Friday 23 February 2018

Racecourse gets go-ahead for Sunday as future looks bright

Emma Gallagher

The summer sunshine brought with it some good news for Sligo Races on Wednesday after the course received the go-ahead to resume racing this Sunday.

After a somewhat roller-coaster beginning to 2017, with three race meetings cancelled, things are looking brighter for Sligo Races. On Wednesday a trial of the course took place and afterward the Turf Club Licensing Committee gave the all-clear for Sunday's meeting.

The news came as relief for the management of the Racecourse after extensive drainage works carried out at the Cleveragh course resulted in April, May and June's meetings being called off. It was a costly cancellation for Sligo Races, with significant revenue being lost. The necessary track works, costing in the region of €300,000, will be of long-term benefit for the course according to Kathryn Foley, Manager of Sligo Races. She told the Sligo Champion that 2017 was indeed a difficult one but things are now looking up.

"In summary, we had a very turbulent year and we got off to a slow start with a delayed start in racing and we regret the way it has turned out, particularly for our racegoers and supporters because they are our bread and butter and we want to keep them happy at all costs. We hope that we will have a successful season going forward, we are starting off with a National Hunt on the 16th of July followed up the next meeting on the 9th of August is going to be a Steeplechase meeting, then our next day will be Ladies Day on the 10th which is National Hunt. We'll have a National Hunt again at the end of August and we'll finish off with a Steeplechase. So it's all National Hunt this year, which we are very happy about," Kathryn explained.

The Racecourse is investing €300,000 in track development with the majority of the spend is on drainage but they are also putting a Canter down in place, that work is starting after racing this year.

"Our capital development plans for the racecourse facilities has been put on hold until after racing in 2018," Kathryn explained. There had been hopes to get the grass growing in April but Mother Nature had other ideas. "We had one of the driest, coldest Aprils in three years so as a consequence that delayed matters further and the track was constantly being monitored by the Turf Club officials, which was a very good thing and they made the decision then to pull the third race on June 20th," Kathryn said.

As she explained at the time, ensuring both jockeys and horses' safety was paramount. "Safety is paramount. Really that has to be the criteria because we cannot risk anyone getting hurt. Now we feel we have done what was required of us to do. This was a very large project, biggest one we ever embarked on here in Sligo and we hope we will get the years out of it. That's not to say that there will be remedial work, because with a racetrack it is always ongoing." The Racecourse did have significant financial losses from the meetings being called off.

"We took a significant financial hit, there is no question about that. A lot of our money comes in via media money and we have invested an enormous amount in the track as well. Some other tracks might not be able to sustain a hit but fortunately we are and we'll see the benefits of this in the long run."

The fixtures for next year are out already so the three meetings that were cancelled will not be rescheduled for 2018. "There is going to be a little re-juggle with the way the fixtures fall. I think we'll be starting off with a National Hunt instead of a flat for the April Bank Holiday and there will be some minor changes throughout but next year we won't be having rescheduled but we can look at the following year. There is always the possibility that we could take a meeting from another Racetrack if there was a cancellation, but by and large those cancellations happen at a time that we wouldn't be ready for it."

Moving on, Kathryn said they are very pleased with the Racecourse. "We have a facility here we can be very proud of. We feel that including other tracks in the West of Ireland, we get a great attendance here in Sligo and that is what it's about. It's a live spectator sport and we want the people here, we want them to come and enjoy the racing. Some of the larger tracks wouldn't have anything similar to what we have here. There is a great history of racing in Sligo too. It is a great test ground for horses and they go on to win. A lot of horses who have run here go on to win in Cheltenham and Punchestown.

"It's great to see our trainers, who always bring a buzz to the track and we welcome them. Then of course we have Derek Fox who ran his very first race here in Sligo. Funnily, his first race here was the Leo McMorrow race, who was a former Aintree winner as well. I'm hoping that I will get Derek over during the summer and we will have a race called after him as well. However Derek now is riding for Lucinda Russell and he is working to her calendar so he is busy but we will do something for him," Kathryn said.

"We are very happy with the drainage, the track has improved enormously and it's very hard to see the slits or find them unless you knew where they were. So this trial today is successful and going forward we should see strong racing in Sligo and expecting bumper crowds from July 16th. I'm getting lots of enquiries about our other meetings as well. We expect the National Hunt Steeplechase will bring in quite a number of people who normally wouldn't attend the flat and we'll also have a very good Ladies Day with Kathryn Lynch, our Leitrim star who will judge Ladies Day and we will also have a Rugby Day on August 22nd and expect that to be a good day as well, so it's all positive."

Don O'Connor, Chairman of Sligo Races, said the enormous investment in the Racecourse has made it into a top-class facility. He recalled being Chairman previously back in the eighties and how things have changed.

Don said: "I've taken over again for the second time. I was Chairman back in the early eighties, I have lots of cuttings from the Champion back then at home.

"The change in the Racecourse is huge. Back then the facilities we had were poor.

"I remember we had a shared drive, we collected €15,000 and built the bar and that was first building that was built in probably 50 years.

"There was nothing else. Before that, there used to be marquees for bar and restaurant and it was fairly primitive. What we have now is what people expect now when they go racing.

"Most of the people who go racing are there for a social day out. So you have to provide the facilities that's going to attract people in."

There are plans to build for the future and with the cancellation of the meetings earlier this year, they are being put back for a short time. "We have a lot of plans and we hope sometime in the future to build a stand-alone bar and restaurant here, it will cost around €1m plus. What we are going to do with the far side will be another million pound job. We're going to take the whole front off that stand, the other side and putting a glass across and extend it out onto the edge of the walkway and put the access point at the gable.

"We won't do it this year, it will be next year on account of having lost so many meetings. Financially we will just want to draw our breath. We have a whole new toilet block going in as well as a new turnstile entrance where people won't be out in the elements before they go through. These are all for the future but a lot of that work is dependent apart from the Revenue from the Racecourse, the race supporters are huge insofar as their contribution goes directly into the track and the facilities. It's not used for anything else and without them we could never have done what we have done so far. Because what we did was we banked the race supporters' money for about eight or ten years until we had about €700,000 of our own money and through them and used it to build that stand. Without them we would be at zero," Don added.

Sligo Champion

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