Business Irish

Thursday 20 June 2019

In person: Racing boss under starters orders as historic Curragh gets ready to raise the roof after facelift

Revamped track aiming to attract local support and boost its international reputation, writes John Mulligan

Safe bet: Former European Rugby Cup boss Derek McGrath says the Curragh revamp delivers ‘very good value’ on the public
money invested
Safe bet: Former European Rugby Cup boss Derek McGrath says the Curragh revamp delivers ‘very good value’ on the public money invested
John Mulligan

John Mulligan

The finishing touches are being put to the new grandstand and grounds of the Curragh racecourse as Derek McGrath prepares to formally unveil the multimillion-euro redevelopment of the iconic venue tomorrow.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar will be there this weekend for the official reveal during the three-day Guineas Festival.

Strolling around the premises last week, McGrath had pep in his step.

"The feedback we were getting during the development was just amazing," he says. "There's huge local pride in it."

He's eager to show off the facilities - brand spanking new everything, from weigh-in areas to jockey rooms and changing areas, bars and executive suites. He insists there are few facilities in the world that can compare.

The most visible piece de resistance, arguably, is the sweeping roof of the new structure, which has taken more than two years to build and which was delivered later than anticipated. It replaces a grandstand that had been in place for well over 50 years, and which was creaking at the seams.

Outdoors, under the new grandstand's roof, there are 1,500 seats, while the grandstand itself can comfortably hold 6,000 people inside and out.

During bigger race meetings, such as next month's derby festival, the ground's capacity can be beefed up 30,000 if needed using marquees.

In 2016, before redevelopment got underway, 26,483 attended the derby, which was down from 37,504 in 2015. The decline was blamed on the Euro 2016 football championship.

Completion of the redevelopment is no doubt a relief for McGrath, a former Irish international rugby player who's overseen the sometimes controversial project as chief executive of the company now behind the Curragh (which is chaired by former ESB boss Padraig McManus).

It clearly hasn't been without its problems and criticism.

It has cost much more than the €65m that was first touted back in 2016 (it's been speculated that the final cost will be around €80m, but McGrath won't confirm the figure).

The scale of the investment that's backed to the tune of about €30m from the public purse is also ambitious given that the Curragh must now market itself to customers that it has previously lacked on a large scale - the general public.

Last year, attendance at horseracing meetings in Ireland was more or less unchanged at 1.27 million. At the Curragh, total attendance last year was 47,535, up 12pc on 2017 despite the redevelopment work.

McGrath (59), who has on numerous occasions confessed that attracting more punters is a key challenge to justify the investment, remains resolute in his determination to lure the masses. But will they want to?

"There's no doubt: that journey starts now," he says.

"We're starting with a fantastic venue. We're starting with a great racecourse. But in many ways, our starting point is recognising that the Curragh hasn't reached out to its current community, and new community, in a big way. We're looking to turn that around.

"For us to get that right, this place has to be a good experience, it has to be welcoming and it has to be value for money."

The Curragh has already been criticised for hiking the cost of a season ticket by 50pc to €265, but McGrath has previously justified that given the nature of the much better facilities and experience he says guests will get.

"We've got a market that hasn't experienced something like this for a while," he adds. "We've a lot of local people that haven't been accustomed to coming to the Curragh for a long time."

He's also hopeful that the venue will become a tourist destination. The first recorded race was held at the Curragh in 1727, but it has a racing legacy stretching back before that.

Aside from the delay in completing the project, there have already been teething problems - the new parade ring had to be enlarged because it couldn't accommodate every horse in a race with 22 or more runners.

"I'm sure you'll find some people who'll say, well I said this and it wasn't done, but I'm very comfortable that we have designed this… taking on board all the feedback and all the expectations," he says.

Another of the issues was that the racecourse kept functioning, with races, as the redevelopment was under way - a challenge for the executive and every other stakeholder from jockeys to punters.

Accounts for the company behind the venue show that it generated revenue of €6.1m in 2017 as redevelopment was in progress, and made a €3.4m loss. Of the turnover, €4.6m was racecourse revenue, and €1.5m came from its training facilities.

Given the scale of the losses that year, was it right to keep it open?

"That exercise of staying here for the two years, and talking to the people who were going to be using this facility, meant that we got a much better understanding as to what was actually expected," says McGrath.

He won't say what the turnover projections are for the Curragh once it's under full steam again, but insists it's "multiples" of the 2017 figure.

The racing boss - who qualified as a vet at UCD, worked in Ireland and London for a time before joining an animal pharma firm - adds that he understands the criticisms that have been levelled at the overall project.

It's hardly a surprise that he just doesn't agree with them.

"There's a very good justification for why it's value for money," McGrath says. "If you look at what we are trying to do, it's to reposition the Curragh as the HQ [for horseracing].

"If you take a helicopter view, the Curragh sits as one of the best-known worldwide venues for flat racing. The flat racing as a business is international. If you compare it to National Hunt, that's largely Ireland, the UK and a bit of France."

He says that the flat racing industry has been a "phenomenal success story for Ireland".

"The people who were approached to help fund this saw that Ireland needed something that was going to represent the Curragh in the way that it needs to," adds McGrath.

Those who backed the project all have very deep pockets. Aside from the €30m or so that has come from the taxpayer via Horse Racing Ireland, a who's who of the international horseracing set stumped up the remainder.

They include billionaires JP McManus and John Magnier. The businessmen are heavily involved in horseracing, but McManus focuses on National Hunt, and Magnier on flat racing through his Coolmore Stud operation.

The pair are major joint shareholders of the UK-listed pub group Mitchells & Butlers, and major shareholders in UK nursing home group Barchester Healthcare, along with Dermot Desmond.

The other backers of the redevelopment are the Aga Khan (who owns Gilltown Stud in Co Kildare); Swiss billionaire and Moyglare Stud owner Eva Maria Bucher-Haefner; and Michael Tabor, the UK businessman who's a close associate of Magnier and McManus.

Other investors in the scheme include David Power, a co-founder of gambling firm Paddy Power (now Paddy Power Betfair); Derrinstown Stud, which is owned by Dubai's Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum and Godolphin, owned by the latter's father, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum. Juddmonte Farms, owned by Prince Khalid bin Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, is also an investor.

Despite all the private backing, hard-earned taxes are still playing a big part in the redevelopment though.

"While public money has been a key part of this, it's going to be less than half the final cost," says McGrath, who - from 2000 until 2014 - was chief executive of the European Rugby Cup, which oversaw the Heineken Cup and the Amlin Challenge Cup.

"So if you look at the return that public money is getting out of this, I think it's very arguable that it's very good value for money," he says, stressing that the new grandstand will probably be used for the next 50 years.

The only thing is, that return won't be known for some time, and in many ways will be unquantifiable.

Who will really be able to point, 10 years down, as to the role the redevelopment may (or may not) have made to the horseracing sector?

"We recognise that we come, unfortunately, with a tradition and a history which is not always popular," says McGrath.

"In terms of building our relationship, we need to break down those barriers."

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