Punchestown’s popular family day a fitting end to National Hunt season
New Curragh could profit from emulating successful policy of home of Irish jump racing
Young spectators find a high vantage point to watch the proceedings at a packed Punchestown. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/Inpho
In 2007 the Saturday of Punchestown had a crowd of just 1,500. Last year’s 35,948 attendance was the biggest on any Irish racecourse in 2018.
It trumped any day at Galway which has been traditionally tops in terms of popularity. The lesson for a sport desperate to increase its popular appeal appears to be that investing in the future can ultimately pay off.
A dozen years ago the Saturday meeting wasn’t even part of Punchestown’s festival. It was an after-thought in the style of the old ‘Heath’ fixture tagged on to the end of Royal Ascot.
That programme got amalgamated into British flat racing’s biggest fixture in 2002. With infrastructure in place already, the concept of a ‘Family Day’ to stretch Punchestown’s festival to five days was introduced in 2008. It’s growth since then has been spectacular.
“Local schools were targeted and kids encouraged by way of fancy-dress and art competitions. That seemed to engage the kids. They wanted to come here. And we all know if kids want to do something parents end up having to row in,” says Richie Galway, racing manager at Punchestown.
Children entering competitions each get two free tickets for adults accompanying them. That meant the Saturday wasn’t initially commercially valuable to the track.
But crucially increasing numbers have ultimately paid off in tangible sponsorship terms as well as being a more intangible but still vital investment in the future.
“All sports have found that engaging kids at a young age is crucial to their development. For instance there will be nearly 2,000 pieces of art exhibited here next week and we find people queuing at 11.00 in the morning to get in.
“If you look at the kids’ work you see Ruby (Walsh) and Davy Russell keep coming up. A few things definitely resonate. It might be Tiger Roll this time.
“These are our future racegoers. The kids on the Saturday will, please God, come on the Friday [Ladies Day) in five or six years, and be coming racing in 20 years’ time once they get an interest,” Galway adds.
As always with Irish racing, the most important factor when it comes to racecourse attendance is the weather.
Last year’s record final day took place in sunny conditions and helped bring the final festival attendance figure to 127,489. Galway later in the summer wasn’t as lucky. Its biggest crowd was the 30,159 on the Friday evening.
However Punchestown’s success in developing the popular appeal of its final festival date reflects a similar focus other tracks such as Ballinrobe and Kilbeggan have put on encouraging audiences on their doorsteps to go racing.
At a time when racecourses are flourishing financially thanks to lucrative media rights deals, the perception exists that attendances have become a secondary consideration for many of them.
The spectacular new Curragh redevelopment, which has seen considerable public funds poured into it, stages its long-awaited first fixture the Monday after Punchestown. It offers an intriguing blank canvas as to how best to get more numbers through the turnstiles.
Officials at the Curragh have already pinpointed their desire to attract local people from what is after all the heart of the ‘Thoroughbred County’.
Richie Galway reckons that Punchestown’s ‘Family Day’ model might be worth considering at Irish racing’s new flagship facility.
“We were lucky we had the festival to be able to build the Saturday. But from Day One we felt it was pointless to create a day and sell hospitality and tickets at full cost.
“We had to develop it before we could commercialise it. Nothing creates interest like numbers. We had to get people to get into the habit of wanting to come.
“It’s not my job to tell the Curragh what to do. But I would have thought the job for the first couple of years is not to focus on how much income they’re going to get from ticket sales but focus on getting people to come to see the new facilities and get them to want to pay,” he argues.
“The Curragh needs to be the flagship advertisement for flat racing that doesn’t give the impression it’s an elitist sport. It needs to make the masses want to go flat racing in the heart of horse country,” Galway adds.
Whether flat racing’s HQ takes heed remains to be seen. But the home of Irish jump racing is again looking forward to ending the National Hunt season in busy family style.