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Derby weekend shows new boss at the Curragh needs to win back local support

The redeveloped venue has a challenge ahead, writes Johnny Ward.

A racegoer arrives at The Curragh.
A racegoer arrives at The Curragh.
Image: Tommy Dickson/INPHO

IT MIGHT BE that in Ireland we appreciate good horses but do not get excited about them.

When Sea The Stars, one of the greatest thoroughbreds seen in Europe, had his only – and final – three-year-old start in Ireland, Leopardstown could not attract a five-figure crowd – and this the Champion Stakes card.

Following the Irish Derby weekend, Horse Racing Ireland CEO Brian Kavanagh suggested that a crowd of 3,661 for the Group 1 Pretty Polly Stakes on the Friday was poor enough to warrant abandoning the experiment of it being held on the eve of the Derby Festival. Kavanagh did not delve into how many of the 3,661 actually paid in.

We appreciate people, too – and we get excited about them. The buzz generated by Frankie Dettori riding at Killarney midweek was quite something, a huge crowd in relative terms visiting the scenic venue to get a sight of the Italian rider. Meanwhile, on the same evening at Fairyhouse, there was ample time to observe the tumbleweed.

Against that backdrop, the expectation that the Curragh might attract something like its 30,000 capacity are cushioned, but things have gone so badly awry as the HQ of Flat racing in Ireland begins life post-redevelopment that manager Derek McGrath announced last weekend that he would leave at the end of the year.

“My job is to make a decision, which I made, and I’m happy that I took a view of where things were. I felt that having completed the project that was a good time to look for a different future somewhere else,” said McGrath.

“I knew what I was getting into in the sense that there was a very complex stakeholder and shareholder mix. That’s something I’ve encountered in previous jobs so that wasn’t a surprise. But perhaps if we failed to do anything it was to integrate behind a shared vision for what we want the Curragh to be,” he went on.

McGrath’s wording was suitably oblique, given his decision not to issue attendance figures at the track on Guineas weekend for each of the relevant days. His tenure has been turbulent, despite his impressive CV, as a former long-time chief executive of the European Rugby Cup.

In my dealings, I always found Derek McGrath friendly and courteous. The Curragh redevelopment has been riddled with problems, many of them nothing to do with him. However, his reaction to how the Derby weekend panned out at the Curragh was telling.

McGrath reckoned that those who spent much of their day in queues for the bar and toilet didn’t mind the hassle. This was anything but the impression I got: indeed, if you were especially thirsty, it was possible you would miss three races during the Derby meet due to having to queue. It was clear that customer service was utterly inept.

What was startling was that the crowd was under 40 per cent of the purported capacity, rendering images of what mayhem would ensue were 30,000 people there and it started to rain heavily.

The Racing Post reported this morning that discussions over the appointment of a caretaker manager to oversee raceday operations for the remainder of the season at the Curragh “are at an advanced stage and the new appointment could be in position as early as next week.”

“If you asked every racecourse manager in this country did they want to manage the Curragh,” one told me this week, “half of them would tell you they wanted it badly and the other half would be lying.”

There are some outstanding racecourse managers in Ireland, including Mike Todd, at least until he departed Down Royal, Richard Lyttle of Downpatrick and Eddie Scally of Gowran. As for Pat Keogh, his efforts to attract people and horses to Leopardstown should inspire whoever is McGrath’s replacement.

Keogh goes to all lengths to attract overseas runners to the track. Yoshitake Hashida, assistant trainer of Deirdre, the champion Japanese mare, came to Leopardstown in June “to walk the track in preparation for the Irish Champion Stakes”, Keogh said, with typical optimism about a potential star attraction.

The incumbent has a tricky job in restoring the public’s faith in the Curragh – many said they would never return after Derby weekend, when the sun was shining – but there can hardly be a more alluring job in racing at the moment. He or she will have a stunning facility, what is widely accepted to be one of the best racetracks in the world when it comes to horses and most of all a blank slate.

Sarah McDermott from Newbridge, Co. Kildare Sarah McDermott from Newbridge at the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby Festival recently. Source: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

The Curragh board, McGrath telling the Irish Times that “perhaps if we failed to do anything it was to integrate behind a shared vision for what we want the Curragh to be”, certainly has questions to answer. It is made up partly of representatives of HRI, the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Body, Coolmore, Godolphin and the Aga Khan. It is worth recalling the words of Alan Sweetman in the Racing Post in November 2015.

“A major thrust of industry strategy in recent years has been to portray the interest of all stakeholders as identical, a fallacy that has gained widespread currency. The racing industry, like any other, is about money, power, and influence, and those at the top will almost inevitably wish to set the agenda,” he wrote.

“I got a few supportive messages after that article was published,” Sweetman added this week, “from grassroots enthusiasts mostly. Further up the pyramid, words such as negative, unfair, unhelpful were in currency.”

The Curragh has alienated many people in the area, seeming to defer to the elite rather than the local racegoer, whose experience on Derby day was a shocking indictment of a venture that has cost the guts of €90 million. McGrath’s replacement needs to win these people back.

What crowd will the Oaks (5.10) attract on Saturday? Perhaps they may not have to queue for nearly an hour for a beer and perhaps they can pay for it by backing Trethias each-way, 16-1 with Betway.

And when it comes to the future of the Curragh, Sunday’s best bet – Anythingyouwantobe in the 4.20, a race without a sponsor – is well-named.

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