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Dublin: 3 °C Wednesday 19 February, 2020

New-look Curragh must get back to roots to help expensive makeover succeed

The newly-impressive venue needs to to do more to attract local people who fell out of love with it, writes Johnny Ward.

The new stand at the redeveloped Curragh.
The new stand at the redeveloped Curragh.
Image: Peter Mooney/INPHO

AS VOTERS GO to the polls today, Fine Gael may fret about certain bad-buzz items doing the party no favour, in particular the public funds wasted on the National Children’s Hospital.

These things rarely seem to not go over budget but the public will want somebody to blame and Leo’s disciples may feel that anger. Later in the afternoon, our most iconic racetrack opens to the masses, such as they are, for its first Classic weekend since its redevelopment.

It is over a decade since the-then Turf Club, citing “the current unprecedented economic conditions,” conceded that it was postponing the redevelopment of the Curragh. Long almost entirely unfit for purpose in terms of spectators, Flat HQ finally got there – though one can only speculate as to the final tab.

It is expected to come to just over €80 million. Irish racing’s biggest ever capital development project had an estimated budget cost of €65 million initially. The newly formed Curragh Ltd, comprising one-third shares between private investors, Horse Racing Ireland and the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (ex-Turf Club), has declined to comment on extra costs.

Curragh CEO Derek McGrath has said that this is not likely to be revealed until after the Guineas festival, which commences this evening. And the feedback on the attendances will probably be negative, which is why McGrath tends to be wary of revealing figures.

Whilst there were clear teething problems on the opening day, from which the Curragh needs to have made changes, I feel it necessary to defend the track to an extent. The facilities are generally magnificent, as they should be given the money spent; where it was once almost depressing to go racing there, it is now something to cherish and genuinely feels removed from what is on offer at any other racetrack here.

The bottom line is: people do not attend Flat meetings in Ireland. When Cork, Navan, Fairyhouse and Gowran hold meetings on the level, you often have next to nobody paying in.

When Sea The Stars made his only three-year-old Irish appearance in the Champion Stakes at Leopardstown, they couldn’t get the crowd up to five figures. The only Flat meeting in Ireland that gets a decent crowd, you could argue, is low-grade fodder on the beach at Laytown.

That is because we are world leaders in Flat racing but very few care. The Coolmore behemoth, due primarily to the genius of John Magnier, effectively runs the show in Irish racing and that just doesn’t do it for a lot of horsemen, who would prefer to put on wellingtons and go to their local point-to-point.

If you go to a Flat meeting, around 90 per cent of your time there is spent waiting for the actual sport to take place. In an era of ever-dwindling attention spans, that is not an easy sell.

Let’s say the Curragh attracts around 8,000-9,000 on Saturday and again on Sunday. That seems pretty poor – but even Newmarket struggles to get much more than that: the English 1,000 Guineas does not always reach five figures.

In France, apart from on Arc day, hardly anybody goes racing, whilst race-tracks in the US survive on the casinos hoovering up what few bucks addicts have left to squander on a daily basis.

I have written here previously about what I feel is a substantial negative when it comes to attracting day-trippers to Flat HQ – the loss of the railway station – and Iarnrod Eireann is open to the idea of its return, which could even entail considerable park-and-ride potential. The Curragh needs to to do more to attract local people who fell out of love with it, while it also must aspire to become a more friendly racecourse than the vaguely aloof exterior it tended to present as the years went on.

It also seems pretty staggering that three of the races over this critical weekend at the Curragh are without a sponsor, when you consider that little Ballinrobe will not allow a single race in the whole year to go unsponsored. How is this the case?

If you go to the Guineas this weekend – where the best-bred horses on the planet, world-class trainers and jockeys go all-out to beat each other at the pinnacle of their sport – and are indifferent about going back, there is bugger all anyone can do to change your mind.

To my mind, even if Coolmore remains the behemoth, Irish racing is in a good place: witness the number of young trainers competing in the opening maiden tomorrow in Joseph O’Brien, Fozzy Stack, Michael O’Callaghan, Jack Davison and so on.

Sandown Park Races Too Darn Hot and Frankie Dettori. Source: Julian Herbert

CEO McGrath et all will be thrilled, too, with the wholly unexpected decision to reroute Too Darn Hot to the 2,000 Guineas (3.35), a left-field call that can pay off for John Gosden.

On Sunday, another dismally contested Tattersalls Gold Cup really does nothing for the image of Irish racing, while Aidan O’Brien should also win the fillies’ Guineas (3.50) with Newmarket heroine Hermosa.

So old is the Curragh, legend insists that it was once a preferred meeting place for the mythical Fianna. In victory, Hermosa can become a relative legend of the Turf in winning both the English and Irish Guineas.

Unfortunately, because of the dominance of her connections, equine virtuosity is a certainty to get lost in the narrative. We know a good horse in Ireland; whether we care enough or not is another thing.

Gavan Casey is joined by Ryan Bailey and Andy Dunne to look ahead to Saturday’s Pro14 final, look at whether Joey Carbery’s move has paid off and Jack Conan talks about how his body is holding up.:

Source: The42 Rugby Weekly/SoundCloud

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