Dublin: 14°C Monday 2 August 2021

Both great and good needed to get The Curragh back on track

The Kildare venue needs to reconnect with the county, writes Johnny Ward.

A young racegoer reacts as she watches the feature race of the day at the Curragh last Sunday.
A young racegoer reacts as she watches the feature race of the day at the Curragh last Sunday.
Image: Morgan Treacy/INPHO

NEXT WEEK, THE Galway Races returns to our lives – all that mixture of excitement and trepidation that it entails.

Galway is essentially a means to have fun for people, many of whom could not tell a horse from an ass. Traditionally, people took their summer holidays to coincide with race-week, but the quality of the fare has improved markedly in recent years so the purists have something to enjoy too.

Galway thrives because the little man has a chance. A little man with a big personality, Frankie Dettori, rode at Killarney earlier this month, no winner from his four mounts but drawing a crowd to the scenic County Kerry track that illustrated what a little imagination can do.

The crowds that Galway can attract for a mixture of maidens and handicaps will be the envy of Pat Keogh, the new Curragh CEO, who’s succeeding Derek McGrath, a critical departure for the headquarters of Flat racing in Ireland. It is a move that caused some surprise.

Indeed, the question many are asking gets to the heart of it: is this a progressive step for Keogh or a backward one? Leopardstown has brilliant Jumps racing, the Champion Stakes and an ability to attract much bigger crowds than the Curragh. It is also Dublin’s only racetrack.

Without knowledge of the financial incentive or otherwise offered to Pat Keogh, one of the greatest irrational fears we face in life relates to changing our job. And, as one racecourse manager told me last week, the Curragh is the job that every racecourse manager wants.

I’ve enjoyed a good relationship with Pat Keogh, so I am somewhat biased, but I believe he is a perfect fit for the Curragh. And his comments so far about the task ahead only corroborate this confidence.

He has been Leopardstown CEO there since 2011 and has been responsible for a series of successful initiatives, including the Dublin Racing Festival. He has been strong in attracting sponsorship engagement at Leopardstown with the Bulmers Festival over the summer backed up by a major partnership with Microsoft. He was enticed Savills, the property specialists to support the Leopardstown Chase, the centrepiece of the Christmas Festival.

It is also interesting to note the words of Brian Kavanagh, Horse Racing Ireland CEO, whose relationship with McGrath seemed to strain as the year progressed.

“It is the Headquarters of Irish racing and a huge asset for County Kildare. The Curragh faces many challenges and I am delighted that Pat has agreed to take up this position and help establish the Curragh’s reputation as one of Ireland’s most enjoyable sporting venues. He and his team have done a remarkable job during his time at Leopardstown,” Kavanagh said.

Kavanagh cited the need for people to enjoy themselves at the Curragh and referenced County Kildare. Keogh is conscious of both.

Quoted in the Irish Times, he said: “This has to be the racecourse of the community. That’s how the Curragh will succeed, with the local community saying ‘this is our racecourse and we’re very proud of it’. And I know they want it to succeed. I’ve been amazed by the number of messages I’ve received.

“[Recent attendance] figures aren’t good enough. That’s something we’ve to work on. Attendances aren’t the only barometer of success but they are an important one. We’ve to make sure the product is right. If it is, attendances will follow. From my experience the way to get attendances to increase in this game is that you can market it, but the best marketing of the whole lot is when someone comes to the Curragh, Leopardstown or Ballinrobe, has a really good time, and then tells their friends. That’s the best way of growing attendances over time.”

The tiered ticketing structure of the Curragh has been in tune with the belief of many that it is catering for the upper-class patron at the expense of the foot-soldier. This is a dangerous situation because Irish people have a somewhat unique and disparaging take on class-based societies and our racecourses, especially compared to British ones, have always seemed inclusive.

Keogh and his team should be selling days out at the Curragh to all sporting clubs in County Kildare, for example. He should be working in tandem with local businesses to make them feel part of the story.

He also needs to sell the idea of going racing to hardcore racing fans, many of whom just watch on TV. Erudite paddock commentaries, constant PA information, stories of the breeding of the relevant horses and mounted interviews with the rider as he or she returns to the winners’ circle are some ideas.

Jackie Donohoe, now sales and marketing manager at Naas racecourse, worked with Keogh at Leopardstown. “Pat is an extremely ambitious and encouraging person, who strives for nothing but the best,” she recalls. The Curragh needs all of that.

There will be plenty of chat about racing and hurling at Wexford tonight, with Arch Melody the nap in the Flood Ironworks Ltd. Handicap Steeplechase (8.20), while one suspects there may be a mixture of both narratives at Gowran tomorrow, in which Mark Fahey’s Iron Blue is interesting in the Lyrath Estate Handicap (3.05).

We have a day off on Sunday and then the madness of Galway, when the great and the good mingle as one, will have Pat Keogh ruminating over the future.

To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, a radically different Curragh – be of the people, by the people, for the people – shall not perish from the Earth. Keogh can be the man to make it happen.

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