Former rugby international is in the saddle as the Curragh undergoes €65m facelift
Derek McGrath aims to bring his experience from one of rugby's top jobs to one of racing's most famous venues, he tells John Mulligan
It takes Derek McGrath a few moments to think of the last time he put a bet on a horse. "Probably Cheltenham", he says, before correcting himself. "No, it was Leopardstown last Christmas." If he'd won any money he might even have remembered the nag's name.
Having made the transition from the world of rugby to horseracing, the new chief executive of the Curragh Racecourse is preparing for what will be one of the biggest weekends in flat racing, as the season draws to a close.
The annual Longines Champions Weekend takes place on Saturday at Leopardstown, and at the Curragh on Sunday. It's a highlight of the racing calendar - domestic and international.
The QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes, which is held on the Saturday, is the fourth highest-rated race in the world, with the Qatar sponsors providing a €1.25m prize fund.
At the Curragh on Sunday, there's €2.1m up for grabs across eight races. Champion horses, including National Hunt ones, will be visiting to showcase the sport ; among them, Michael O'Leary's 'Rule the World', which won the Grand National at Aintree this year.
A former rugby international (he was capped five times for Ireland during the 1980s), McGrath was until 2014 the chief executive of the European Rugby Cup, which oversaw the Heineken Cup and the Amlin Challenge Cup. He was the first chief executive of the outfit, having taken on the role in 2000.
He admits that he had just a passing interest in racing before taking on his new role, where he'll oversee a €65m redevelopment of the Curragh Racecourse - an investment aimed at making it the epicentre of the sport in Ireland. But he remembers earlier times when as a youngster, his family parked the car in a field next to the Fairyhouse racecourse without having to pay to get onto the grounds.
"We used to drive into a field, park then car, have a picnic and you could literally stand at the first fence," he recalls. "At one of Grand Nationals, the horses took off and some jockey spilled at the first fence. My little sister, who was about six, ran over to him to ask him the number of his horse. She was worried he'd lose it."
But it's at the Curragh where McGrath is now trying to make memories.
The redevelopment plans are being bankrolled in equal parts by the taxpayer-backed Horse Racing Ireland, the Turf Club, and a group of private investors who are already deeply entwined with the industry.
Coolmore Stud owner John Magnier; JP McManus; the Aga Khan (who owns Gilltown Stud in Co Kildare); Swiss billionaire and Moyglare Stud owner Eva Maria Bucher-Haefner; and Michael Tabor are all stumping up slices of their collective multi-billion fortune to help pay for the scheme.
The redevelopment - which has recently secured planning permission - will start in earnest soon and is expected to be complete by 2018. It will include a new grandstand, new parade ring, weighing rooms, a stable yard and a museum.
The aim, says McGrath is to deliver world-class facilities and raise the Curragh's profile.
"We'll be encouraging people to come and experience outside of race day what actually happens in the Curragh," he says.
"It's not just horseracing, it's a historic place in its own right (the first recorded race was held there in 1727, but it had been in use for the sport prior to that). Something that really appeals to me about horseracing, is that between the people, the animals, and the land, there are so many stories that are there to be told."
He thinks that heritage will also help establish the Curragh on the tourist trail.
But it's hard to imagine that Magnier and McManus and the other investors are eyeing any meaningful financial return on their investment.
The draw for them, concedes McGrath, is the love of the sport.
"When you consider the reasons they're getting involved, it represents far more than a racecourse," he says, sitting outside on the verdant grounds of a south Dublin hotel on an unseasonably warm September afternoon. "This is a statement for racing and for Irish sport in many ways. It's a vision of ambition to reposition the Curragh as the headquarters of flat racing," he adds. "So, yes, there is a significant commitment in terms of investment, but I've no doubt that the passion that goes behind it suggests that the return is going to be far more than anything to do with money. They want to have a headquarters that they can be very proud of."
The redevelopment will transform the racecourse, but there are still plenty of challenges for the industry.
At the Curragh, attendance last year was 109,400 in 2015, which was up from 102,800 the previous year. It had 18 fixtures last year. The Dubai Duty Free Derby at the Curragh in June (with a €1.5m prize fund) attracted about 18,200 visitors, which was down from 25,200 the year before. That decline was blamed partly on the Euro Championship.
According to Horse Racing Ireland, total attendance at Irish racecourses was 1.276 million in 2015. That was pretty much unchanged on 2014.
But unchanged isn't good enough, and while there's a strong core following, the need to lure more spectators is obvious. And that battle for hearts and minds can begin on the Curragh's doorstep. McGrath says that there's a big proportion of the racecourse's immediate catchment area for whom the Curragh may have no relevance and who have never visited it.
"Horseracing is recognising that challenge," he says. "We want to showcase and display the very best in order to attract fans. Horseracing is very popular, but also very well served."
And while McGrath is aware that there's a job to do in attracting more spectators to the sport generally, it's easy to wonder if there are simply too many racecourses around.
There are 26 across the island. Leopardstown, Galway, Punchestown, and the Curragh are the biggest courses here, each luring well over 100,000 spectators a year. "You have to consider their impact on the local economy, tourism, and the whole thoroughbred industry," he insists. But he won't be drawn on the question beyond that.
All this may not all be a world away from his old job, but it is at least a different continent.
McGrath qualified as a vet at UCD and worked in first in Dunboyne, Co Meath in a mixed animal practice before moving to London for a while and then taking a role with an animal pharma firm. At the Curragh, the hope is that his success at building ERC will rub off on the racecourse.
So was the decision to move to the Curragh one he had pondered much before making the leap?
McGrath had been working as a consultant since leaving the ERC in 2014 as the organisation was succeeded by the Switzerland-based European Professional Rugby Club.
"It was a big decision, but I was very attracted by the opportunity," he says.
"It's not totally divorced from my background. What struck me was the ambition of the Curragh and what the stakeholders were trying to achieve. Secondly, it was the presence around the table of the people who I perceived were going to make it happen. There's a very strong board that wants to see results (the chairman is former ESB boss Padraig McManus)."
McGrath's experience of dealing with top name sponsors is also an asset for the Curragh.
"It's nice to look at a different sport and bring in some of the learnings," he explains. "When I approached rugby from the animal health industry, I was coming in looking at it from branding, and I was able to bring in those experiences.
"Now perhaps, I'm blending my veterinary with my business and my sport background and seeing how we can bring that to bear in horseracing. So that's a real exciting opportunity."
McGrath is prohibited from placing bets at races held at the Curragh, but ironically, his new role could end up being one of his biggest gambles.