The Curragh’s 2023 Classic campaign gets under way this weekend with a Guineas Festival sure to attract a significant international screen audience and comparatively paltry footfall from fans actually prepared to go to Irish racing’s HQ.
Co Kildare isn’t short of eye-catching pieces of architecture that were ultimately filed under folly: there’s the Wonderful Barn and Connolly’s Obelisk near Leixlip for instance. It is the Curragh racecourse’s task to avoid a similar kind of verdict.
The problem isn’t purpose. As a flagship for Irish racing, the new Curragh, complete with its signature Aga Khan stand, reflects the sport’s unprecedented success over the last two decades and consequent self-confidence. It looks great. What’s turning more problematic is the scale of the place.
A year ago, there was an official attendance of just 12,500 over three days for some of the best the sport can offer
Those vast numbers whizzing past in their cars on the M8 every day might be impressed by the aesthetics, just not enough to use the exit. A lot simply mightn’t be interested. But Kildare is the Thoroughbred County, with more racing nuts than most places, and they’re voting with their feet.
Whether that continues to be the case when the Guineas Festival kicks off this evening remains to be seen. A positive weather outlook, combined with the prospect of genuinely top-class action, might provoke a surge, although it would be an upswing from a low base.
A year ago, there was an official attendance of just 12,500 over three days for some of the best the sport can offer. That comprised 2,500 on the Friday, 5,200 for Saturday’s 2000 Guineas, while 4,800 went to Sunday’s fillies’ classic.
This is in a venue originally supposed to cater for up to 30,000 — a figure disputed by the current Curragh management — with capacity in the grandstand alone for up to 13,000 customers. It was also a first post-pandemic Guineas so in the context of other sports benefiting from resurgent fan interest.
By most objective measures it was a dispiriting display of spectator indifference.
The track’s two biggest days of the season are the Derby and its leg of Champions Weekend, which last year produced official attendances of 11,300 and 6,700 respectively. At most other Curragh fixtures there’s a cavernous atmosphere resonant with simply keeping industry wheels turning.
Defenders of the Curragh will point out that expecting regular significant crowds is expecting too much
As with every other track, the real financial action is off-course. Those ponying up media rights money probably won’t have much change from a quarter of a million euros for the three Guineas Festival fixtures alone. Gate revenue pales in comparison.
Defenders of the Curragh will point out that expecting regular significant crowds is expecting too much. France’s top track at Longchamp is famously empty of “Turfistes” most of the time. But it does at least fill up once a year for the Arc.
Closer to home, so too does Punchestown, which had more than 120,000 racegoers through its five-day festival last month: 35,334 went on the Friday alone. That was actually down more than 5,500 on a year previously. Presumably, a lot of them were the same locals who drive past the Curragh.
Pointing to the code divide between flat and jumps as a substantial reason for such a discrepancy is way too big a reach. In branding terms, the Curragh appears to be a notably hard sell to the public, perhaps partly due to a perception that the HQ brass doesn’t appear too bothered by that.
Such an elitist impression plagued the new Curragh even before its official reopening in 2019 at a final cost of €81.2 million. That’s almost 25 per cent more than originally projected. The State contributed €36 million through Horse Racing Ireland.
Despite such public investment, the project has been bedevilled by a sense it’s little more than a vainglorious exercise by those wealthy private investors coughing up the balance so they might have somewhere more salubrious to park themselves and their guests a couple of times a year.
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It might be an unfair and simplistic portrayal. But such underwhelming attendances suggest it is a representation that has stuck. Some of it might even be rooted in how racing continued at the Curragh during construction with the interests of racegoers barely a consideration.
That underlined the value of the racing circuit, although any build-it-and-they-will-come assurances given at the time have, so far at least, proved wide of the mark. The pandemic didn’t help. But it’s too flip an explanation for such disappointing public engagement.
Getting more people through the gates was part of the brief behind the Curragh’s rebuild and the significant public money invested in it. Yet to too many racegoers, it seems to be a grandiose private exercise they can happily rub along without.
Changing that perception is quite a task but necessary. Fundamental to it is likely to be greater local engagement of a sort that some much more modest tracks countrywide — with much less of a natural racing hinterland — appear able to pull off.
A cue perhaps for staff HQ to get into the trenches for a bit; otherwise, the jewel in Irish racing’s capital crown might start to look a lot like a white elephant.
Something for the Weekend
Decorum demands a focus on the weekend’s Curragh classics and unoriginal as it is, quick ground conditions should make Saturday’s 2000 Guineas favourite Royal Scotsman (3.40) hard to beat.
He did well to get as close as he did drawn on the “wrong” side at Newmarket and a colt that won the Richmond on rattling ground last summer proved he stays the mile. A €50,000 supplementary entry only adds to confidence around perhaps the only runner sure to relish the going.
Earlier on Saturday’s card Noche Magica (1.55) can build on a massively impressive Cork debut last month in the Marble Hill Stakes.