Wednesday 23 October 2019

Racing returns to refurbished Curragh but challenges await

In the stables

'The four-floor grandstand is a sight to behold' Stock photo
'The four-floor grandstand is a sight to behold' Stock photo
Michael Verney

Michael Verney

Some visions take a little longer to come to fruition than others, but nearly 20 years after the Curragh redevelopment was dreamed up, the gates were opened at the refurbished Kildare track yesterday.

There was never any doubting its place as one of the finest racetracks in the world, but even the most hard-nosed of cynics would find it hard to find fault with the new grandstand and the facilities within.

The four-floor grandstand is a sight to behold, with spacious jockeys' dressing-rooms that would make Croke Park blush - as well as provision for a dedicated changing area for lady jockeys - to a stewards' room, a weigh room and press facilities.

Most importantly, it's near impossible to find a place in the grandstand where the view of the track isn't excellent, while punters are more than adequately catered for in terms of betting and restaurants/bars.

It's a far cry from the old Curragh, which had become dilapidated and turned potential punters away, but Curragh chiefs do have a fair job on their hands to ensure that the home of Irish Flat racing can get anywhere near its 30,000 capacity.

Eighteen meetings take place this season - with the 1,000/2,000 Guineas later this month the official opening - but apart from next month's Derby, they could struggle to get that type of crowd through the gate.

There are no excuses now in terms of modernisation, however, and CEO Derek McGrath - a former Irish rugby international and previously head of the ERC (European Rugby Championship) - is confident that they can entice spectators to come back through the turnstiles.

"Some of the research would suggest that maybe 80pc of your audience come racing just once per year, so there is a lot of acquisition to be done and there's a lot of effort to be made to get people to come racing," McGrath said recently.

"If we can build by 20pc, that's going to improve the return and that's the type of activity we'll be building towards.

"We have an ambition to build the number and build a loyal group of spectators."

They are already playing catch-up in terms of finances, with the initial projection of €65m thought to be closer to €85m after some overruns, but much like Croke Park, there is the possibility of concerts and other ways to pay their way outside of race days.

'Friday Night Racing' will be experimented with this summer in a bid to entice new faces - much like Leopardstown's successful Thursday night summer meetings - and those who part with their hard-earned cash are unlikely to be disappointed.

Challenges await but the Curragh - which espouses the promotional slogan 'where champions are made' - definitely does have an outstanding facility fit for the sport of kings.

Irish Independent

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