Galway Festival: ‘Here-for-the-beer’ a serious rival to action on the track
Big showcase meetings are often more about the social side than the actual racing
Racing at Ballybrit during the Galway Festival. It is Irish racing’s best-attended meeting yet it’s far from the best racing. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
It is likely to be standing room only at the Galway races which begin on Monday. The economy is on the march, and Irish racing’s most famous festival is always a hot ticket. And for the majority attending, interest in what’s happening on the track will probably be entirely optional.
Galway’s pulling power has always been unique. It is Irish racing’s best-attended meeting yet it’s far from the best racing.
British racing’s biggest show at Royal Ascot is the crème de la crème of the sport. Similarly, the only time French “turfistes” condescend to go racing en-masse is for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. More than 150,000 crammed into the Kentucky Derby this year.
Yet in the country famous for being the home of the horse any co-relation between quality and attendance seems purely coincidental.
The standard of Galway’s racing action has improved significantly in the last two decades, although essentially remaining a mix of flat and jumps handicaps. However, up to 150,000 are expected to attend over the seven days. Well over 30,000 will cram into Thursday’s “Ladies Day” alone.
It is a social phenomenon. In many ways it’s an admirably egalitarian phenomenon. However, it makes the grey area between public appeal and the lure of the sporting action seem very blurry.
World’s best fillies
Last Saturday the classic Irish Oaks attracted some of the best fillies in the world to the Curragh. At a push maybe 1,500 paid to watch them.
It underlined how little quality can matter in Ireland when it comes to counting skulls through turnstiles. It also highlights how racing’s biggest showcases often register more in terms of a social “event” rather than the actual action.
That throws up some fundamental questions to racing about its root appeal.
“When Sea The Stars won the Champion Stakes  it was the best day in my memory. Of the best horse in my memory. And there were only 9,000 at Leopardstown to watch it. It felt in my head like it was 99,000 because the buzz was so great. So when I found out the figures afterwards it deflated me.
“If Sea The Stars can get only 9,000 into the stands we’re in trouble. So if you ask me the question ‘is racing enough to get people to go racing’ then obviously it isn’t,” says Ger Lyons, one of the country’s most successful and outspoken trainers.
That presents the sport with a quandary, and some pretty existential questions as to how it both perceives and sells itself.
This is a sport and industry acknowledged worldwide as being among the best. Nothing else in mainstream Irish sport can approach racing’s consistent levels of global success. Right now it is enjoying unprecedented levels of success on both the flat and over jumps.
That makes insecurity about its public profile all the more stark. Often labelled insular, racing is simultaneously sensitive to outside perception of it. That’s a contradiction that reflects an ongoing struggle to identify its core pitch.
Is the gambling industry its primary target or should it be more sporting? Do racecourse attendances even count when the real revenue is in TV pictures? If there’s a captive audience anyway, is there any point in trying to expand it? If there is, how best to do so?
And does any of it matter anyway when there’s plenty of money floating around through TV rights, betting money and government subsidy.
“Most fixtures now are run for the betting industry. And the ‘for sale’ industry for horses,” says Dermot Cantillon, one of the leading breeding figures in the country but also chairman of Naas racecourse.
Naas is among a number of tracks that have spent heavily on new facilities in an attempt to attract more and new race-goers. It makes little sense commercially, but Cantillon is adamant it’s a long term investment in racing’s future.
“If we adopted a yellow-pack approach and cut everything to the bone, just ran fixtures at minimum cost, we would make more money. Justifying trying to attract a new audience is difficult to do financially. But we’re doing it,” says Cantillon, who fears racing’s general appeal may be slipping.
“You’d have to think so. You get people going to the big festivals like Galway. But look at the figures at non-festival tracks, and they tell the story. Most of the people I meet at Naas I probably know them on first-name terms!”
Such a view reflects some trends. A decade ago total attendances at Irish tracks were reported by Horse Racing Ireland at over 1.5 million. The average attendance per meeting was 4,611. Last year the total was 1.28 million from more fixtures that produced an average of 3,589. It’s half-year figures for the first six months of 2018 show a 2.3 per cent drop in total attendance and an average of 3,171.
