The boss of the Curragh racecourse doesn’t believe ticketing prices in Ireland are a problem when it comes to people going racing.
Brian Kavanagh, formerly chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland before taking over the reins at Irish racing's HQ last autumn, defended the pricing structure in place over the Guineas festival weekend.
For the first Classic dates of 2022, featuring three Group One prizes over Saturday and Sunday, there was an official attendance of 10,000.
That comprised 5,200 for Saturday’s Tattersalls 2,000 Guineas won by Native Trail and 4,800 at Sunday’s 1,000 Guineas, landed in brilliant style by the locally trained Homeless Songs.
A crowd of almost 2,500 was also reported for Friday evening’s first leg of the hugely valuable festival.
The attendance figures for a first major date open to the public in over two years were widely viewed as disappointing.
They also continue to focus attention on the difficulty of attracting customers to Irish racing’s shop-window facility, which was redeveloped at a cost of over €81 million and opened in 2019.
On the day, general admission to the Curragh for the Guineas meetings cost €35, although it was possible to purchase the same ticket for €25 up to a week beforehand.
General admission for next month’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby will cost €50. It will be cheaper if booked online beforehand.
The cost of going racing to the Curragh’s fixture next Wednesday will be €20 on the day.
Such figures are in a wider context of a sport eager to attract people racing on the back of the pandemic and not just on major dates.
The also make for a notable contrast with some other racing jurisdictions.
General admission for the Qatar Prix du Jockey Club, the French Derby, at Chantilly on Sunday week is just €10. Buying the same ticket online costs just €5. General admission at Belmont Park in New York is $5.
Kavanagh doesn’t believe that pricing is an issue here in Ireland.
“No, I don’t believe so. The price of racing generally, not just at the Curragh, those prices are competitive, certainly, vis a vis prices for other sports events and UK racing.
“In fact, we often get commentary from UK racegoers in terms of the value for money here relative to the UK. I don’t think that’s an issue,” he said.
“You have to factor in the entertainment that’s being provided, the racing, the facilities that are there, the bars and restaurants. There’s a cost to run all that on racecourses.
“The French comparison isn’t valid because you’re comparing a racing experience that’s subsidised by a Tote monopoly.
“Apart from some of the bigger days in France there isn’t a regular race-going crowd that you have in Ireland and the UK. I don’t think that’s a like-for-like comparison,” Kavanagh added.
Getting people to go racing is an issue for many racecourses that were able to survive the pandemic largely due to revenue from media rights.
In recent years there has been criticism from sectors such as on-course bookmakers that some tracks aren't doing enough to try and attract racegoers through the gates due to the importance of TV money.
Attracting people to the Curragh was part of the motivation behind the biggest capital development programme in Irish racing history, that included €36 million of State funding.
Despite the weekend figures Kavanagh was encouraged by his first big date in charge.
“This is a longer-term project. I’ve always said focus on racing and the experience and the numbers will follow that.
“I felt there at the weekend there was a huge amount of positives there. We listen to feedback, good or bad, and we will do that from our patrons,” he said.
Kavanagh also disputed a capacity figure of 30,000 put on the Curragh by the track’s former chief executive Derek McGrath.
He stepped down from the role in 2019 and suggested a lack of unity existed at the time within racing’s top echelons about the best long-term future for the track.
“There is this figure in public consciousness of 30,000 people being the capacity of the Curragh. That’s not the case. The stand doesn’t cope with 30,000.
“You could probably accommodate 60,000 here but they’d all be standing out in the open air. If you were to get 30,000 in here, you’d have to put a significant amount of marquee space down the far end and across the racetrack.
“The stand is actually smaller than the previous two stands that were there,” Kavanagh said.
There was good news for the Curragh on Tuesday with confirmation that the Irish Cesarewitch in September will have a massively boosted prize-fund of €600,000, making it one of the richest handicaps in Europe.
It will take place on September 25th, the second day of a new autumn festival at the Curragh that has the rejuvenated Goffs Million on day one.
The boosted Cesarewitch is the brainchild of former HRI chairman Joe Keeling, who will support the race along with others under a 'Friends of the Curragh' banner.
Horse Racing Ireland's head of strategic projects and racing, Jason Morris, said: "HRI are hugely appreciative of the significant sponsorship that has enabled the development of this high-value staying handicap.
“Coming two weeks after the Irish St Leger, it means that Ireland will offer a range of valuable late season targets for quality staying horses.