A glance at the Curragh’s website reveals that the track does a good line in marketing-speak, with phrases like ‘home of world class horse racing’, ‘on hallowed ground’ and ‘where champions are made’ popping from the page, writes Tony Keenan. And, strictly speaking, those slogans are correct; the racing out on the course remains excellent with the recent Guineas weekend another example as both Newmarket winners Churchill and Winter backed up their wins in the first classics of the season. Perhaps the more egalitarian in us could crab the competitiveness at the very top-end with the Coolmore-Ballydoyle axis dominating but that is essentially a minor quibble.
Exclusivity has long been a part of the Curragh, both on the track and off it, and in itself that is not necessarily a bad thing; such an approach is the USP of Royal Ascot and it clearly works there. Irish racegoers – and Irish people in general – however are less inclined towards such attitudes even with the economy in bounce-back mode and if you are going to offer an exclusive product, you damn well want to make sure the customer is getting something special. This patently isn’t the case with the Curragh at the moment and hasn’t been for years.
A quick synopsis of the current state of play: due to rebuilding works, the Curragh continues to race in 2017 and 2018 with temporary facilities in place and a maximum capacity of 6,000 which includes the typical 1,000 bodies on track in a professional capacity like jockeys, stewards, catering staff and so on. Of the four days’ racing so far at the track in 2017, I’ve been there twice and it’s been dry on both occasions so my perspective isn’t tarnished by bad weather; in its current state, it would be a very unpleasant place to watch racing if there is rain. The configuration of the facilities is very tight with a small stand that is close to the racing surface but with no elevation which makes viewing difficult. This has not been helped by an altering of camera angles, likely due to positions in some of the formerly permanent structures being removed, which make it hard to see what is going on at a track where the layout doesn’t make viewing easy to start with. All in all, it’s a pretty poor customer experience.
Not that you’d know that from the comments of decision makers in Irish racing. CEO of the Curragh Racecourse Limited, Derek McGrath, has asked racegoers to come out and support the track at this time but racegoers could rightly ask what the course is doing for them. McGrath at least has the excuse of not being part of the previous regime at the Curragh, but the place has been badly-run for years. I’ve been there when they’ve run out of food in the restaurant, when there is barely a member of staff working the bar, even when a portion of the roof fell in due to a leak in the stands. Only so much of this can be put down to having outdated facilities.
HRI chief executive Brian Kavanagh has talked about the Curragh racing on as ‘short term pain’ but more than that it is unnecessary pain as there is a ready-made solution 55 kilometres up the N7 and around the M50 at Leopardstown. One of his main justifications for the track remaining open in this period was the integrity of the programme; the Curragh had races that simply couldn’t be run elsewhere, least of all Leopardstown with its turning sprint track. This just rings hollow. 2017 has seen more fiddling with the Irish programme book than in any season in my memory with races that were run at one track being moved all over the place and event distances being altered. Leopardstown is a track that successfully hosts what is unequivocally the best race of the Irish flat season every year in the Irish Champion Stakes and the idea that the Curragh’s straight track is somehow fairer is a fallacy; the course has produced many unlucky losers over the years.
It’s worth considering the overall attendance figures at the Curragh in recent years too. Despite having the best flat racing in the country, the course ranked only seventh in average attendance last year behind Galway, Listowel, Punchestown, Leopardstown, Kilbeggan and Limerick. You can make every excuse for this – the weather, clashes with other sporting events like GAA and mid-summer soccer tournaments, the Irish preference for national hunt over flat – but ultimately these are excuses. There remains an appetite for a day at the races with Irish people, and not just a day of racing and drinking, and the Curragh has many advantages too: it has top-quality racing which can hardly be a negative, it gets to race during the summer and a lot of their meetings are on a Sunday, the traditional day of race-going in Ireland. With its open aspect, bad weather can seem to be magnified at the Curragh but its effect on attendances at the track is overstated; conditions contrasted hugely over the two days of Guineas weekend this year with Saturday a washout and Sunday balmy by comparison but the difference in turnout was minimal with 2,500 the first day and 2,800 the second.
I could be accused of covering this story all too late but it’s worth remembering that news of the 6,000 attendance cap was released in February and it is only now that we have been able to see the facilities in action after four meetings. There has been plenty of comment to the effect that people need to tolerate it now but while the ‘just put up with it’ attitude can serve you well in life, it’s also the kind of thinking that prevents change for the better from happening. Of course, the 6,000 person limit is only likely to be broken twice in the year at the Curragh – on Irish Derby day and on the second day of Irish Champions Weekend, cards that attracted crowds of 18,244 and 9,255 respectively in 2016. But that’s still over 15,000 people who attended last year that can’t come this year and that’s the sort of thing that engenders plenty of bad will; those customers will surely find something else to do instead. Again, Leopardstown could provide the solution having comfortably had crowds in excess of 17,000 at the second day of their Christmas Festival the last two years and in cold weather too.
All of this makes me angry, perhaps irrationally so, and it is only a racecourse after all. Regardless of temporary facilities, I’m still going to attend the Curragh this year and next – though probably not when it rains – as I enjoy live sport and none more than racing. I also look forward to the new Curragh in 2019 where you will likely be able to kick football through the halls on quieter days but that has its benefits too. This two-year interlude does the course no favours however and reflects an attitude that the racegoer doesn’t really matter to them.
– Tony Keenan