Embracing change will help restore past glory
Racecourse chief is encouraged by minister Simon Coveney's review of horse racing industry saying "If you don't look at yourself in the mirror you won't improve". By Peter Flanagan
David Mongey is a busy man. As chairman of Punchestown racecourse he is tasked, in part, with being the public face of one of Irish racing's landmark tracks. As the industry goes through one of the worst downturns in recent history, his is a job that is not for the faint hearted but is one he is embracing.
The Enfield native is a man of many talents. As head of Mongey Communications he, along with his brother Cyril, was responsible for, among other things, supplying the closed circuit TV feeds and public address systems when the Queen and Barack Obama visited last year, while he also ran the sound system for the Oxegen festival. He is also a major shareholder in the Kildare radio station KFM.
For a man not from a racing background though, he is unusually steeped in the sport of kings.
"When I was six my family moved to Naas and opened an electrical shop. My mother added a doctor's surgery, hair salon and dress factory, while my father was an electrician.
"One of the icons of my childhood was Arkle, so the interest was always there but my father had a contract with the Curragh and I spent much of my childhood sat in the weigh room where the staff had cups of tea and so on.
"That spawned my interest in the background of racing. People can arrive at a track and all they see is Ruby Walsh come out and win a race and go into the winners enclosure, but they don't see all the work that goes into getting the horses on to the track."
Like many children who accompany their father to work, that initial interest may not lead to a career in that particular field and Mr Mongey was no different.
He followed his father into the family electrical business but not into racing. Despite an interest in the sport he spent most of his younger days playing rugby and GAA. He didn't get on a hunter chaser until after he was married.
"We [Mongey Communications] used to do the sound for all the major hunting events and I ended up joining the Kildare Hunt through my wife's father and another good friend of mine.
"In my years playing sport I'd never broken anything and I broke nearly everything when I started hunting but I loved the sport. There isn't much to compare the thrill of jumping an open ditch or a five bar gate and so on."
The involvement with the Hunt directly led him to the chairmanship of Punchestown.
The track, which is owned by the Kildare Hunt, was heavily indebted and by 2007 a new board was created as part of a deal between Horse Racing Ireland, the governing body of the sport, and the Hunt.
The board had four HRI nominees and four Hunt nominees but HRI chairman Denis Brosnan surprised the industry by nominating Mr Mongey as chairman of the board. He was re-elected as chairman last year.
Mr Mongey is quick to pay tribute to the day-to-day staff at Punchestown led by chief executive Dick O'Sullivan and sees himself as a "silent partner" in the running of a business like this one.
"I help, I guide, give advice and direct the board and help get as many sponsors as I can and get into the parade ring to greet sponsors and look after the Hunt Club members.
"As well as that I, and the rest of the staff, are always checking that all aspects of the racecourse are in order. Are owners and trainers happy? Are the fences in prime condition?
"The corporate customer is very important and we have to be able to satisfy that customer.
"If I'm paying for a box or table I want the best value for money. You try to hold on to your customer and want repeat business and you're working hard to do that."
Getting repeat business is a difficult task for any business these days, let alone one that involves discretionary spending for a lot of people.
Last year's figures from HRI showed some recovery in the industry but the numbers still made for grim reading.
Prize money, at €44.4m, was the lowest level in a decade while the number of horses in training has slumped as well.
Mr Mongey is acutely aware of the problems facing the industry and how hard the business has to work to retain sponsors, attendances, and events.
"Getting and retaining sponsors is a struggle but no different than any other racecourse in the industry.
"We have a lot more local sponsors now, which is a relatively recent thing.
"It is so important to be able to give value to the sponsor.
"In the past it might have been very easy to turn up, shake hands with the sponsors, get a photo done and then leave them but that won't wash any more.
"We need to look after sponsors a bit more. Give them an annual badge, have them come to dinner, become part of the success of the event and give them ownership of it."
The problems in the industry as a whole have spurred agriculture minister Simon Coveney -- apparently very highly rated by the racing fraternity -- to launch a comprehensive review of the business. Mr Mongey for one is embracing the review.
"In any business you need to review it every now and again and when did we last have a review of our industry?
"So I would urge everyone in the industry not to be afraid of it but to embrace it. If you don't look at yourself in the mirror you won't improve."
Punchestown has been hit by the downturn but it is fortunate that as one of the leading tracks in the country it has the name recognition of one of the biggest festivals in the racing calendar.
Despite the downturn, 33 of the 36 races scheduled for this year have a sponsor and a report released last week showed the April festival earned at least €60m for the local economy. It is something Mr Mongey is proud of.
"About a fifth of the 95,000 who attended the festival last year came from the UK. Many of them wouldn't have come to Ireland otherwise, but they come here because of the quality of the product on offer."
Beyond the equine related events, Punchestown is probably familiar to younger generations as home to the Oxegen festival.
It won't go ahead this year but Mr Mongey appears confident it will return in 2013. The importance of the festival to the local community is underlined by the reported €40m it contributes to the local area, but just as importantly it brings people to the facility who otherwise may not go near the track.
"An event like Oxegen involves a lot of engagement with the local community and policing and so on, but it also introduces non-racing people to Punchestown and often they'll end up coming back to go racing and so on."
Like everything to do with Punchestown, it comes back to racing and for Mr Mongey it is critical to highlight the bloodstock industry.
"We need to be able to tell our story, because it is a good one. The industry is well supported by the local community while the racing industry itself has great support throughout the country.
"We have owners of the calibre of JP McManus while Coolmore is a world leader in the industry.
"As well as that side of it there are huge numbers of small breeders who nobody outside of the industry may have heard of but are essential to the industry.
"Take just one aspect of the industry: the horse. From that comes any number of jobs. You have the breeder, the owner, the trainer and his staff, the farrier, the jockey, the feed supplier, the vet, and that barely scratches the surface.
"The bottom line is the industry supports an enormous number of jobs and it is vital we protect that."