A day at the races

So what do Irish racegoers want from their day following the sport of kings? Declan Colley goes in search of some answers.

WHATEVER about the ongoing wranglings about the future, racegoers are more concerned with the facilities which face them every time they part with their hard-earned euros as they pass through the turnstiles.

This fact was highlighted last week by the launch by Sports Minister, John O’Donoghue, of the report of the Racegoers’ Consultative Forum (RCF) in the appropriate setting of the newly revamped Killarney Racecourse, which has just completed a €1.7m redevelopment of facilities.

The report is the work of the RCF, a body established under the Horse and Greyhound Racing Act 2001 which empowers it to “consult with and report to Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) regarding any aspects of the racegoers’ experience.”

It is the conduit between racegoers and the top echelons of HRI.

The report notes that we are living in a golden era in Irish racing with: “the resurgence in both national hunt and flat racing over the previous decade being nothing short of sensational” and points to the fact that 1989 marked the last occasion on which Irish trained racehorses failed to win either a Cheltenham festival race or an English Classic.

This, the reports adds: “is in stark contrast to the magnificent ten Cheltenham winners and two English Classic winners (to date) during this year alone.”

The RCF looked at all aspects of racing, from admission to attendance, facilities at racecourses, catering, quality of racing, racecards, media coverage and betting.

Its work has been ongoing since 2003 and this is the first report it has issued, with its members having met 15 times in private session, as well as hosting six public forums throughout the country.

Among its recommendations are interesting proposals which will now be taken on board by HRI.

These include the establishment of a Racegoers’ Charter stipulating minimum standards of facilities and also for family admission tickets to be widely available at a fixed price.

The report also recommends the introduction of a single loyalty card which would be applicable across all racecourses to reward regular racegoers.

Aside from the expected issues like the upgrading of facilities across the board — particularly for disabled people and children — a new set of standards in catering quality at each racetrack (to be policed by an independent source), a desire for on-course bookies to offer the same terms as their off-course counterparts, there is not such by way of surprise in the report.

It does, however, emphasise the need for all tracks to get the simple things right before embarking on large-scale investment, and also that before applying for capital funding, each track should clearly demonstrate that minor problems have been addressed and rectified.

The report according to RCF Chairman, Dr Declan McCormack, is “99% commonsense”, noting “that the future prosperity of the industry depends, in many respects, on the participation and loyalty of those paying through the turnstiles.”

The Minister said the idea of a Racegoers’ Charter, which will establish minimum standards of facilities, “was a demanding and challenging task,” but he added he was confident that the HRI and the racecourses themselves would rise to the challenge.

The report comes on the back of recently released figures which show that Irish racing attendances grew by almost 10,000 in the first six months of 2006, a figure which puts the sport on target to exceed the all-time record attendance figure of 1.43 million achieved just last year.

The HRI figures illustrate that the January-June figures for 2006 showed “continuing buoyancy within the sport despite the counter-attractions of the World Cup and a run of bad weather in May which saw some 15 meetings lost.

These figures, allied to statistics such as on-course bookmaker betting growing by €3.7m to almost €82m, Tote betting growing by €0.6m to €21.4m, sponsorship increasing by 3% and prize money reaching an all-time high of €24.2m, provide undeniable evidence of the well-being of the sport here.

But at a time when Irish racing it at its strongest for decades, and Irish winners at their most numerous in all major national hunt and flat races, the general well-being in the sport has to be reflected by a wide-ranging and comprehensive revamp of facilities. The punters deserve it.

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