Increase in numbers permitted could add to costs for racecourses

HRI chief executive says it’s important if numbers are for spectators or all personnel

Jockeys walk to the spectator-free parade ring for the opening race during day two of the Longines Irish Champions Weekend at Curragh Racecourse last weekend. Photo: PA Wire

Jockeys walk to the spectator-free parade ring for the opening race during day two of the Longines Irish Champions Weekend at Curragh Racecourse last weekend. Photo: PA Wire

 

Any Government move to increase crowd sizes at sporting events to 500 people will allow owners go racing but also increase costs for racecourses.

Ahead of a cabinet meeting on Tuesday there is once again speculation that sporting events will have behind closed doors coronavirus restrictions eased to allow attendances of up to 500 people.

Not surprisingly, considering how such speculation has proved wrong in the past, racing officials weren’t presuming anything on Monday.

Horse Racing Ireland’s chief executive Brian Kavanagh did say the detail of whether or not any prospective 500 figure will apply to spectators only, or to all personnel on-site, is important.

However the return of non-essential personnel to the racecourse could actually add to the costs for a racecourse sector already under pressure.

The CEO of the Association of Irish Racecourses said racing behind closed doors is not economically viable for racecourses in the longer term but experience shows any government easing of restrictions is likely to be a “stepped process.”

Paddy Walsh said on Monday: “From a purely racecourse perspective, at any initial stage, if you have only small groups, that probably increases the cost of operation on the day rather than decreases it until you get sufficient numbers make it more economically viable.

“If you have owners back, on-course bookmakers, maybe racecourse members, these people will have to be catered for in terms of car-park facilities, areas of the racecourse they can be in, and what catering options you provide them.

“They’re unlikely to be profitable at these level of numbers (500). So the actual return to racing will probably compound the racecourse’s economic woes.

“But if that’s the necessary step to get back to full operations we will just have to suck it up for a little while. We understand that public health has to come first. We will go down that road but hopefully it’s a short one and we can get back to a more meaningful opening up of racecourses sooner rather than later.”

Can’t continue

Although some tracks haven’t been affected as much as others by the coronavirus pandemic forcing racing behind closes doors, Walsh stressed that the sector overall can’t continue in its current scenario.

“We have to get back to something approaching normal at some stage. Based on the way the government has operated it seems clear that we’re not going to go from nobody to whoever you want at the races overnight.

“It will be a stepped process and maybe small steps initially. If that’s the way it has to be, it has to be,” he added.

Brian Kavanagh underlined HRI’s commitment to getting owners back onto racecourses as a priority and said a 500 figure would facilitate that.

“But let’s see what may be in a definition: is it 500 people on top, which may allow sponsors as well, or 500 in total. We’re in the dark until we see what government issues,” he said.

The annual post-Irish Champions Weekend analysis of attendance figures at Leopardstown and the Curragh was redundant this year and Kavanagh’s measure of success for the event reflected the wider context.

“Success was being able to hold it safely at all,” said the HRI boss who added that it was “tantalising” in particular to see finished new facilities at Leopardstown that were superfluous on Saturday.

“It was a good weekend. There was a good spread of winners and it was good to have the international aspect with four English winners. The racing was well covered too by RTÉ and ITV. But we were very happy with the racing and I think it will rate well,” Kavanagh concluded.

One of the most impressive Champions Weekend stars, Joseph O’Brien’s National Stakes winner, Thunder Moon, could go next for Newmarket’s Dewhurst Stakes.

The unbeaten colt has been backed in favouritism for next year’s 2,000 Guineas with some firms and could get a first look at the Rowley Mile next month.

“We did supplement him so we were hopeful he’d run a nice race but I suppose I was surprised by the manner of his victory,” O’Brien said on Monday.

“If he was to run again this year the Dewhurst would probably be the race for him but we’ll see how he comes out of the race on Sunday,” he added.

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