Ireland’s racing industry should be the envy of all - and it’s about to get even better

An impression of the major new grandstand at the Curragh, which will “incorporate five-star corporate facilities, restaurants, bars and superb viewing facilities”

When I was in the planning stages of launching Thoroughbred Racing Commentary in September 2013, I visited Ireland for the first time. We launched this website in January 2014, and I made another one-week visit there in the fall of 2014. On both visits, I spent most of my time based in County Kildare, which is for me the heart of Thoroughbred racing, breeding and sales in Ireland.

The Curragh Racecourse is in Newbridge in Kildare and in many ways is the center of Thoroughbred racing. I will come back to discuss the Curragh a little later.

In late November, I recently visited Ireland for a week. Hence the impetus for this column.

The Thoroughbred horse is the center of tremendous economic activity in Ireland. Here is a small chart to give you a sense of how it compares to Great Britain and the United States:

Given the relative small population base of the country, Ireland has an incredibly strong presence in racing and breeding throughout the world. It is also interesting to note that in Ireland, National Hunt (jump) racing (steeplechase, hurdles and point-to point racing) is every bit as popular as flat racing and many courses in Ireland run both jump and flat meets. The Curragh is one of the few exceptions as it only runs flat races.

As a former racetrack operator in the U.S., I personally believe that Ireland has a strong centralized Thoroughbred racing industry administrative structure that should be the envy of all U.S. racing.

Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) is the governing body of horse racing and is responsible for the overall development and promotion of the industry. As a commercial semi-state body, HRI, through its board, reports to the Minister of Agriculture Food and the Marine. This reporting line reflects the importance of  racing and breeding to agricultural development and employment in every region of the country.

Brian Kavanagh has been chief executive of HRI since its establishment in 2001. He is responsible for ensuring that the following functions of HRI are carried out:

  • The development, promotion and administration of Irish racing
  • The allocation of race fixtures
  • Race programming and prize money
  • Negotiation of media and data rights
  • Control of the operations of authorized bookmakers
  • Guaranteeing the cost of integrity services
  • Industry training and education

HRI has three subsidiaries that carry out distinct business functions:

  • The racecourse division, which owns and operates Fairyhouse, Leopardstown, Navan and Tipperary.
  • Tote Ireland, which operates a totalizator betting service at all Irish racecourses, including an account wagering service and an industry betting website. Profits made by Tote Ireland are returned to racing.
  • Irish Thoroughbred Marketing, which has its own CEO and staff of ten and is responsible for the promotion of the Irish Thoroughbred internationally.

HRI is only two miles from the Curragh and in the same town of Newbridge.

I would ask my American colleagues to take a minute and evaluate how much more effective a centralized administrative structure such as HRI would be in the U.S. as opposed to the current hodge-podge of 36 state regulatory organizations, a minimum of three for-profit tote companies working on old technology and the for-profit private and public account wagering businesses taking in a large portion of profits from the only growing business in the racing industry.

There are a number of internationally known Thoroughbred stud farms either in Kildare or within about an hour’s drive of the Curragh. They include:

  • Gilltown Stud, the Irish breeding operation of the Aga Khan, which is in Kildare. Gilltown is home to racing royalty in the shape of Sea The Stars, who is currently world #7 in the TRC Global Rankings.
  • Kildangan Stud, also in Kildare, is Sheikh Mohammed’s main Irish operation standing the Darley stallions and raising 20+ yearlings each year. Kildangan is also home to the prestigious Godolphin Flying Start program operated by course manager Clodagh Kavanagh. Godolphin Flying Start is a two-year full-time international management and leadership training program for the industry.
  • Derrinstown Stud is the prestigious Irish operation for the international Shadwell breeding operation. It too is based in Kildare.
  • Moyglare Stud is a legendary breeding and racing operation in the same county.
  • Coolmore, one of the pre-eminent breeding and racing operations in the world, is just outside Fetard in County Tipperary. Among the many important stallions standing there is, of course, the current world #2, Galileo.
  • Ballylinch Stud is a champion breeder of both jump and flat runners, and is located in Thomaston, County Kilkenny.

Please call ahead to any of these stud farms to inquire regarding their visitation policies.

