?
Context and Parallels
Before I address those questions, let’s take a moment to consider the state of Irish flat racing coming into ICW.
The seemingly inexorable expansion of the Pattern (races of Listed or Group/Graded class), in the face of a dwindling horse population and reduced depth/quality to some of the biggest races (notably the Irish Derby), rendered the notion of ten ‘black type’ heats in two days faintly ridiculous. Ostensibly, at least.
Still more ‘courageous’ was the idea of competing directly with the oldest of the Classics, the English St Leger. Hereshy, shcreamed the tradishunalishts. Not so, countered the reformers, in measured and confident tones. Despite the predictable and entirely reasonable disgruntlement of the St Leger meeting’s major sponsor, Ladbrokes, there is in fact little overlap between the race programme at Doncaster, and that of the Curragh/Leopardstown.
Those behind ICW had a blueprint to work from. In fact, they had three, from which they could cherry pick their menu. Arc weekend is the most entrenched of the two day end of season jamborees. More recently, in 2007, the Breeders Cup expanded from one to two days, and the second of the champions weekends sat down to the table. Ireland has actually beaten Britain to be the third two day festival of this kind, though the influence of British Champions Day on Irish Champions Weekend cannot be understated.
Although the amount of sequence tinkering from France Galop and Breeders Cup suggests the perfect format has yet to be isolated, a distinction between the best of now and the best of tomorrow seems a logical separation. Irish Champions Weekend subscribed to that basic principle, with Day One at Leopardstown featuring high class three-year-old and up action, and Day Two from the Curragh including two juvenile Group 1’s and a valuable two-year-old sales race.
The order of the days – current stars on Saturday, future stars on Sunday – is the reverse of the British Champions Day model, but that flow is yet to be tested in Blighty, and who’s to say that the UK arrangement works better than the Irish one?
Tradishun was adhered to insofar as Irish Champion Stakes day has recently always been Saturday at Leopardstown, and Irish St Leger day has always been Sunday at the Curragh. Those pillars of the final chapter of the flat annual were normally eight days apart, so snapping them together into a ‘super weekend’ was not such a stretch of the imagination.
This scribe would not be close enough to the fabric of Irish racing to make informed comment (read, I’m probably talking out of my pipe), but it seemed to me as I travelled to the respective venues that Leopardstown was quite similar to Ascot in terms of its relative accessibility and modernity, while the Curragh was more akin to Newmarket in terms of relative remoteness.
A brave move, and one behind which the full might of the Irish racing marketing machine has been leant, the questions now are less about logistics and more about performance? Did the inaugural Irish Champions Weekend work?
After all the talk, did people attend? Did they bet (and eat and drink)? And did the horses come? Yes, yes and yes is the management summary.
Leopardstown’s Saturday attendance – aided, like Sunday, by good weather, it should be said – was 13,190. That was a 50% increase on 2013’s figure of 8,786. Tote turnover was up significantly too, with €795,510 bet into the pools versus €445,410 last year (+79%). And even those poor put upon bookmakers reported increased handle, with last year’s €668,737 usurped by a plump €891,631 (+33%), and a fair chance that some of it remained in the satchel.
The horses played their part too, with the three highest rated horses in the Irish Champion Stakes averaging out at 123.67, the highest since the – with hindsight – electric clash between Sea The Stars, Fame And Glory, and Mastercraftsman in 2009. The 2014 renewal was deeper still, with five horses rated 117 or higher, and all of them Group 1 winners.
Leopardstown’s crowd was treated to six finishes with a half length or less first to second, and two imperious displays by very good horses. The 1-2 order in some of those races – most notably the vanquishing of Australia by The Grey Gatsby in the shadow of the post – may not have delighted every player, but the competitiveness of the racing was evident at almost every turn.
Sunday’s Curragh attendance was 10,978 which was more than 107% above last year’s 5,285, and made for a combined total attendance of over 24,000. Given the internal target of 20,000 across the two days, that can be regarded as a spectacular success, albeit one that sets a very high benchmark for the future.
With the first five favourites winning on the Sunday card, and twice as many punters as last year, it is virtually certain that both tote and bookmaker turnover were up significantly, though the latter’s bottom line may have a dark crimson look to it when the dust settles on the ledger.
Up, up and up were the year-on-year data, meaning the visionaries who conceived and executed the first Irish Champions Weekend will have smiled contentedly into their pillows on Sunday evening as they slept their way to inevitable hangovers. Theirs has been an ambitious gamble, but one which – with the will of the nation’s racing stakeholders – has paid off handsomely.
Sitting snugly three weeks before the Arc meeting, five weeks before British Champions Weekend, and seven weeks before the Breeders Cup, Irish Champions Weekend can hope to continue to attract the sport’s biggest domestic and British stars for as long as the weather plays its part.
Good weather ahead of the meeting is a key contributory factor to the horses likely to turn up, and good weather on the days is essential from a live audience perspective. Both behaved impeccably this year, but cannot be counted on to do so consistently in the future.
Nevertheless, Horse Racing Ireland can now more confidently and aggressively market the weekend to British racing fans off the back of an even haul of the sixteen races (and a majority 3-2 haul of the Group 1’s). And, weather permitting, HRI can also trumpet the success on the turf to those with the best horses, both owners and trainers.
The clash with Doncaster’s St Leger meeting looks to be an issue for the Yorkshire track more than HRI and, though it would furrow many a tradishunalisht’s brow, moving the Leger forward a week to the first weekend in September could work, despite the (current) clash with Haydock’s Sprint Cup.
In any case, as I’ve written, this is not a problem for Irish racing, and they can rejoice in the overwhelming success of their inaugural Champions Weekend. There’s every chance that horses like Gleneagles, Cursory Glance, John F Kennedy, Free Eagle, and The Grey Gatsby will be back again next year, along with a new wave of equine superstars.
If I have one suggestion to improve Irish Champions Weekend, it is one which I suspect will further ruffle the feathers of the old guard: I’d do a switcheroo with day one and day two. Leopardstown and the Champion Stakes felt like a much bigger deal than the Curragh and the Irish St Leger. A Racing Post straw poll had 87% of voters preferring Leopardstown to the Curragh, which suggests it may be a more widely held opinion.
Whilst that might have been a shallow poll, and the respondents considering far more than the quality of a single race, it lends credence to the perception that ending on a Champion Stakes high, having built excitement and anticipation with the National / Moyglare Stud / Irish St Leger, might be a better way to play the weekend out.
Whatever the order next year, it was a pleasure to be there this time, and I’m already looking forward to 2015.