Kerry football's loss can be Listowel's gain
Organisers confident of a bumper Harvest Festival, writes Richard Forristal
IT'S possible that not every Kerry native is suffering from a rabid gloom right now.
Okay, the footballers haven't made the All-Ireland final, but every cloud has a silver lining. The second most important September fixture for the Kingdom locals is the week-long Harvest Festival that gets under way in Listowel tomorrow.
After the footballers' exit from the championship in that absorbing clash with Dublin, there will be little to distract from a racing jaunt that boasts a proud 155-year history.
"People won't be saving up to go to Dublin, so they'll have money to spend with us," says local man Pat Healy, the well-known racing snapper whose suave demeanour is a perfect fit for his role as the de facto face of Listowel's race committee.
"The omens are good; if we get decent weather, it could be the best festival ever."
In a way, it is all about the weather. The last time that Kerry didn't play in Croke Park in September and the rain stayed away – 2010 – 95,477 people came to Listowel.
Both of the last two years have been veritable washouts, yet nearly 88,000 people still turned up in 2012. Some Flat races had to be scrapped, prompting the need to divide jump races that were already modestly populated.
That was marginally more palatable than relocating the entire Flat programme to Dundalk's all-weather track, as happened in 2008.
In 2011, the final day had to be postponed due to waterlogging.
After tonnes of sand had been dumped onto the Feale-side track to help the surface survive the week last year, many commentators – including this one – called for a strategic rethink.
When the rains come, Listowel's ground and drainage system simply struggles to hold up for seven days.
Healy himself went on record as saying that maybe it was time to reconsider the traditional five-day format of times past.
From a business point of view, though, it was odds-against that such a scenario would prevail, as a potential loss of close to €100,000 in television rights money would distort the bottom line.
"I've changed my mind," he admits of the five-day concept now. "I've looked at it for a few years, but the racecourse makes money – no one takes a dividend out of it – and the money goes back into the track and facilities.
"At Punchestown last December, they had Flemenstar and Sir Des Champs taking each other on and they did everything right. They reduced the admission fee to €10 – and still only got 3,000 people in.
"Our worst day in Listowel is the Monday and we get 3,500 for it. So, as a package, I think it's okay. Obviously, if there was a trend that your crowds did decrease, that the quality of horse and racing decreased, then yes, you would look at it again, but everyone here is happy that it's a seven-day festival."
On the topic of a sodden track decimating cards, Healy feels that Listowel copes better than most. "That's not going to happen every year," he insists, "and there aren't many tracks that would have got through last year with the weather we got.
"The last five or six years, tracks have been on their knees – swamped. We got the ground verti-drained during the summer; it cost nearly €120,000, but I think it will be a huge help. We spent over €500,000 on the facilities for customers last year, but you've got to put money into the track as well."
"If you don't have a pitch, you can't play the game. Obviously, you'd have to see how it holds up in real tough conditions, but I'm happy that we probably won't have to. Right now, it's in great nick – good ground with a little bit of yielding in it."
In the tail end of the boom six years ago, the final tally for the week checked in at 106,822. With the footballers out, the farmers in green and the prospect of this Indian summer lasting just long enough, it's probably not surprising to hear Healy talk in terms of a "best festival ever".
Okay, it would take a perfect storm – pardon the unfortunate pun – but to even be able to aspire to such lofty heights these days is encouraging.
"It's nice to be starting off on a decent foot," Healy concedes.
"Every track in the country has fattened on the good summer – the ground needed the heat – and it also means that farmers have all their jobs done. This is a harvest festival, after all, so we want our regular farming presence.
"When you factor in that the footballers are out, if the weather holds, we could get over 100,000 people here. We've been pushing 90,000 for the last few years, so you never know. The races are such an important part of the community.
"Between hotels, restaurants, B&Bs and so on, it's worth €9m to north Kerry. Guinness Kerry National day (Wednesday) and Ladies' Day (Friday) each attract around 30,000 people, so it's a big thing. It helps keep businesses afloat."
So, just to clarify, Pat Healy, the footballers being out is a good thing, then?
"Oh no, don't get me wrong, I'd still rather be going up to Dublin next Saturday evening!"