Curragh changes designed to facilitate public for Phoenix Stakes meeting
Unbeaten Ger Lyons-trained star Siskin a notable contender in this year’s renewal
The first and second floors of the Aga Khan stand will be open to the public at the Phoenix Stakes meeting this Friday evening. Photograph: Peter Mooney/Inpho
The first and second floors of the Aga Khan stand will be open to the public at the Curragh’s Group One Keeneland Phoenix Stakes meeting this Friday evening.
Greater access for racegoers is among a number of logistical changes being put in place for the next fixture at Irish racing’s €81 million flagship facility.
It opened to great fanfare almost three months ago but since then the sport’s biggest ever capital development project has been mired in problems and controversy. It came to a head at the Derby in late June when less than 12,000 attended a facility designed to cater for 30,000 people.
Despite that there was widespread criticism of long queues for food and toilet facilities at the ground level of the new stand.
There have also been complaints about a heavy security presence at the new Curragh with access between the four floors of the stand restricted to appropriate badge holders.
That has prompted allegations of an elitist atmosphere at the track which has had €36 million of public money put into it. Two weeks ago it was confirmed that the former Curragh chief executive Derek McGrath was being replaced.
The move came in the wake of post-Derby comments he made suggesting a failure to “integrate behind a shared vision for what we want the Curragh to be”.
The Leopardstown boss Pat Keogh has taken over as CEO at the Curragh and he is keen to try and rejuvenate public engagement, starting on the first of four Friday evening fixture in a row during what’s labelled as an ‘Awesome August’ programme.
“We’ve heard what the public are saying. Any new facility is not always going to work out as anticipated and we’re going to make some quick changes that we hope people will start to notice on Friday evening,” he said on Sunday.
“The biggest issue was customer accessibility of certain areas so the ground, first and second floors will effectively become accessible to the general public from Friday night.
“There is a very fine members area are on the second floor which is reserved for members. But there is a restaurant [on that level] and any member of the public can go into it,” Keogh added.
Part of the rejigged facilities now on offer for racegoers will include the former Owners & Trainers area on the first floor. That had been criticised as being too small and owners and trainers will be moved to the top floor.
“The first thing people will notice when they come in is that the Owners & Trainers will be gone. That area will be converted into a food outlet open to the public. Next door is a champagne bar and a balcony opening up onto grass and that’s open to the whole public too,” Keogh said.
“We’re making significant changes to the configuration. There’s plenty more to do. But I would hope people can see we’re listening to their concerns. We want to give them the Curragh they can feel part of.
“We hope locals especially will see this as a sign of our commitment. This will only be a success if locals take ownership of their track,” he added.
Increased rates for membership tickets at the new facility have also provoked criticism this summer and Keogh has promised to review that.
“We’re more than halfway through this year so there’s little we can do for 2019. But there will be a complete review of all membership categories for 2020. We will be contacting existing and lapsed members to make them aware of this,” he said.
Putting a prestige race like Europe’s first Group One two year old race of the year on a Friday evening is part of a strategy to try and increase attendances at the Curragh.
A series of post-race ‘Summer Sounds’ concerts will be held after racing on each of the Fridays this month.
On the actual racing front, Friday’s €300,000 feature event will see Aidan O’Brien try and secure a 17th victory in the Group One contest he has dominated like no other. O’Brien first won the Phoenix in 1998 with Lavery and his most recent success came with Sioux Nation two years ago.
However, the standard for this year’s renewal looks to be set by the unbeaten Ger Lyons-trained star Siskin. He made it three wins from three starts in the Railway Stakes on Derby day when proving two and a half lengths too good for O’Brien’s highly rated colt Monarch Of Egypt.
Another potential Ballydoyle contender is Arizona, winner of the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot in June.
Last year the Frankie Dettori-ridden Advertise became the first-cross channel trained winner of the Phoenix Stakes in 21 years.
The shape of the race is likely to become more clear on Monday after the latest forfeit stage.