Aidan O’Brien off to a flyer at 'special' new Curragh
Generally favourable reaction to facelift as facility opens in front of 3,650 racegoers
A view of the new stand at the Curragh. Photograph: Peter Mooney/Inpho
A crowd of just 3,650 was at the Curragh on Bank Holiday Monday when Irish racing’s new €80 million flagship facility opened to a generally favourable reaction from both the public and professionals.
Fresh from his Newmarket Guineas double at the weekend, Aidan O’Brien saddled a Group race double with Magical in the Coolmore Mooresbridge Stakes and a last-gasp win for Happen in the Athasi.
Along with most everyone else the champion trainer had to get his bearings around the new facility, especially the spectacular new grandstand which has a capacity of 6,000 inside with terraces and seating for another 6,000 outside.
“It’s very special. I can’t remember any stand as good as this,” O’Brien said. “It’s something we never thought could happen in Ireland and full credit to everyone that’s made it happen.”
Almost two decades after the Aga Khan first declared the Curragh’s facilities needed resuscitation his colours were carried to success in the Tetrarch Stakes aboard Shelir.
The colt’s trainer Dermot Weld is based on the Curragh’s doorstep and commented on the transformed infrastructure which is set to cost almost 25 per cent more than originally budgeted.
“Looking around, it is very impressive. It’s a big addition to Irish racing,” Weld said.
However, it wasn’t all positive with owners’ facilities appearing likely to prove a contentious issue as pointed out by trainer Sarah Lynam.
“The new stand does not distract from the woefully inadequate owners’ facilities,” she tweeted. “Tiny O&T (owners and trainers) restaurant and no proper viewing area in the stand. Owners very far down the pecking order evidently. Not good enough.”
The Curragh’s official opening will take place at the Guineas festival later this month with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar expected to do the honours on the Sunday of that three-day fixture.
If that promises to be a grand occasion then the need for the new Curragh to engage more with local audiences on its own doorstep in future was emphasised by several leading racing figures.
“It’s great to see a good crowd here, especially a lot of locals. We’ve got to get people back racing and not sitting at home watching on television. It’s a fabulous facility and the stand is unbelievable. But why build it if there’s no one coming?” asked Curragh-based trainer Willie McCreery after winning the Listed First Flier Stakes with the Billy Lee ridden Ickworth.
Lee rode a 370-1 hat-trick at the start of this new era for flat racing’s HQ with the jockey also landing the opening juvenile maiden on the 11-4 favourite Sunday Sovereign and a handicap on Vehoyen.
Curragh chief executive Derek McGrath took up the local theme and pointed to an increase in Friday dates, including four in August alone, as proof of increased efforts to encourage attendances.
“We’re saying we’re now reopened and we want you to come. So there’s a lot of promotion to encourage people who haven’t been coming here to come.
“Part of that is trying to find to find why they haven’t been so we can design something for them. We need to come up with an invitation that sounds attractive.
“It’s going to take time. It needs to become a destination, like Leopardstown on Thursdays; Friday will become our time,” said McGrath who claimed a very positive reception to the Curragh’s facelift overall.
“It’s a good start for us. The crowd was the right volume to test it without being overwhelming. It was also a good chance to get feedback,” he added.
The first Friday evening date will be the start of the Guineas festival, allowing various items on any snag list to be looked at. An on-track Paddy Power betting shop is expected to be in operation by then.
Other elements, such as an area outside the weigh-room featuring staggered flagstones and grass that looked a challenge to walk across, particularly in high heels, might be worth examining.
What looks all but certain already is that Aidan O’Brien’s in-form Ballydoyle team will be the ones to beat in just over a fortnight.
Saturday’s 2,000 Guineas hero Magna Grecia is odds-on to double up in the Irish equivalent and on Monday O’Brien appeared to indicate Hermosa could also attempt a Guineas double rather than wait for the Oaks.
Happen, though, is definitely being pointed at the Irish 1,000 after sweeping past most of her Athasi opposition in the final furlong to record an unlikely victory.
“Her dam (Alexandrova) was always doing that. She couldn’t come from far enough back,” O’Brien pointed out.
Shelir also pounced late to win and is likely to take on Magna Grecia in the first Irish classic of 2019.
“It’s just his second start. He’s a work in progress and there’s a nice bit more to come,” Weld said. “I purposely ran him over seven today to see would he have the pace for a Guineas and you there he does.”
The Tattersalls Gold Cup is next for Magical who justified 2-9 favouritism with little fuss in her Group Two heat.