PAT KEANE: New Irish track capable of facilitating racing in winter months needed

The loss of yet another meeting to the weather this week - Limerick on Wednesday - highlighted one of the problems National Hunt racing has in this country.

The simple facts are Ireland does not have enough tracks that can handle winter racing. We have 26 racecourses and a number of them, 12 to be precise, can only race through the summer months.

That leaves 14 for the winter and there is always a question mark against at least some of them.

At the end of 2014, HRI announced what was called the Racecourse Capital Development Fund of €100m.

As I understand it relatively minor grants have been allocated to a number of racecourses, for redevelopment and upgrading, while it seems some €19m is going to Leopardstown.

You can easily understand money being spent on Leopardstown, considering what it is worth to both flat and National Hunt racing in Ireland.

But the real biggie, of course, is the Curragh, which is being redeveloped at a cost of €65m, with the unveiling apparently planned for 2018.

Now the home of flat racing should be something special, but does it make sense to spend this amount of money, basically for one day - Derby day? A new company called Curragh Racecourse Limited has been formed that will own the Curragh.

There will be three groups of shareholders, HRI, the Turf Club and private investors, among whom are some of the biggest names in flat racing.

The redevelopment of Ascot was completed in 2006 at a cost of some £200m. I’ve been there and it is quite magnificent.

But Ascot is packed for five days of its Royal meeting and makes a valuable contribution as well, unlike the Curragh, to the National Hunt scene through the winter.

So does anyone else think that if there is so much money to spend it might be far better utilised on the building of a new track that would have a serious chance of facilitating racing through the winter months?

Let’s have a look at what has happened in Ireland from December until now. Clonmel started the ball rolling on December 3, when losing their meeting.

It was rescheduled for December 22 and went ahead, but with only five races, after the two chases on the programme were abandoned.

Navan was cancelled on December 5, but rescheduled for December 14 and went ahead. Cork was lost on December 6.

On December 12 Tramore went ahead, in dreadful conditions, but abandoned after five races.

Clonmel was lost on December 16. Then Limerick lost two of its four days at Christmas, including the lucrative St Stephen’s Day fixture.

Tramore failed to race on January 1, the meeting was re-fixed for January 10 and lost again.

Cork failed to race on January 2 and Thurles went west two days later. Thurles was rescheduled for January 8, but failed to race.

On January 26 Tramore lost another meeting and then it was Limerick’s turn one more time this week.

To be fair to HRI they have bent over backwards to keep the game moving as best they can, but are fighting a losing battle, with one hand literally tied behind their back.

The amount of rain that has fallen this winter has been quite extraordinary and it is something of a miracle that racing has survived as well as it has.

But if the “experts’’ are right, and we are going to have an increasing problem because of climate change, then the challenge for winter racing down the line is set to be huge. HRI is already facing an unequal struggle.

Upgrading facilities to meet customers’ needs is admirable, but if anyone believes that attendances are going to improve in the future then they are deluding themselves.

I know the weather wasn’t great last Saturday, but there were still only 9,336 at Leopardstown for the Irish Gold Cup.

That was almost 2,000 less than the year before, when the meeting, admittedly, was held on a Sunday.

But that said there was a big rugby match in Dublin last Sunday and one might have thought, with plenty around town for the weekend, that Leopardstown would have benefited.

Another problem for racing going forward is the possible disappearance of bookmakers, or a lot of them, from racecourses, maybe within the next ten years.

Take the bookmakers’ figures for Leopardstown. They held €846,647 on Saturday, down from €1,193,073 the previous year. Compare that to say 2012, when Ireland was gripped by recession.

In 2012 the bookmakers on Irish Gold Cup afternoon, on a Sunday, held €1,170,577. So Saturday’s tally came to almost €324,000 less than 2012. That has to be regarded as seriously worrying.

But the Leopardstown figures, while disappointing, are actually enormous in an overall context and if you really want to understand how bad it can be for bookmakers then look elsewhere.

Take Thurles, a very popular track, on Thursday, January 28 for instance. That afternoon the bookmakers held just €71,451.

Bookmakers are no different to any other sustainable business, turnover is key. Acceptable turnover has long disappeared from Irish racecourses and the miracle, you suspect, is that so many of them are still standing.

And, on a different vein, here’s something that’s worth noting when it comes to just how those outside of racing view us. Take the 6.00 news and sport on RTE last Saturday evening.

After the newsreader had revealed the headlines, she turned to her male colleague for the sports headlines. He did not mention the Irish Gold Cup. Then towards the end of the news, she handed over for the sport.

The lead story was GAA, followed by soccer, ladies’ rugby, men’s rugby, with the Irish Gold Cup the fifth and last item on the agenda.

Winter racing in Ireland is truncated and unsatisfactory. RTE’s editorial policy probably summed it up best!

Ah well, roll on the Curragh.


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