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Getting punters in door still a priority

When Horse Racing Ireland released its 2011 figures recently, the only real positive to be gleaned from a pretty grim report was the 3pc rise in racecourse attendance figures.

It may have taken a while, but track executives eventually accepted that a plummeting economy was the new norm.

Once they did, attitudes changed perceptibly, and commendable work is now being done by the various strategic planning and PR departments to arrest attendances that had crashed by 18pc in the three years to 2010.

In an interview some months ago, Denis Brosnan, the long-serving chairman at HRI, suggested that growing attendances was not that high on the agenda, pointing out that racecourses earned enough from TV rights money these days to survive.

That may be true, but, at a time when people are inclined to revert to more traditional pastimes, tracks themselves have been extremely proactive in justifying their existence.

Ladies' Days and boy bands aren't everyone's cup of tea and you can still leave the catering area of most racecourses feeling as though your pockets have been pilfered, but at least genuine efforts are being made to get people through the gates again.

Standing still wasn't really an option, so small initiatives like twilight cards at the Punchestown Festival or the switching of the Irish Derby to a Saturday evening are worth trying.

While Irish racing has far deeper problems to contend with, tracks can only do their bit. This weekend was a case in point, with Leopardstown's inaugural two-day January fixture proving what you might call a qualified success.

Despite the incessant rain, yesterday's gate was down all of one on 2011 at 7,029, and Saturday's figure of 5,057 represented a 6pc rise on last year's Boylesports.com Hurdle meeting. A year ago, the equivalent programme was run in its usual Sunday slot, so Saturday's meeting was essentially an entirely new day in the racing calendar.

In that context, such a return is to be applauded, and is no doubt partially down to the fact that you could enjoy what proved to be two days of spellbinding racing for just €20 if you booked online. Even the daily gate charge of €15 wasn't prohibitive when you consider the quality of horse on show, particularly yesterday.

Of course, as ever, bookmakers' turnover is the most revealing statistic going and yesterday's 21pc drop to €621,776 offered further evidence of the continuing squeeze on everybody's finances.

With that in mind, though, Leopardstown did especially well to attract the crowd that it did.

The two-day format is certainly worth persisting with.

Training performance

of the weekend

Jessica Harrington gets the nod for turning around a run of form that saw her stable produce just one winner after Saturday's Boylesports.com Hurdle hero Citizenship last won at Punchestown on November 19.

Citizenship's victory under Robbie Power, Harrington's third in the valuable two-miler, got the ball rolling on Saturday. She then won the bumper with smart newcomer Jezki and followed up in yesterday's opening maiden hurdle with Burn And Turn.

The Moone handler's only winner in the interim was Jetson at Christmas, so her last four winners have now come at Leopardstown.

Ride of the weekend

Katie Walsh kept everything brilliantly simple when bouncing Seabass out to make all in the Leopardstown Chase on Saturday.

However, that is no easy feat in such a competitive handicap and the awareness that Walsh displayed in spotting a loose horse before it had even got upsides her on the approach to the seventh-last fence was remarkable.

As the race was entering its most crucial stage, she had the presence of mind and strength of conviction to rein back around the loose one, just in time to nick inside the wing of the fence. It helped that she had an honest partner and she may have got a call from a colleague, but it was still a fantastic piece of riding.

Number of the weekend

15 The number of consecutive races that Big Buck's has won following his Cleeve Hurdle success at Cheltenham on Saturday. For all that the three-time World Hurdle winner looked as though he might be in trouble at one stage, closer inspection of the race reveals that Ruby Walsh never even slapped the horse down the shoulder during the race.

In reality, the verdict was never in doubt, as Big Buck's managed to get within one of the current jumps record of 16 wins which is held by Sir Ken, the former three-time Champion Hurdle-winner.

Mullins heading for

another century

Willie Mullins is on the verge of a fifth consecutive century after bagging five winners at Leopardstown over the weekend.

Prior to yesterday's double, Darroun, Aupcharlie and Sir Des Champs all scored at the suburban circuit on Saturday, and Mullins heads into Down Royal on Wednesday with 99 winners. The most significant of his Saturday haul was Sir Des Champs, which denied Hidden Cyclone to maintain its unbeaten record over fences in the Grade Two novice chase.


gets in a tangle

On his first start over fences since that glorious triumph in the Irish Grand National in April, Organisedconfusion met an inauspicious demise. Also partnered by Nina Carberry for the first time since their Fairyhouse coup, Arthur Moore's seven-year-old crashed out at the first fence in the Leopardstown Chase on Saturday.


"Brilliant win with Citizenship but I have to admit I wish Robert wouldn't be so cool at times!! Best ride I've seen in a long time."

-- Jessica Harrington, after Robbie Power refused to panic despite encountering a nightmare run in Saturday's feature contest, the Boylesports.com Handicap Hurdle.

Irish Independent