Donn's Articles » Changing times

Changing times

Timing is everything. Just ask the guy who sold his shares in Baltimore Technologies in 1999. Or the guy who bought them from him.

On Saturday 3rd September, the Red Mills Irish Champion Stakes will move from its traditional Saturday afternoon slot to a Saturday evening slot – a 6.45pm kick off – with the objective of increasing the level of interest in the race, and the resultant attendance and viewership figures, or at least arresting their decline.

The reasons for the difficulty in which the Irish Champion Stakes now finds itself are fairly obvious. The meeting is suffering like almost all Irish race meetings are suffering at the butt of our current economic reality. Also, it is a Flat race meeting, and Irish Flat racing of late seems to be doing whatever the opposite of catching the imagination is. On top of that, it is staged on a Saturday.

It is a long time now since Saturday was the golden child in the Irish racing week. It is 23 years since the first Sunday Irish Derby – with all the Budweiser bells and whistles – heralded the arrival of the Sabbath as Irish racing’s flagship day and perhaps unwittingly precipitated the demise of the Saturday. The position of the Irish Champion Stakes in the Pattern on the first weekend in September means that to run it on the Sunday would be to clash with the All Ireland Hurling Final, and that simply isn’t an option.

It is difficult to believe that, just 10 years ago, almost 17,000 people clambered through Leopardstown’s turnstiles to watch the re-match between Galileo and Fantastic Light. It was a crowd that would not have looked out of place at the Christmas Festival in December with the fences trimmed and eight flights of hurdles on the track.

Just eight years later, a measly 9,000 people made the trip to see the re-match between Sea The Stars and Fame And Glory. There were mitigating circumstances in 2009. The ground was on the easy side and Sea The Stars wasn’t a certain runner until it was too late to mount an effective promotional campaign with him at the centre.

That said, there is a long-held notion that Irish people will travel to see good horses race. So when Sea The Stars – an icon even then – can draw just 9,000 people through the gates for his last ever race on Irish soil, it is time for some radical thinking.

Punchestown are the pioneers of the twilight meeting. Their decision three years ago to move the first four days of their festival from an early afternoon start to a late afternoon start, and carry the race meeting on towards the twilight hours, did not meet with universal approval.

It was hardly surprising. Irish racing is an ocean liner, not a speed boat. Change is generally viewed with cynicism and skepticism, and the default position when alterations are is in the air is to resist with all your might. The authorities weren’t sure, they had never before staged a race meeting that was neither an afternoon meeting nor an evening meeting. There were staff issues, there were issues with the Gardaí and with corporate guests, and local restaurants complained that, because of the later end time, they could only have one sitting instead of two.

Yet Punchestown pressed on and, with the not inconsequential backing of RTE, managed to set the new co-ordinates and turn the great ship racing. You will never please all of the people all of the time, but the change has generally been acclaimed as a huge success at this stage.

Twilight racing is now a phrase that the authorities can use, restaurants can major on lunches, and corporate guests can take half-days off work instead of full days. As well as that, in an era when racecourse attendances are generally decreasing significantly, attendances at the Punchestown Festival have remained constant. Status quo in most walks of life these days qualifies as success. More importantly, however, viewership figures on RTE have increased by 20%. It is probable that the majority of that increase can be attributed to the later time slot.

The Irish Champion Stakes move is a worthwhile experiment, and terrestrial television coverage on RTE has been secured, but much needs to be done in the next two weeks. Just because the new time worked with Punchestown, it doesn’t necessarily follow that it will work with Leopardstown. The Punchestown Festival and Irish Champion Stakes day are very different animals, and Saturdays are different to weekdays. It is notable that Punchestown decided to leave the Saturday of their festival, their family day, as an early afternoon start.

That said, the attraction of a late afternoon start on a Saturday at Leopardstown, on the outskirts of Dublin city, with the Ladbrokes Irish Greyhound Derby semi-finals on at Shelbourne Park later that evening and the All Ireland Hurling Final in Croke Park the following day, are obvious. The key is now to be sure that people know about it. The effectiveness and the strength of that message now is key to the success of the change.

© The Racing Post, 23rd August 2011