Authorities need to reconsider if Champions Weekend is to grow
In the wake of last year’s Longines Irish Champions Weekend, we lamented the paradox of having just witnessed one of the greatest Flat races to have taken place on Irish soil and the two-day concept’s failure to capture the imagination of the public.
At the time it felt like the initiative was at a crossroads. Overall attendance had gone from remaining stagnant between years one and two, to falling 1.5 per cent to 23,805 in year three.
Whereas the crowd for Leopardstown’s opening leg had grown 10 per cent since 2014, day two at the Curragh had fallen 16 per cent to 9,255.
In 2016, Jean-Claude Rouget’s first Irish foray with Almanzor compensated for a drop-off in success for the British raiders, and there was a reasonable spread of the spoils across the board.
Generally speaking, events on the track seemed to be justifying the grand ambitions that accompanied ICW’s arrival. Nonetheless, despite a massive investment in marketing and promotion, it was proving a hard sell to the paying public.
Given the genesis of the idea was to create something big, bold and climactic that would function as a focal point for the Irish Flat season and help to broaden the sport’s reach here, the ongoing indifference was deeply frustrating.
Then we learned that the Curragh's capacity would be capped at 6,000 during its two-year revamp, with an extra 1,000 set to be catered for when the in-field is opened up on Sunday.
Like it or not, attendance figures are a fundamental metric by which the success or otherwise of ICW is judged, as a ‘build it and they will come’ philosophy prevailed from the outset.
It is regrettable, then, that the downward trend will take another sharp descent in 2017.
Horse Racing Ireland’s chief executive Brian Kavanagh insists the event should be viewed in its entirety as a two-day entity, which surely only reinforces the short-sightedness of not tweaking the programme and relocating the second leg to Leopardstown on a temporary basis.
There is a stubborn insistence that the Irish Derby cannot be run anywhere else, partly because of a view that the 12-furlong start at Leopardstown isn’t suitable.
If that is a red line issue, fair enough, but as Noel Meade has observed, ICW is a new initiative and persisting with holding the second part at the Curragh in 2018 is going to impede it further.
Restricting the number of people who can attend what is supposed to be the ultimate celebration of Irish racing’s excellence goes against the whole ethos of the occasion.
The 2018 fixture list is due to be published soon, and, while there is a strong suggestion that there will be no change to the structure of ICW, we will cling to the possibility that there might be.
This isn’t about taking a fixture off the Curragh or raining on anyone’s parade, it is about giving ICW the platform it deserves. A compromise of keeping the Derby at the Curragh and hosting all of ICW at Leopardstown for one year would hardly raise a dissenting voice.
Ultimately, in its fourth year, ICW should be pushing on rather than regressing. As it is, momentum is being lost.
Yesterday’s HRI-commissioned Deloitte report into the economic benefits of the Irish racing and breeding sectors noted that racing is second only to GAA as a spectator sport.
However, bearing in mind that there is a sizeable gap between average attendance (3,700) at the full complement of race meetings and 96 All Ireland championship fixtures (14,400), it is a misleading comparison that serves to illustrate how much ground Flat racing in particular has to make up here.
At last week’s All Ireland hurling final, one of the GAA’s two closest equivalents to ICW, 82,300 paid in, and there will be nearly 30,000 at Listowel on Ladies' Day next Friday. Last year, 14,450 came to Leopardstown for Champion Stakes day, a figure more akin to a decent county final, and there are 64 of those each year.
Of course, it is possible that the general public will never be won over, but are we giving up on the concept? Has it plateaued already?
ICW has hitherto attracted some of the best horses in Europe.
This year, it is looking a little more parochial, although you never know what it might throw up as we’ve been privy to some real treats since 2014.
Back then, there was a fear that the new condensed format might simply ease logistical demands for Aidan O’Brien, and that he would dominate at his leisure and hoover up the Group 1s.
So far, that hasn’t transpired, but there is probably more of a prospect of it doing so this time, as circumstances have conspired to deny the participation of a variety of other marquee names.
From a sporting perspective, the occasion could do without one superpower whitewashing the weekend.
Such an eventuality, combined with the inevitable plunge in attendance, would constitute a double whammy in terms of the occasion gaining any meaningful recognition beyond racing’s confines.
That was always what this was supposed to be about, so, as we sit at that crossroads waiting for those driving the campaign to decide its destiny, we plead with them to seriously reconsider which road to take from here.