Thursday 27 July 2017

Ivan Yates: Holding Derby at Curragh would be insult to racing fans – nightmare plan needs major rethink

'I won’t return until the new facilities are completed in 2019'. Stock photo: Getty
'I won’t return until the new facilities are completed in 2019'. Stock photo: Getty
Ivan Yates

Ivan Yates

My favourite pastime is a day's horse racing. The equine splendour, colour, passion, financial uncertainty and friendly chat with regular racing folk combine to create an intoxicating cocktail of pleasure.

Over recent days, I've indulged in the balmy evening sunshine of Gowran Park, Leopardstown's lovely listed win of Order Of St George and Ruby Walsh's double at Punchestown's last seasonal fixture. I anticipate forthcoming trips to local Wexford and Tramore tracks and can't wait for the Galway Festival. Summertime brings a special sheen on horses' coats and warm relaxation.

After a conversation with Aidan O'Brien at the Breeders' Cup in Santa Anita and a bank holiday Monday fixture chat at Naas, I developed a special affinity with his superstar three-year old colt Churchill.

His win in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket was particularly profitable. There are no circumstances under which I would have missed his return to the track in Ireland and another 2000 Guineas victory at the Curragh - particularly given his imminent future races will be at Royal Ascot and Glorious Goodwood.

I'm such a nerdy anorak of this animal that I went to the Curragh to specifically take photographs of him for my smartphone screensaver. I know, I'm a sycophantic idiot. He duly won and repaid my investment faith in him.

However, I was shocked, dismayed, even angry at my dreadful experience. Disappointment doesn't begin to reflect my emotions at the appalling facilities for paying punters - people who don't work in the industry attend by free choice, at their own expense.

Our troubles started as soon as we arrived. Walking to the entrance meant confronting a burst water course across the tarmac pathway - the first of many soakings. Security guards treated regular entrants like dubious terrorists. I found refuge in the main tent/marquee, to be surrounded by young lads/women dressed in drenched wedding attire. A UK bank holiday meant Mersey and Manchester accents were venting with incredulity at the impossibility of watching races from the only area that had a full bar.

Toilets weren't visible in the main drinking area. Beside the toilets were eating kiosks and craft beers. A long, wet walk was obligatory if you wanted to drink Guinness and urinate.

Watching races in a temporary contraption, a so-called grandstand, was memorable for all the wrong reasons. No shelter against the wind; insufficient elevation to see anything other than the final furlongs. Behind the facility resembled a bomb site you'd see in Mosul or Raqqa. The old stands were partially reduced to ugly rubble.

A double-storey marquee, presumably for elite restaurant clients and not open to the great unwashed, didn't seem to have proper viewing positions of the races.

The Racing Post's deputy editor David Jennings asked for my comment. I was quoted the following day: "This is an embarrassment to Irish racing. It's an utter disgrace. There is absolutely no regard whatsoever for racegoers and punters. I'll never come back to the Curragh."

I won't return until the new facilities are completed in 2019.

Only 2,500 souls were foolish enough to attend this special calendar event and it felt like an amateurish point-to-point.

Racing authorities made the wrong decision to hold fixtures during the redevelopment. In similar circumstances, Royal Ascot relocated to York and Longchamp currently races at Chantilly/Deauville.

Sadly, there's a more disturbing, recurring feature to this sorry saga. Flat racing doesn't enjoy significant public support, relative to jumps fixtures. Flat racing is run for producers, not consumers. Curragh attendance statistics are in steady decline for 20 years.

Public transport facilities don't exist there. It's assumed everyone attends by car - preferably Merc or BMW.

Because of back pain - and because I often can't get anyone to go with me - I depend on trains, buses and taxis. It works out great at Leopardstown, Thurles or Tipperary; only okay at Punchestown, Naas and Fairyhouse. Curragh access is crap.

There's a view that racing is fundamentally funded by owners; once they are looked after, all is well. Not so. Since 2001, the taxpayer has invested a whopping €1.17 billion in horse and greyhound racing. Between 2008 and 2017 the public purse provided €550 million to both sports, while giving €500m to share among 60 other sporting organisations.

The greyhound industry has spectacularly shot itself in both feet, with a dispute that shut down both Dublin tracks. Wake up doggy fraternity. Nobody cares outside your introverted sector.

If and when Shelbourne Park re-opens, patrons will have found alternative entertainment. It's the worst lose-lose scenario.

I have passionately advocated Exchequer support for an equine industry that employs 20,000 people throughout rural Ireland. But less people going racing means less mainline media coverage, less profile, less public support and ultimately less taxpayer subsidies.

Racing supremos need to broaden their dialogue beyond insular insiders to include punters.

This own goal shouldn't result in a 'circling of the wagons', rather a fundamental rethink. To hold the Derby here is to insult racing fans who want to attend. Leopardstown should host both days of Champions weekend in September.

Everyone makes mistakes; only fools repeat them.

Irish Independent

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