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Wednesday, 12 December, 2018

Curragh's temporary theatre not looking too shabby ahead of big show

David Jennings takes a sneak peek at the latest developments at the track

Horse Racing Ireland CEO has once again put up a staunch defence of the Curragh
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Did you hear the one about the Irish racecourse which refused to close while undergoing a monumental makeover? Of course you did. You are sick to the back teeth of hearing about it. You're bored of it now, aren't you? Me too.

The Curragh has already staged four Classics this year and it is going to stage another one on Sunday. Like it or lump it. The problem is that lots lumped it for the Irish Derby. Only 5,412 showed up. There were 25,255 there on the same day in 2015.

So, are the temporary facilities really that bad? What kind of raceday experience should you expect for the second leg of Irish Champions Weekend? Is is worth watching Order Of St George and Big Orange renew rivalry in the flesh or would you see more on the box? Lets find out.

It is a murky Monday afternoon, six days to go. It has just ticked past noon and Curragh CEO Derek McGrath has agreed to a guided tour of his temporary theatre. The clouds above look menacing and rain seems as certain as an Aidan O'Brien-trained winner this weekend. Somehow, though, we stay dry.

What McGrath would give for more of the same on Sunday. He is surely saying novenas nightly, tossing salt over his shoulder at dinner and hoping to catch two magpies together on his way to work everyday in the hope that the weather gods will shine down on the Curragh for the closing Classic of 2017.

Sunshine equals success for most race meetings in Ireland but McGrath is refusing to get bogged down in weather forecasts and prefers to adopt a more philosophical approach.

"I have worked in sport long enough to know the things you can control and the things you cannot," McGrath says frankly. "Weather is something that I have absolutely no control over. The one thing I will say is that we're much better equipped to cope with rain now. We've learned a lot from past experiences."

Derek McGrath, chief executive officer of the Curragh racecourse

The tour begins. First stop is O’Brien's Champagne and Wine Bar, one of the last remaining crumbs from the old Curragh.

"During all the change I think a lot of people are glad that it's stayed here because it's their connection to the past," McGrath says. "With all the development that's going on here, though, you begin to realise how dated that building is. Standards are changing all the time."

The pre-parade ring and parade ring have stayed in their original locations too. For now. Both are easily accessible to the public and the parade ring remains one of the prettiest around. The large Longines clock immediately catches the eye and the flowers are blooming right on cue.

We swing a right and head to the back of the Champagne and Wine Bar. This is the area with most responsibility for entertaining racegoers. The Garden Plaza might not necessarily have much grass but it is a spacious arena surrounded by food stalls and bars. Much of it is now covered too. Mistakes, it seems, have been learnt from.

The main stage and the big screen sit side by side and many eyes will be glued to both on Sunday. There will be music throughout the day and the finalists for the most elegant gentleman and lady will also appear on this stage. So, there should be plenty to see here.

"This has worked very, very well. It really has," says McGrath as we stand in the centre of the Garden Plaza. "There will be plenty happening on the stage with fashion shows and music and the big screen also works great in this area. There are clearly operational impacts if rain arrives in terms of the facilities. We've covered the Garden Plaza and that has pleased plenty."

A line of bookmakers will be positioned at the end of the Garden Plaza too and behind them is the biggest of all the marquees. That is something the Grand Hall can brag about as there are a lot of marquees so the competition is fierce.

"This was our pillar right from the very start," says McGrath as we squint through the glass doors. "We're providing everything in there and you have also got the cover. It was insurance against the weather. If there was a complaint with it, it would be that it's a long way away from the action on the track if people want to go out and watch the race. That's an unfortunate part of our design.

"We've played around with the seating and found the right level now. We've sorted out the queuing problems at the bar too. That was important.

"We needed a big marquee. This was hopping on Derby day. If there's any rain, this place takes the crowd and it can generate a terrific atmosphere. If the weather is nice, the doors are opened and the crowd overflows to the garden area. This can hold around a thousand people."

There is a new member of the marquee family on Sunday which can also cater for up to a thousand people. For the first time this year, the infield will be open to the public. The steelwork is being erected as we chat about how the family fun enclosure idea was born.

"We had the Derby experience and we wanted to do something that would relieve some of the pressure on people," explains McGrath. "There were a number of elements to the decision. We weighed them all up and we decided it was something that would work.

"It meant the whole issue of "am I going to be able to come to Champions Weekend?" is gone. There's no issue now. We're still offering tickets at the moment. We can comfortably allow an extra thousand people more in compared to Derby day.

"This marquee will be for families. We'll have lots of activities that will cater for kids. Everything you can possibly imagine. We even have the simulator from RACE which also generates great excitement. We have crepes and lots of different food offerings in there as well. I think it'll be really well received."

The 2016 Gold Cup hero Order Of St George will be bidding to regain the crown he lost to Big Orange last year

The temporary facilities were not well received by some on Irish 2,000 Guineas day back in May when popular Newstalk radio presenter Ivan Yates called the Curragh "an utter disgrace and an embarrassment to Irish racing".

Those words would have hurt McGrath but he feels that they have learned a lot since hosting the first Irish Classic of the season back in May.

He said: "We've had 17 meetings in a short space of time. We've had 17 opportunities to test things. Champions Weekend brings with it added dimension. There are a lot more partners, a lot more activities and there's a lot more itinerary in terms of managing the day.

"We've made small adjustments as we've gone along. We've made subtle changes which have improved the experience for racegoers.

"I was at Goodwood on the Wednesday this year. I went over to look at the facilities and I got absolutely soaked in about an hour. It was horrible. That just goes to show you that you can have the very best of facilities but if the weather doesn't play ball you're snookered."

Reflecting on that Saturday soaking and Yates' comments, McGrath said: "We were trying to do a lot of unfamiliar things in a familiar place."

The temporary facilities are becoming more familiar now. Viewing remains one of the main gripes with racegoers, with the sole stand located quite a distance from the main enclosures.

"There's a certain restriction with regard to viewing as we don't have height but we have provided lots of big screens and that's worked very well. Our grandstand was never full before and I find more and more people prefer watching races on the big screen."

And what about the bookmakers? Are they happy? "We've brought out two arms of a ring in the main betting area. They were around the corner originally but they came to us and asked to change. We sat down with them and made it work. What we've found is that their numbers have been good and exceeded expectations. They've been very positive."

Positive is McGrath's middle name. He would put a positive spin on Arsenal's recent woes. He knows that the Curragh is not catering for everyone's needs right now but he is doing the best possible job with what he has to work with.

"Some say that what we have now is better than what we had before," he says before we go our separate ways. And, you know what? He's probably right.

Maybe we should have let the Curragh complete its makeover behind closed doors and let Leopardstown host both days of Irish Champions Weekend but, as temporary facilities go, the Curragh isn't looking too shabby.

If you are interested in this, you might also like:

Poor advertisement for Irish racegoers as racegoers vent fury

Curragh set to open in field for Irish Champions Weekend


Some say that what we have now is better than what we had before

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