Horse Racing Ireland welcome increase in attendances as they await final details

Irish Champions Weekend and Listowel festival set to benefit from bigger crowds

Precise details as to how many spectators will be able to attend the upcoming Irish Champions Weekend remain to be worked out but Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) has described Government plans for an increase in attendances at sports events generally as very welcome.

The Government plan approved by Cabinet on Tuesday outlined how from this Monday (September 6th) crowds of up to 75 per cent of capacity will be permitted at outdoor events for vaccinated people as part of an easing of Covid-19 restrictions.

It also contained plans for 60 per cent capacity indoors for those who are vaccinated and for 50 per cent capacity outdoors for mixed crowds.

Crowd levels at Irish racecourses are currently restricted to just 500 people and although HRI is waiting on clarification of what the plan specifically means for racing, the easing of restrictions generally increases the chances of a long awaited and major increase in attendances.

HRI had made submissions to Government for attendances to be increased to 1,000 for everyday meetings and to 5,000 specifically for each day of Irish Champions Weekend (September 11th-12th) as well as the Listowel festival.

Champions Weekend was held behind closed doors last year but in 2019 a crowd of 13,433 attended the Leopardstown leg of Irish Flat racing’s showpiece event. Over 10,000 were at the second day at the Curragh.

HRI's chief executive Brian Kavanagh commented on Friday that a "key determinant" will be the number permitted both indoors and outdoors at racetracks. He also said any crowd size at Champions Weekend could be influenced by how long the two tracks involved had to prepare.

However, he said that the easing of restrictions generally was “very welcome” and added: “Crucially it should now allow people to plan for the longer term.”

Ahead of Champions Weekend, there was momentum in the betting market on Tuesday for Tarnawa, who was backed into a 7-4 joint-favourite with St Mark’s Basilica in some lists for the featured €1 million Irish Champions Stakes.

When the big race is run on Saturday week one thing Tarnawa's jockey Colin Keane won't lack is momentum, having already this season notched up the fastest ever century of winners for a rider in Ireland.

The 26-year-old is all but assured of a third jockey’s title and has half a dozen chances to add to his current tally of 104 winner at Gowran on Wednesday as he continues his pursuit of Joseph O’Brien’s 2013 record of 126 winners in a season.

Secure at the top of the numerical tree, Keane is turning his attention towards the Champions Weekend action as he tries to add to a career tally of eight Group One victories.

“You get the most buzz out of the best races with the best horses at the highest level,” he said at a HRI media conference on Tuesday to promote Irish Flat racing’s biggest event of the year.

“It’s some of the best racing, best horses, best prizemoney, and best jockeys and trainers taking on each other over two days.

“Hopefully we’ll have crowds back this year and that will give it a bit more atmosphere,” Keane added.

Keane had to get to know Tarnawa in a hurry at the Breeders' Cup when getting a late call-up after her regular jockey Christophe Soumillon was ruled out due to a positive Covid-19 test.

Describing her as a handful off the course – “she’d eat you in the stable!” – Keane was reassured by her recent impressive return to action at Leopardstown that a drop back to 10 furlongs won’t be a problem.

“She’s not a slow filly. She travels strongly and quickens well at the end of a mile and a half race but I don’t think the drop will be too much of an issue once the ground isn’t proper quick ground. If it’s genuine good I wouldn’t have any concerns.

“It’s going to be a very good race. St Mark’s Basilica looks very good this year. Poetic Flare has been very good for Mr [Jim] Bolger and Kevin [Manning]. If he turns up it will be a good renewal of the race,” he said.

Keane rode Champers Elysees to win last year’s Matron Stakes at Leopardstown and could ride either Acanella or Soul Search in Leopardstown’s other Group One prize this time.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column