Today marks the start of an new era in the Curragh Racecourse's near 300-year history.
Earlier on this month, the venue will open its doors to a curious racing public and industry professionals, keen to see what kind of facility has been delivered at the end of a process originally launched in October 2015.
No doubt there will be some hiccups on opening day, and changes to be made as people and horses start to flow through the site, but overall it cannot be denied that the Curragh has rightly re-established itself as Ireland’s premier racecourse.
The new grandstand, inside and outside, is of a standard never previously seen in Irish racing. Most of it is accessible to all racegoers and, importantly, viewing of the actual racing is much improved. Seating is plentiful. Lots and lots of television screens. There will be big screens at the winning post and in the parade ring. Toilets are of luxury hotel standard and there appears to be plenty of bars, restaurants and betting facilities.
In early April, approximately 500 industry stakeholders descended on the Curragh and began to familiarise themselves with the new layout. Jockeys Shane Foley and Niall McCullagh took two horses from the stableyard to the track via the newly-enlarged parade ring.
Members of the press were also invited to tour the facility. Chief executive Derek McGrath spoke to the group about his team’s hopes for the year ahead and he appealed for all involved in racing and breeding to support the Curragh.
The project is thought to have cost as much as €90 million, considerably higher than the original €65 million estimate though the State will not be hit for the full overrun. McGrath declined to disclose figures this week, stating that negotiations with the builders are at a delicate stage. Whatever the final bill comes to, it is expected that it will be split fairly evenly between Horse Racing Ireland and private investors.
Looking to the challenges ahead, McGrath said: “This will only be a success if it delivers on what the various groups and investors want. For them, success is that we get new people coming racing, people who have not been here for two years or more, industry people who didn’t come to the Curragh before. We know all about the barriers we need to break down. We won’t achieve that on our own. We need advocates to talk about what we’re doing here.”
Warming to his theme, McGrath continued: “We want more foreign runners, we want more people coming here to understand and appreciate flat racing, what it provides for the country in terms of employment and investment, and how it fits into the international network.
“This is more than just a project. This is a big statement and there is a lot riding on it for a lot of people.”
Reflecting on how Tuesday’s ‘stakeholder familiarisation’ day had been received, he said: “There is obviously a lot of excitement and satisfaction with the product and the quality of the venue available to us. We’ve only just turned a page in our storybook and the next part is how we embrace this. What is it going to do for the sport and the industry?”
He said that a high level of consultation with industry partners throughout the build meant that “we’ve thought about everybody”. Particular focus had been placed on providing comfort and easy access. “It’s compact and easy to get around. These are things we want to test in the coming weeks.”
The grandstand itself covers 7,600 square metres. “We are offering viewing at an elevated level that you probably won’t see at other tracks. The public seating on the terracing is a very important part of the experience. We are very conscious of making viewing and seating accessible.”
Fitzers have been appointed as the caterers. Their existing clients include Leopardstown and the Convention Centre.
The front of the grandstand can hold 6,000 people and that number rises to over 10,000 when the surrounding facilities are taken into account. The overall racecourse capacity is 30,000.
McGrath says there are attendance targets but he won’t reveal them. “Let’s just say we want to get back to the numbers people would expect for our big races. The focus on numbers through the gates limits the conversation. We would like to change the focus to what each individual feels about their experience here and will they come back. We know there will be peaks and troughs but we want a loyal group of racecgoers, and we think we can build that significantly. Research shows that as much as 80% of our racegoers only come racing once a year, so there is a lot of acquisition to be done.” Early bird offers will play a big part in a campaign to get more advance bookings.
As you ascend the escalators to the higher floors, the comfort levels also rise. The private investors don’t have the top floor to themselves. There are 13 suites on that level with boxes available to sponsors and other visitors.
Away from the grandstand there has been plenty of activity too. McGrath said: “We started with the stables, moved on to the grandstand, and also the parade ring which has gone from 150 metres in circumference to 182.5 metres. In 30-runner races there is six metres per horse.” Horses will continue to be paraded in an anti-clockwise direction.
There has also been enormous investment in the Curragh training grounds. McGrath said: “Huge thanks to Eva Maria Bucher Haefner [Moyglare Stud] for presenting us with the opportunity to do up the gallops at this time. We want to provide a return for trainers and the Curragh is now a better place for horses to be trained.”
The weighroom has been transformed. Jockeys have been provided with changing rooms which compare favourably with Premier League football standards. Even the press could not find fault with their new ‘media room’ and, like the jockeys, they will be hoping some complimentary refreshments will be provided as a goodwill gesture.
Goodwill has been in short supply at the Curragh in recent seasons. Time and again we heard complaints from owners, trainers, bookmakers and racegoers that very little concession was being made by racecourse management to offset the inevitable inconveniences presented during the construction process.
Some of the offended said they wouldn’t be back. It is to be hoped they change their mind, clear the slate and give the new Curragh a fair crack of the whip. There is plenty worth seeing and how it performs is sure to be one of the big talking points of the year.
THE CURRAGH RACECOURSE: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW