Friday 24 January 2020

Looking for a winner at the Curragh

Derek McGrath once battled at the edge of the Irish scrum, but the Curragh may be his biggest challenge yet

Derek McGrath, Curragh race course chief executive. Photo: David Conachy
Derek McGrath, Curragh race course chief executive. Photo: David Conachy

Fearghal O'Connor

Standing at the fence along the final stretch of the Curragh racecourse it's not hard to imagine the thumping of hooves and the shouts and roars of generations of racing fans echoing down through the years.

New advertising hoardings are in place around the finishing post and the stage is set for next weekend's Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby festival. The famous old race course is silent now except for a distant hum from the M7 motorway coming across the flat green expanse of ancient grassland. Silent, that is, but for the intermittent noise of a digger eating into what now remains of the race course's old stand.

The Curragh is at the beginning of a massive transformation and the much reduced crowds that descend on the Kildare venue next weekend for Irish racing's premier €1.5m classic will get their first glimpse of just how this €65m redevelopment plan is unfolding.

Leading the project is Curragh chief executive Derek McGrath, a former Irish international rugby flanker, who previously served as head of European Rugby Cup (ERC) for 14 years, from the time it developed the Heineken Cup in 2000.

McGrath points towards an untouched older structure called the Queen's Room that sits right in the middle of the rubble and twisted metal of the half-demolished stand. It is being dismantled painstakingly brick by brick so that it can be reassembled at the nearby parade ring where it will be used as a race winners' reception area.

"It was built in 1852 for the expected visit of Queen Victoria. Apparently she was quite small so they built long low windows so she could see out. But, God bless her, she never came," he says.

The racing carried on regardless, just as it will next weekend despite the huge development under way all around. Not everyone agreed with continuing racing at the Curragh while the work was ongoing and next weekend's festival will have a greatly reduced capacity of just 6,000.

But, like any good flanker, McGrath dug his heels in and held firm.

"We thought about it and, look, it's still a matter of public debate. Some people feel we shouldn't be racing while the work is under way but there was a very strong industry view that the Derby is the Curragh - they're both entwined. It's been run here for over 150 years and in terms of our own business it's critical we continue to race here. Alternatives were looked at but the type of fixtures we have wouldn't translate very well to other courses. So we are asking people to work with us as we develop something fantastic for the future."

The 2017 and 2018 racing seasons at the venue have been shortened with all work scheduled for completion in time for the 2019 season. McGrath says the disruption is necessary.

"Twenty or 30 years ago 30,000 would have attended the Derby. Last year we'd 18,000. It's such an integral part of the season we need to make the Derby successful. We'll have a new facility that will be able to cater for 30,000 people and our goal is to get it back up to that level but in a way that is more in keeping with what people want today."

The most striking feature of the new Curragh will be a dramatic sweeping roof on a new four level stand full of glass and light, packed with tastefully-appointed bars, restaurants and corporate suites.

The project has ambitious financial targets too. Total revenue is expected to increase 140pc as well as adding a third revenue stream. Currently 70pc of revenue comes from racing and 30pc from the Curragh's training operation. But the new development will include a visitor centre, museum and conferencing facilities that could ultimately provide 15pc of the Curragh's turnover.

"It's ambitious. I'm not naive enough to think it's going to be easy but I'm very confident. It was the same when we started the Heineken Cup."

A key move in building up the popularity of that competition in the early days was McGrath's decision to fix the venue of the final and begin marketing it a year in advance.

"That took time to catch on but once it did you had an audience of people who wanted the experience of the final regardless of who was playing."

McGrath is looking to do something similar with the course in the hope that a trip to the Curragh becomes an event in itself, rather than limiting its appeal to just a handful of big races.

"The Curragh doesn't have to be just about the Derby. We've already begun to look at how we could add a few more fixtures to our calendar as well as trying to get more international horses, trainers and owners racing here."

The entire project is a joint venture between State body Horse Racing Ireland, the Turf Club and six major horse racing interests who are investing €5m each. Involved are the Aga Khan, Eva-Maria Bucher Haefner of Moyglare Stud, Michael Tabor, Derrick Smith, John Magnier of Coolmore Stud, Godolphin Ireland, JP McManus and Derrinstown Stud. A further €5m has been raised among other investors who are also linked to the industry.

McGrath was not necessarily an obvious choice to lead the biggest infrastructure investment in many years in what is a close-knit sport.

"That's the benefit of the success of the Heineken Cup. I guess horse racing, and the Curragh in particular, is ready for change so I was welcomed. They want to make changes and so they're open to ideas. I've seen how other sports have dealt with challenges and issues and a lot of the challenges in this sport are very familiar."

Much - but not all - of his previous experience was in rugby. He played for Ireland in the first World Cup in New Zealand and Australia in 1987. His career coincided with greats such as Ollie Campbell, Hugo McNeil, Donal Lenihan and Moss Keane. His time in the game just predated professionalism and he worked by day as a vet, later moving into the veterinary pharmaceutical sector with a French multinational. In 2000 he was asked to head up the then newly-established Heineken Cup.

"It was a chance to build a product that had real potential for growth on a European scale, which is what I'd been doing in the pharmaceutical company. It was a very exciting time to be part of a sport that was very positive and proactive about its development."

When the ERC was replaced with a new organisation and new-look competitions in 2014, McGrath took the opportunity to step down. He worked briefly with Leinster Rugby on its RDS development project and it was there he was told by the architects on that project of an unexpected opportunity. They had also been engaged on a new project at the Curragh. He was immediately interested despite having no background in racing.

"To make something successful you need the right people around the table that can make decisions. I saw the Turf Club and HRI, who are the regulatory and governing bodies in the sport, alongside private investors who are the people who can make it happen in this sport. That all made for a serious project. It wasn't a dissimilar dynamic to the ERC where we had a mix of stakeholders sitting around the table, not all agreeing with each other but at the same time all sharing the passion and the vision for making it a success."

Of course, the racing industry is, almost by its nature, one of insiders and those in the know. But McGrath says he has not been made to feel an outsider and feels no pressure to become an overnight horse racing guru. His abilities lie elsewhere.

"During my time with the Heineken Cup we must have used over a hundred venues so I saw Croke Park, the Aviva Stadium and Thomond Park develop. All over the UK and France we were working in venues that were developing and I learned an awful lot."

McGrath agrees that Irish racing has fallen behind other sports when it comes to the development of facilities. "That is recognised and there's a lot of work going on in horse racing now to address this but if you look at the way other sports package themselves and engage with their customers that's something we can do a lot more of."

Key to achieving the type of attendances at the Curragh that will ensure the project is a success will be attracting an audience that is new to racing - the type of casual fans that help to fill other stadiums and venues.

"We have started this project with a 'build it and they will come' attitude," he says.

A key advantage for the Curragh, he says, is that it already has an iconic status.

"It's revered as a racing venue. It's like Croke Park or the Aviva Stadium. It's hallowed ground."

That, he says, gives him huge confidence that the next few years of pain at the famous old race track will be worth it.

"If you can tap into the passion of a sport you can go a long way. We identified that very early on with the Heineken Cup and it worked.

"You have to look at where the passion is, what creates it and how you connect with it. That's how you make it relevant and make it something people really want to get excited about."

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