Finally, there are two racing organizations in Kildare that are very important to the industry in Ireland.

The first is the Irish National Stud (INS) and Gardens, based in Tully, Kildare. The stud is a year-round full-service operation with an active stallion roster of seven, led by Invincible Spirit with a stud fee of €120,000. In addition to its full-time operation, the INS sponsors the world renowned Irish National Stud Breeding Course, a six-month residential program. The 2019 program begins on January 15, with 30 students representing 12 different countries.

In addition to the stud operation, the INS in recent years has launched INS racing, which provides the opportunity for members to own and race high-class flat and jump horses for €399 per year. Members have free entry to the racing days when INS racing have a runner, days out to top training and breeding yards, educational workshops, access to industry news and updates, and information on all participating INS horses. Go to the INS website for more information.

The INS is well known for its world-famous Japanese Gardens, which attract over 120,00 visitors annually.

The second organization that is an integral part of Ireland’s racing and breeding industry is Goffs, the country’s leading bloodstock sales company. Goffs is a 20-minute drive from the Curragh and offers flat and National Hunt sales throughout the year.

Goffs is a prominent venue in the prestigious international sales business. The Orby two-day yearling sale attracts owners and breeders from all major Thoroughbred industry countries. An exciting new sale that was launched in 2014 is the select Goffs London Sale, a one-evening event on the eve of Royal Ascot in mid-June with some sales entrants nominated to run at the meeting over the following five days.

Curragh redevelopment

Finally, I would like to turn back to the exciting news of the redevelopment of the Curragh Racecourse.

On my earlier two visits to County Kildare, I had the opportunity to visit the Curragh for three days of live racing. While the quality of the fields was excellent and the racecourse was in superb condition, the physical condition of the grandstand/clubhouse sadly reminded me of my many days’ racing at Aqueduct in New York City.

Fortunately, in October 2015, a new and unique public/private corporation was formed entitled Curragh Racecourse Limited with a new chairman Padraig McManus. The ownership structure was a third the Turf Club, a third HRI and a third private investors. The private investors at the time of the announcement were identified as: the Aga Khan, Eva-Maria Bucher Haefner, Michael Tabor, Derek Smith, John Magnier, Godolphin Ireland and JP McManus.

Worth the wait

Demolition of the old grandstand was undertaken in early 2017, and the Curragh ran an abbreviated schedule for the racing seasons of 2017 and 2018 with temporary grandstand/clubhouse facilities. This must have been a huge challenge for all racing participants: the owners, trainers, jockeys, patrons, track operators. On my recent visit to the Curragh, the construction of the new plant was well advanced, and I have heard favorable comments on the new physical structure. I think the hardships of the past two years will have certainly been worth it.

This is how the new facility is described on the Curragh website:

The new Curragh will see the creation of world-class facilities on a par with the best anywhere in the world. The centrepiece of the redevelopment will see the creation of a major new grandstand, which will incorporate five-star corporate facilities, restaurants, bars and superb viewing facilities.

A new arrivals and reception area will incorporate a museum to celebrate the history of racing in Ireland and the contribution Ireland has made to the sport worldwide.

A new parade ring will ensure that more patrons can share in the excitement and build-up to the racing.

A new weigh room will provide even better facilities for the jockeys, while a completely refurbished stable yard will ensure that the real stars of the sport will also have first-class facilities.

And all this while retaining the unrivalled atmosphere and unique spirit of the Curragh is retained.”

The Curragh Racecourse is an iconic and historic entity that is the epicenter of Thoroughbred racing in Ireland. I believe the unique public/private corporate structure should be recognized as a huge asset for the relaunch of racing at the Curragh and all of the related Thoroughbred activities throughout the area and the rest of the country. The financial participation of many of the significant stakeholders in racing in Ireland should be also recognized for the huge promotional opportunity that this rebuild represents.

The Curragh will re-open for racing on Saturday, April 13. The formal opening of the new facility will be for the Curragh Spring Festival, which starts on May 24 and will present the Tattersalls 2000 Guineas on May 25 as well as the Tattersalls 1000 Guineas on May 26. I am planning to attend and hope to see a number of you there.

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