Leopardstown can't come to Champions Weekend’s rescue
Redevelopment work means Curragh must impose 6,000 attendance cap in 2017/2018
The Curragh’s ‘Champions Weekend’ attracted an attendance of 9,255 in 2016. Photograph: James Crombie/Inpho
The loss of Leopardstown’s straight six furlong course to facilitate the M50 has come back to bite the Dublin track with officials there indicating they are unable to stage both legs of ‘Champions Weekend’ during the Curragh’s €65 million redevelopment even if they wanted to.
Confirmation that the Curragh will have to impose a 6,000 attendance cap during its curtailed seasons – both this year and in 2018 – provoked speculation the second leg of the ‘Champions Weekend’ event in particular may be better served switching to Leopardstown.
Temporary arrangements, including a temporary stand and weigh-room, will have to be put in place at the Curragh and the 6,000 attendance limit required under planning regulations is likely to have most impact on Derby day and ‘Champions Weekend’ which is Irish flat racing’s shop-window event.
The Derby has never left Irish racing’s HQ in its 151-year history and although Leopardstown has consistently outperformed the Curragh in relation to crowd figures during the ‘Champions Weekend’s’ three-year history, the Dublin track’s chief executive Pat Keogh has said moving the entire event to the Dublin course is not an option.
“It’s not achievable here because of the issue of the sprint races,” he said in reference to Leopardstown not being able to run five-furlong races, and six-furlong events having to be run around a bend with a consequent safety limits on numbers. “It’s a tragedy we don’t have a sprint track at Leopardstown but that’s the reality.”
The construction of the M50 cut across Leopardstown’s old straight six-furlong track which was operational up until 2001, a year when the world champion juvenile Johannesburg won the Phoenix Stakes. That Group One race was subsequently moved to the Curragh.
Last year’s Curragh leg of ‘Champions Weekend’ had eight races, featuring the Irish St Leger and two other Group One juvenile events, the Moyglare Stud Stakes and the National Stakes. Also on the card was the Group Two Flying Five and the six furlong Tatts Ireland Super Auction Sales race which attracted 30 runners.
“If you were to do away with the Flying Five and the sales race, and reduced the runners in a couple of handicaps, then you could get away with running it at Leopardstown. But the whole point of the weekend is about being a complete series of races, from sprints to staying races, like the Breeders Cup. That’s what we’re trying to achieve,” said Keogh.
“I wouldn’t make light of the Flying Five either. There are plans to try and make that a Grade One and they are very active. We don’t want to lose that ambition and taking it out and running it somewhere else would not be in the interests of ‘Champions Weekend’ at all. We want it to have a full complement of races.
“There are also restrictions on numbers here, from 16 runners up. Our two premier handicaps last year had restrictions on them and trainers were saying they weren’t able to get opportunities in these very valuable races.
“The reality is that the two days at the two tracks work very well side by side and are complementary. The ‘Champions Weekend’ concept is doing really well, ahead of where we thought we would be, and we don’t want to do anything to compromise its overall development,” added Keogh.
Horse Racing Ireland’s chief executive, Brian Kavanagh, has described a situation of temporary facilities and a drastically reduced crowd capacity at the Curragh as a case of “short term pain for long term gain”.
He also stressed the importance of the Curragh’s straight sprint course to the Irish flat programme and that no other track in Ireland, with a suitable capacity, was capable of exactly replicating its ‘Champions Weekend’ programme.
Last year’s Derby crowd of 18,244 was a substantial decrease on the 2015 attendance of 25,255. The Curragh’s ‘Champions Weekend’ crowd in 2016 was 9,255.