Leopardstown expecting 1,000 crowds for Irish Champions Weekend

Chief executive Husbands hoping up to 5,000 might be able to attend next month’s meeting

The chief executive of Leopardstown racecourse is holding out hope that up to 5,000 people might be allowed attend Irish Champions Weekend although he admits a crowd of 1,000 is more likely.

Ahead of next month's Champions Weekend, and the Listowel festival, Irish racing is waiting on upcoming government announcements in relation to measures dealing with rising rates of Covid-19 infection.

Currently there is a 500 limit on spectators on racecourses in the Republic of Ireland. That is in stark contrast to Britain where full attendances resumed last month.

Trial events with 1,000 spectators permitted at the Irish Derby in June, and at each day of the Galway festival were successful, encouraging hopes of greater crowd sizes as vaccination rates increased.


However the Government has maintained its 500 limit on racecourses despite permitting increased crowds at other sporting events including 40,000 at Sunday's All-Ireland hurling final in Croke Park.

A similar attendance will be allowed at the All-Ireland Football final which has been moved to September 11th, the same day as the first leg of Champions Weekend takes place at Leopardstown. The second leg is staged at the Curragh the following day.

The apparent discrepancy has angered many within racing desperate for bigger spectator sizes particularly at its most high profile events.

Horse Racing Ireland has made a submission to government for up to 5,000 to attend each day of Champions Weekend and Listowel's Harvest Festival.

Irish Champions Weekend is the showpiece fixture of the year for flat racing in this country.

It was held behind closed doors last year but in 2019, a crowd of 13,433 attended the Leopardstown leg. Just over 10,000 were at the Curragh that year.

Tim Husbands took over at Leopardstown in 2019 and has described the last 17 months with either limited or no attendance as "very challenging" financially for the course.

However he is optimistic that some increase in crowd size will be in place for Champions Weekend.

“We just don’t know what that increase is going to be. All of our planning is on a 1,000 model, a 3,000 model, and a 5,000 model. Like everyone else we’re waiting to hear what government has to say next week,” he said on Sunday.

“One thousand is more realistic but I would like to think we could get three to 5,000.

“We have to be optimistic. I think when you’ve got a big sports stadium event taking place at the other side of the city (All-Ireland final) with 40,000 people, I think it’s not unreasonable to think that we could get to 3,000.

“That’s my objective. I’m paid to be optimistic and that’s what I am,” he added.

The delay in staging the second All-Ireland football semi-final due to a coronavrius outbreak in the Tyrone GAA squad has seen the final pushed out to the same day as the €1 million Irish Champion Stakes takes centre-stage at Leopardstown.

Normally such a clash would be bad news for the HRI run track but Husbands thinks it could prove a positive now.

“I think it’s actually helpful that it has been moved to that date, in terms of those people making decisions about how many people can attend a sports event,” he said.

Racing, which operates under the banner of the Department of Agriculture Food & Marine rather than the Department of Sport, has been told its crowd levels have been kept low due to higher levels of mingling over longer time periods at tracks as well contact tracing methods being easier at stadia.

HRI and other bodies have argued that the sport’s protocols have been proved to work over a prolonged period of time with no Covid-19 outbreak linked to racecourses.

On the approach to autumn, provision for racegoers to be allowed indoors at tracks is regarded as vital, especially with indoor hospitality having been in operation nationally since July 26th.

“I would make a comparison with the hospitality industry which is open now to indoor dining. We should be considered in a very similar vein,” Husband commented before underling the need for a quick decision by government.

“We have done planning and worked with our service operators, such as the cleaning company, based on our models. But we would need a due amount of time to put plans in place. That’s why we would hope to hear something early next week.

“Obviously we have been able to run race meetings all the way through and we’re very grateful for that. But it is also obviously very challenging for any business based around people coming through the turnstiles,” he added.

The Listowel festival runs between September 19th-25th and is traditionally one of the best attended meetings of the year.

In 2019 over 89,000 were on-track over the seven days.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column