Such figures can never reflect racing’s vast off-course audience and the disparate elements to its appeal. There is an argument that racetracks will ultimately become glorified studios for a screen product for all bar the biggest festival events such as Galway and Punchestown.
But attendance levels aren’t irrelevant. They indicate public sentiment and the health of a sport’s attraction. Crowds still flock to stadiums to watch Premiership football even though coverage is wall to wall. Whatever the medium racing’s self-interest is tied up in cultivating its broad public appeal.
The question is how best to do that. There is a perception that official promotional pushes are often about anything but the racing itself.
Post-race events such as concerts do bring people to racecourses. Ladies Day dates boost attendances. Horse Racing Ireland has launched media campaigns on a “social” basis, often on the back of various “celebrity” figures.
The theory is that casual racegoers may turn into fans of the racing itself once they’ve experienced it. The verdict on its practical impact is unclear. Concert audiences, in particular, can appear disengaged from what’s happening on the track.
“It doesn’t have to be one or the other. There are two audiences to cater for. From April to September there’s a large social audience that may need more than the simple racing product,” says Horse Racing Ireland’s marketing director Paul Dermody.
The counter argument is that such promotion reflects a lack of faith in racing’s capacity to sell itself on its own merits. Whether such sheepishness is justifiable or not could prove crucial to the sport’s long-term wellbeing.
When Naas unveiled new facilities this year, Cantillon said the aim was to focus public interest on horses and jockeys rather than rely on gimmickry. “The challenge is to get people racing because of quality racing. We have to revolutionise our thought process and get people to go racing because they’re racing fans.”
Ger Lyons maintains racing’s focus is best invested in properly cultivating those already there rather than pouring resources into trying to convert a wider public, often prejudiced towards what is a Marmite sport for many.
“I’m in the camp of concentrating on who’re there now and not this bartering for the affection of people who’re thinking of coming in. That’s my view. It’s not necessarily the right view, and it might not get bums on seats. But if you can’t see that what’s happening on Irish racetracks is a top class product then we don’t need you.
“I think we’re taken for granted. Aidan’s [O’Brien] success is part of that. People are so used to what he’s doing all over the world they don’t realise half of what they’re seeing.
“I’m interested in the racing, and I would go to the ends of the earth to promote it. But I’m not going to go out with bells and whistles on for a few people who’ll then just go down the road to the next party.
“I’ve no interest in cricket. But if I went to a cricket match I wouldn’t expect someone to put on a horse race for me in the middle of the pitch. Instead of being so insecure we should have our chest out and without being arrogant look in the mirror and be confident about what we’re doing.
“A core group go racing and they shouldn’t be taken for granted. They say each person knows 100 people. So if 100 tell another 100 they’ve had a good experience that’s the way to go. That’s the way things build. I don’t care if 10 people turn up as long as those 10 want to be there,” Lyons argues.
Cantillon maintains lessons can be gained from other sports and other jurisdictions. Tradition might be one of racing’s major selling points, but that shouldn’t rule out change to try and boost racing’s profile.
“I’d have to compliment the GAA on how they’ve reinvented themselves recently. The hurling season has got a lease of life with the round-robins and there’s the Super 8s in football.
“What have we done in racing to attract people’s attention: it’s been the same old recipe and the same old menu from time immemorial. We need to change.” .
As one example, Cantillon, who was Dr Michel Smurfit’s racing manager when Vintage Crop won the 1993 Melbourne Cup, points to Australian racing’s capacity for staying at the forefront of the public consciousness.
“Racing Victoria spends $4 million annually on print copy. The main daily mainstream paper there has an insert every day. That covers the main tracks and what’s happening. It gets huge coverage and they pay for it.
“Then you see how the Victoria Racing Club has 25,000 members. These are ordinary people who pay to be part of Flemington. All of that is a great basis to build from. We can’t think that we can’t do that here. Because there are great things in racing here.”
Attendances certainly won’t be a problem at Galway. Festival week is an easy sell even if a lot of it might be for “here for the beer” fun rather than what goes on out on the track.
Yet the following week will again see the task of luring the public to the races through actual racing. And that seems to be becoming a harder sell.