Derby debacle shows racing public just an optional extra

Decision to hold big event at Curragh under construction unthinkable in any other sport

This Saturday’s Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby at the Curragh will see a new classic champion added to the roll of honour in Ireland’s richest horse race. It will also see stark confirmation of just how irrelevant the racing public is in this country.

Continuing to race at the Curragh during its much-needed €70 million redevelopment means the jewel in Ireland’s classic calendar will be run on a building site in front of a restricted 6,000 capacity making do with facilities which consist of little more than tents.

In terms of logistical improvisation it brings to mind a fancy point-to-point. But what’s laudable at a makeshift point-to-point is blatantly unsuitable for hosting what is supposed to be the international shop window to a billion euro industry.

France’s premier racecourse, Longchamp, is currently closed during a major reconstruction. It’s most famous race, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, is being run at Chantilly instead. In 2005 the institution that is Royal Ascot switched to York for a year during building work. The world didn’t end.


It says much about how rundown the Curragh had got that it’s easy to argue these temporary facilities might actually be an improvement. It also says a lot about public indifference that in half a dozen fixtures run there so far this year the 6,000 capacity didn’t come close to being threatened.

But there was an official Derby attendance of over 25,000 in 2015. In 2012 the Derby was moved to a Saturday in order to cater for what was described as a major social as well as sporting occasion because ‘only’ 22,000 showed up the year before. These are levels of public interest racing is supposedly desperate for.

So the Derby solution should have been obvious; move it to Ireland’s other top racecourse at Leopardstown less than 40 miles away and do your customer base the courtesy of catering for them under concrete rather than canvas.

It would have required a little jiggle of the programme book but nothing as drastic as the work that York had to do in order to be ready for the Royal Ascot programme. Instead it was decided to stay put.

In terms of optics alone, such a move would be nigh on unthinkable in any other sport since they can’t afford to alienate their audiences. Irish racing can.

Its singular financial model has always made encouraging people to go to the races a largely superfluous exercise anyway. So maybe it’s no surprise that turning away up to 75 per cent of your audience isn’t regarded as a barmy commercial move.

Golden circle

That model has always encouraged entitlement but the fingerprints that are brazenly all over this decision to run the Derby at the Curragh are very haughty indeed.

Fattened by Government subsidy and lucrative TV rights deals, the sport here has little inclination to take into account the race-going public and with no concrete link between betting turnover and prizemoney there’s even less requirement to.

It’s the context in which the Derby decision – and keeping the second-leg of September’s ‘Irish Champions Weekend’ at the Curragh too – represents a definitive statement by racing’s powerbrokers about who counts and who doesn’t.

A golden circle of owners and breeders have always been the base which the rest of Irish racing feeds off. Some, including the Aga Khan, Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin operation and Coolmore Stud, have contributed financially to the Curragh redevelopment and are represented on the track's new board.

One third voting shares on that board are held by the Turf Club, the State, through Horse Racing Ireland, and, crucially, an exclusive group of private investors.

Coolmore’s overwhelming influence on the industry here means it’s a rare development within it that isn’t at least perceived to be traceable back to south Tipperary in some way. Such speculation is only fuelled by Coolmore’s Trappist inclination towards publicity which isn’t their own.

Rightly or wrongly the perception is that this golden circle of very rich investors want to keep racing at the Curragh during reconstruction for their own interests. Or they can’t be bothered arguing against it because elite bloodstock is a small world and it’s in their interests to say nothing.

And from a purely racing and horses running around a big field point of view, it’s perfectly okay for the Derby to be run at the Curragh this Saturday. From practically every other angle it’s off the wall, no matter what PR-coated sheen gets applied.

The disdain

Of the 6,000 on-site this Saturday, an estimated 1,500 will be working there in some capacity. Add in owners, members and other assorted glitterati from racing’s great and good, and there won’t be many who’ve bought their tickets just as racing fans.

Such considerations are clearly irrelevant to those paying the piper and getting their tune. And if there is a virtue to the disdain implicit in this Derby debacle it is that it’s at least a straightforward demonstration of who and what matters in the sport.

It’s a practical acknowledgement of the reality rather than any platitudinous claptrap used to justify it. Millions of euro of State money may be going into the reconstruction of the Curragh but this is a resolutely private party with public interest an optional extra.

The new Curragh is due to open in 2019. It is designed to be the flagship facility for a sport and industry in which Ireland is a genuine world leader. It will also be able to cater for crowds of up to 30,000 people. The attitude appears to be a Field Of Dreams idea of build it and they will come.

But what the decision to run the Derby at the Curragh this year says loudly and clearly is that it won’t really matter if they don’t.