Sunday 22 April 2018

Race is on to keep punters rolling in

This is one of the biggest weekends of the year in Irish racing with the staging of the 1,000 and 2,000 Guineas at The Curragh.

Yesterday's large and enthusiastic crowd for part one of the two-day meeting will be followed up with another healthy turn-out today despite competing attractions elsewhere and on television.

So far this year the bigger meetings have gone well for horse racing in Ireland.

The performance of the Irish raiders at Cheltenham was a huge boost with a record haul of 13 winners. That was followed by our own springtime festivals, Fairyhouse and Punchestown, and in the case of the latter the numbers were encouraging: the weekly attendance was 95,066, up on last year's 93,467; and the Tote figure of €4.34m was a significant increase on 2010 (€4.07m).

The unusually late timing of Easter this year meant that the two festivals were much closer together than would normally be the case, but again the figures show that Fairyhouse held its own. Over 27,000 attended the three-day Easter Festival, a 20 per cent increase on last year.

That does not mean that everything is rosy in the garden, however, which makes the recently published report by a strategic marketing group set up by Horse Racing Ireland timely and welcome, and perhaps above all, highly relevant. After all, for every high-profile festival, there are scores of poorly attended and poorly supported meetings. This year's fixture list scheduled 335 race meetings as opposed to 345 in 2010 but, despite the reduction, the group feels there is still scope for further cuts.

And a recommendation to change the running of the Irish Derby to a Saturday naturally caught the attention of most interested parties when the report's findings were made public, but in truth there is plenty in it for Irish horse racing stakeholders to chew over.

The controversial suggestion is justified on the basis that it would attract greater media interest, claiming particularly that RTE is anxious to build audience numbers for live racing. The report claims prime time television could deliver an audience of 400,000, which would be a major attraction for sponsors, but this is a difficult claim to back up and there is no evidence to support it in this particular report.

The sport, like almost everything in this country over the last two years, has had to enforce cutbacks and endure an amount of soul searching after a decade of good living.

Indeed, the Punchestown festival is a good example of adopting innovative measures. The decision to add a fifth day was taken in different times (2008), but they have made the best of things. Two years ago there was a change in the race times so that the first race on the four weekdays was at 3.40. This proved a popular move among working people and helped to sustain attendances.

In a sense, Punchestown has led the way as Irish racing looks to map a route out of its current difficulties. All 36 races at this year's festival had a sponsor, advance ticket sales showed an increase of over 10 per cent on last year, and corporate hospitality ticket sales also increased.

Racecourse manager Dick O'Sullivan showed refreshing honesty in the build-up to the festival with some of his comments, such as: "From 2006 to 2008, we hosted about 25,000 corporates each year. We thought nothing of building more accommodation to put up more people. The money came easy, the margins were great and we made a lot of money. We were spending about €1.3 million on marquees. We were busy making loads of money, but busy fools as well."

And: "We didn't fully realise the impact of what was happening with the marketplace, and we stayed with our price structure. But this year we really sat down and we put our whole operation into focus and said, 'We're not going to be here if we don't devise a new plan'."

O'Sullivan was not a member of the strategic marketing group, but he is certainly singing from the same hymn sheet. Even when you strip away the hyperbole which can sometimes surround the Irish horse racing industry, it is still the case that the country is a world leader in both Flat racing and National Hunt, with some of the greatest champion trainers of our age in the likes of Aidan O'Brien (pictured) and Willie Mullins.

In a busy, compact four-day schedule, the Queen of England's itinerary last week still found time for a tour of the National Stud and a private visit to Coolmore, a reminder of Ireland's pre-eminence.

The strategic group's report to the HRI board set out to find ways to help improve attendances at Irish racecourses. Aside from those already mentioned, there are several practical observations, such as fixing the date of the Punchestown festival, currently subject to change because of Easter; create a two-tier fixture list to distinguish race meetings; allow free entry for under 18s to all meetings except designated festivals; develop central ticketing sales for all racecourses through the HRI website; and use racehorse ownership as a way to grow interest and participation in racing among clubs, pubs and third-level colleges.

Two other points in the report also stand out. The first concerns capital spending, which is currently on hold, but the group says when funds become available again, The Curragh and Leopardstown should be prioritised. The second deals with betting, and how HRI can 'restore and grow the levels of attendance by the betting customer at the racecourse'. Suggestions include promoting tracks as betting venues, create wi-fi enabled sports lounges and hot spots and allowing bets at the home meeting in on-course SP shops.

Economic recovery alone will not be enough to sustain the sport, as interest among the general public in horse racing needs to be developed. But steps are being taken in the right direction.

Sunday Indo Sport

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