Things We Learned » Start time

Start time

Irish Champions Weekend has been analysed upside down and inside out all week. Attendance figures up over 70% on last year, bookmaker turnover up 55%, Tote turnover up almost 100%, and verdicts ranging from positive start to unprecedented success.

The weekend had everything: personalities and atmosphere and class and drama and weather. The only significant blip was the decrease in terrestrial viewership figures, 120,100 last weekend compared to 173,500 for Irish Champion Stakes day and Irish St Leger day combined last year. Perhaps it was down to the fact that everyone was at the races so there was nobody left at home to watch it on the telly …

It is probable that the dip was down to external factors. Last year, the meeting was staged a week earlier, during an international football weekend, hence no Premier League game live on Sky Sports on Saturday evening. This year, it was unlucky to clash with a Liverpool match. If Aston Villa had been away to Burnley instead of Liverpool, it might have been different.

We know that more people are watching television on Saturday evening than on Saturday afternoon so, while audience share might be lower, the potential for the absolute number of viewers is decidedly higher in the evening than in the afternoon. While the Leopardstown average viewership figure of 52,600 was over 40,000 down on last year – and that is obviously significant – it was actually 4,000 up on 2010, the last time that the meeting was staged as an afternoon meeting.

There are other advantages of a late-afternoon start. For starters, it allows for good traffic management. The gates can open long before the first race and people can trickle in, as they did on Saturday, to see the Goffs sale or to engage in other pre-racing entertainment as might be staged.

As well as that, on a deep, deep weekend of racing, it allows for a greater spread of races for punters and bookmakers. Most bookmakers expressed themselves very happy with Saturday’s turnover, which was in stark contrast to 12th July this year, when the July Cup, the Bunbury Cup, the Summer Mile and the John Smith’s Cup were all run on the same day, and turnover suffered on the back of the intensity of it all.

It also facilitates jockeys and trainers in getting to more than one meeting. On Saturday, Ryan Moore, Paul Hanagan and James Doyle all rode at Doncaster before making their way to Leopardstown for the Irish Champion Stakes (Moore for the Matron Stakes and the Clipper Boomerang Mile as well). That is important. If we are going to have the best horses in Europe race here, we want the best jockeys in Europe here to ride them.

Late afternoon starts definitely work well for the Punchestown Festival and for Galway Plate day, and on balance they work for the Irish Derby and the Irish Oaks, both Saturday meetings. They can work for Irish Champions Weekend as well.

What next?

So what next? Last weekend was only ever a starting point. The key now is to build and strengthen, all aspects reviewed. There is lots to be discussed, lots of potential enhancements to be made.

The timing of the weekend is perfect, between the All-Ireland Hurling and Football finals, three weeks after York, three weeks before Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe day, five weeks before British Champions day. It is great that that position has been claimed and it is important that it is secured. (And if it expedites the movement of the Doncaster St Leger to Friday, that could be a positive for all, including for the Doncaster St Leger.)

There is talk of a new Triple Crown. There is often talk of a new Triple Crown. (Remember the Dante-Derby-Eclipse-King George – and all combinations thereof – talk before Camelot?) While you can’t re-invent the Triple Crown (can you name the New 7 Wonders of the World?), the international hop-scotch is still worth attention. A large bonus for any horse who can win the Irish Champions Stakes, the Arc and the Champion Stakes at Ascot, while hardly easily attainable, is worth considering, or a smaller bonus for any horse who can win any Group 1 race at all three meetings.

Complete the weekend package. Flights and accommodation for foreign visitors, and include the Greyhound Derby Final at Shelbourne Park on Saturday night. The Goffs sale on Saturday and the Curragh Thoroughbred Trail on Sunday both worked really well, but there are other potential ways to engage with racegoers over the weekend. The Goffs sale started at 1.30 on the Saturday, but why not kick the day off earlier with other atmosphere-generating activities? A parade of champions, an introduction to racing, a (celebrity – isn’t everything these days?) penalty competition, a fashion show (really?), a string quartet, a five-minute interview with five jockeys or trainers (Five For Five), a tour of the weigh room, a horse whisperer, a spin on an Equisiser. More ideas.

More engagement during racing. A leading jockey and leading trainer award with updates after every race. A green armband for the leading rider and leading trainer to wear with perhaps a ceremonial public changeover on the podium as the lead changes. Maybe even an Anglo-Irish competition. (A score draw this year was a result for the away team.) Autograph-signing sessions to allow racegoers engage with the top riders and trainers. An art competition for the kids. A few day-in-the-life-of sessions. The list is long.

International element

Of the 194 horses who ran at Leopardstown and The Curragh over the course of the weekend, 49 came from foreign climes. That’s over 25%, and that’s not bad.

There is a balance to be struck between maintaining a strong home team and having a raiding party that is strong enough and successful enough to ensure that the raiders come back. With eight British-trained winners and eight Irish-trained winners, that balance was just about spot on. It was just another thing that went right.

It was a good start, but the international element can be strengthened further. Of the 48 British horses, 15 were in the Tattersalls Ireland sales race (out-numbering the domestic team by one) and 11 were in the other two sprints, the EBF six-furlong handicap and the Derrinstown Stud Flying Five. Incidentally, the raiders finished first, second, third and fourth in the sales race, first, third, fourth and fifth in the six-furlong handicap, and first, second and fourth in the Flying Five. They were well-placed.

More British raiders can be attracted and, indeed, are necessary if the friendly Anglo-Irish rivalry that exists at Cheltenham is to be semi-replicated. Get the British horses to come over, and the British racegoers and British media attention should follow. Also, one French runner is meagre. Of course, this is Arc Trials weekend at Longchamp as well, but there were races in Ireland last weekend that catered for horses not accommodated by any of the races at Longchamp.

And why not a Japanese horse? (The Takashi Kodama-trained Elusive Time, doesn’t count.) Three weeks before the Arc, Japan’s Holy Grail (sic.), Irish Champions Weekend can be presented as an ideal preparatory ground. Kondo ne.

Race programme

The race programme is not easily tweaked, not with the European Pattern Committee keeping a watchful eye, and the weekend’s programme is fairly comprehensive anyway. It does not need much tweaking.

Group 1 all-aged races over 10 furlongs and 14 furlongs, a Group 1 fillies’ race over a mile, two Group 1 juveniles’ races over seven furlongs, one for colts, the other for fillies. A Group 2 fillies’ race over 10 furlongs, a Group 2 all-aged race over a mile, a Group 3 all-aged race over five furlongs, a Group 3 all-aged race over 10 furlongs, a Group 3 juveniles’ race over a mile, and premier handicaps over six furlongs, seven furlongs, 12 furlongs and 14 furlongs. It’s fairly all-encompassing, something for most specialisations.

Anything missing? Not much, but there are five two-year-old races and no three-year-old races. Of course, three-year-olds can run in the all-aged races, and the addition of a three-year-olds-only race could detract from one or more of the all-aged races, but perhaps a listed race for three-year-olds over 12 furlongs would work. Just three of the 15 runners in the 14-furlong handicap and four of the 15 runners in the 12-furlong handicap were three-year-olds, so there may not be that great a risk of cannibalisation.

Quote of the week

“Sweet mother of God, I’m going to be wiped out altogether!”

Katie Walsh on the (90-miles-an-hour) run to the first fence in the Kerry National on Your Busy

Thought for the week

Ballybay for drinking tay, Monaghan drinks brandy, but Castleblayney beats them all for eating sugary candy.

© The Irish Field, 20th September 2014