The Curragh’s new chief executive has said Irish racing’s under-fire flagship facility will work only if the local community view it as their racecourse.
Less than 80 days after the €81 million redevelopment opened, Pat Keogh has been brought in from his former role at Leopardstown to try and turn around a widespread sense of disillusionment with Irish racing's biggest ever capital development project.
Keogh takes over from Derek McGrath who, after criticism of the structure and organisation of last month’s Derby Festival, suggested a failure of the Curragh board to unite behind a vision for the track’s future.
The new chief executive rejected that analysis on Tuesday and said the board, which includes representatives of some of racing’s most prominent owners, is united about where they want the Curragh to go.
On his first day on the job Keogh also indicated a review of ticket pricing will be carried out.
However he stressed the importance of the revamped Curragh, which has been criticised for an elitist atmosphere at its meetings to date this year, reconnecting with audiences on its doorstep.
“This has got to be the racecourse of the community. That’s how the Curragh will succeed, with the local community saying ‘this is our racecourse and we’re very proud of it’. And I know they want it to succeed. I’ve been amazed by the number of messages I’ve received,” Keogh said.
Such support hasn’t manifested itself in attendance figures so far this year. Less than 12,000 was the official Derby day attendance while just 4,297 attended Saturday’s Irish Oaks.
“Those figures aren’t good enough. That’s something we’ve got to work on. Attendances aren’t the only barometer of success but they are an important one.
“We’ve got to make sure the product is right. If it is, attendances will follow,” Keogh said.
He praised the Curragh team’s promotion efforts ahead of both classics but acknowledged that some people’s expectations once at the races weren’t met.
"From my experience the way to get attendances to increase in this game is that you can market it, but the best marketing of the whole lot is when someone comes to the Curragh, Leopardstown or Ballinrobe, has a really good time, and then tells their friends.
"That's the best way of growing attendances over time. If we start judging things short term on attendances, that would be a mistake. The Curragh is going to be here for a long time. We're in it for the long haul.
“There’s something here that shouldn’t be forgotten and that’s what a fantastic facility this is.
What was the State investment?
“The Curragh has earned a world reputation over the last couple of hundred years. It has a place in world racing. It now has facilities to match and be proud of. Now it’s important the community see it as their racecourse,” Keogh said.
The State put €36 million into the redevelopment which came in €16 million over budget. Coolmore Stud, the Aga Khan and JP McManus are among private investors who comprise one third of the Curragh board voting share. The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board also has a third.
Derek McGrath had said he intended to remain involved at the Curragh until October but is now reportedly on “gardening leave”. He was unavailable for comment on Tuesday.
There are eight Curragh fixtures remaining this year, most notably its leg of Irish Champions Weekend (ICW) in September.
A notable feature on that programme will be Pat Smullen’s return to the saddle for a charity race.
The former nine-time champion jockey retired earlier this year after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in March of 2018.
He is an ICW ambassador and has organised a 10-runner fundraising charity race run over a mile that will take place after the Comer Group Irish St Leger and which will be televised by RTÉ.
The names of nine other ex-riders from Ireland and Britain who will ride in the race will be revealed later this week.