Ruby Walsh: Time running out to find solution to Champions Weekend crowd size

Ruby Walsh: Time running out to find solution to Champions Weekend crowd size

Acanella and Colin Keane (pink cap) win the Snow Fairy Fillies Stakes (Group 3) àt the Curragh last night. Picture: Healy Racing

It’s a quiet weekend on the racing front, and that’s not accidental because tomorrow afternoon should have seen Mayo face the winner of today’s All-Ireland semi-final in the 134th final. The best-laid plans and all of that. But the other interesting scheduling scenario for this weekend was placing the best card on offer this weekend, either side of the Irish Sea, last night.

The Curragh staged three Group races and the Irish Cambridgeshire on its Friday evening card, and maybe in post-covid times this will prove to be an excellent idea. The place needs to be kick-started again in terms of attendance and atmosphere, which hasn’t happened since its redevelopment, but to be fair to Pat Keogh, the current manager, Covid made sure he couldn’t revive it.

Their initial target audience is believed to have been a Dublin one, but with next to no public transport of any use on-site, that was always going to be a hard sell. Therefore, trying to attract some of the considerable commuter-based population in the area on a Friday evening makes sense.

It’s probably one of the big tasks facing the incoming manager, Brian Kavanagh, when he takes over. Brian has proved in his tenure as CEO of HRI that he is very politically aware and will undoubtedly understand the importance of making the Curragh racecourse a popular venue for racegoers considering the huge government finance invested in the rebuild.

It has the track surface to attract all the right horses, which it does, and rightly hosts the majority of the best Flat races. But it needs to start attracting substantial crowds when the green light is given for fans to return en masse to Irish Racecourses. That will be Brian’s new job in a few weeks, but one of his last essential tasks in his current role at HRI is getting that green light for racegoers. He has managed to navigate horse racing successfully through this pandemic. Still, the silence around the return of fans in any sort of meaningful number for Champions Weekend in 14 days is starting to become eerie. The closer we get, the less likely a favourable outcome seems. When you add in the possible time lag that will come with the Government roadmap for the further easing of restrictions expected this week, you cannot help but feel September 11 is coming too soon.

I am led to believe HRI is working hard on this, not just with the political forces but with both sides, and I hope Brian can pull one last rabbit out of the hat, as will everybody in north Kerry waiting on news for the Listowel Harvest Festival.

It’s easy to point at Croke Park and say, ‘why them and not us?’ I don’t know, is the honest answer, and none of the theories I have heard wash with me other than my own one, which is that more people than are willing to admit it are cautious. If they are, they have every right to be. This pandemic has had devastating effects on many people, but just say so and we can all deal with the results rather than being in the dark.

Speaking of which, it is early July since the Department of Agriculture, Food and Marine was notified that Suzanne Eade had been appointed CEO of HRI. The minister for that department, Charlie McConalogue, was expected to sign off on it quite quickly, but no official announcement has yet been made.

Suzanne, the current rather than former Chief Financial Officer at HRI, looks like a ready-made replacement for Brian Kavanagh. One assumes the slow pace of summer is delaying the appointment, but it does shed some light on the timescale of how some processes move and how frustrating it must be for Suzanne. Or maybe the departure of the IHRB CEO Denis Egan has delayed it all.

The cost of two CEOs essentially being paid out of the same fund has often been a contentious issue, and perhaps the long-overdue reassessment of the structures at the top of HRI and IHRB is underway.

That said, I don’t for one minute believe those at the IHRB will favour not having a CEO, hence relinquishing what they will see as more power to the HRI, even if I think a general manager is sufficient. Essentially the IHRB is the regulator or, for simplicity, the rule maker and keeper of Irish Racing, and HRI the organiser and paymaster.

Both have their place - of that there is little doubt - but the exact running costs of both need to be examined and streamlined. Two fine office buildings, less than a mile apart with a whole staff and overheads, must surely only be the beginning of the duplication and the savings that can be made.

Whenever Suzanne Eade is appointed, she faces a challenge to follow her predecessor, but maybe she is the lady to tighten the whole ship up and guide it in the direction required.

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