How was the weekend? Just Champion…

The Gatsby and The Ryans

The Gatsby and The Ryans

And so a new star of the flat racing season is born. In such a legacy industry as horse racing, where so much of the present and future is rooted - often irretrievably - in the past, shoehorning a Group 1 extravaganza into the into the established late season calendar might have seemed like folly, or worse.

But, in October 2011, Ascot managed to introduce British Champions Day by relocating and then embellishing an existing fin du saison card from Newmarket. Graced by the brilliant Frankel in its first two years, and strongly supported by QIPCO, racing's biggest new sponsor, since inception, British Champions Day has established itself as a flagship climactic showdown with its series of divisional finals.

This year, British Champions Day follows immediately on from Future Champions Day, a Newmarket card largely comprised of juvenile events and showcasing many of the Classic aspirants of 2015. A two day Champions weekend? Whatever next?!

Well, how about two Champions Weekends five weeks apart? Shurely shome mishtake, shquealed the tradishunalishts. But no, this has been no clerical error. Rather, it is a case of the remaining major racing nation in Europe 'catching themselves on' (as they might say), and joining up the Group 1 dots into an event far greater than the sum of its historical parts.

Specifically, Ireland hosted its inaugural Irish Champions Weekend these past couple of days. And, like the British version, it was predicated on existing end of season prizes. Moreover, like the British version, it was well supported by QIPCO. And, like the British version, it was blessed by a favourable confluence. Where Ascot had Frankel, Leopardstown and the Curragh had good (to firm) ground and good (to very good) weather.

These gifts from the heavens cannot be bought, and it may have been a different story had those heavens rained on the impressive equine parade. But they did not. Rather, the junction of Leopardstown's Champion Stakes card and the Curragh's Irish St Leger meeting - spruced up with some strong Group action left and right - shone as brightly as the September sun in which it bathed.

Enough with the poetic (and, as ever, needlessly verbose) introductions, and to the meat of the meet... Did Irish Champions Weekend (ICW) work? Was it a success with the punters? Did it swell Irish racing's coffers? And did the quality of the racing justify the pomp and fanfare that preceded it?

Context and Parallels

Before I address those questions, let's take a moment to consider the state of Irish flat racing coming into ICW.

The seemingly inexorable expansion of the Pattern (races of Listed or Group/Graded class), in the face of a dwindling horse population and reduced depth/quality to some of the biggest races (notably the Irish Derby), rendered the notion of ten 'black type' heats in two days faintly ridiculous. Ostensibly, at least.

Still more 'courageous' was the idea of competing directly with the oldest of the Classics, the English St Leger. Hereshy, shcreamed the tradishunalishts. Not so, countered the reformers, in measured and confident tones. Despite the predictable and entirely reasonable disgruntlement of the St Leger meeting's major sponsor, Ladbrokes, there is in fact little overlap between the race programme at Doncaster, and that of the Curragh/Leopardstown.

Those behind ICW had a blueprint to work from. In fact, they had three, from which they could cherry pick their menu. Arc weekend is the most entrenched of the two day end of season jamborees. More recently, in 2007, the Breeders Cup expanded from one to two days, and the second of the champions weekends sat down to the table. Ireland has actually beaten Britain to be the third two day festival of this kind, though the influence of British Champions Day on Irish Champions Weekend cannot be understated.

Although the amount of sequence tinkering from France Galop and Breeders Cup suggests the perfect format has yet to be isolated, a distinction between the best of now and the best of tomorrow seems a logical separation. Irish Champions Weekend subscribed to that basic principle, with Day One at Leopardstown featuring high class three-year-old and up action, and Day Two from the Curragh including two juvenile Group 1's and a valuable two-year-old sales race.

The order of the days - current stars on Saturday, future stars on Sunday - is the reverse of the British Champions Day model, but that flow is yet to be tested in Blighty, and who's to say that the UK arrangement works better than the Irish one?

Tradishun was adhered to insofar as Irish Champion Stakes day has recently always been Saturday at Leopardstown, and Irish St Leger day has always been Sunday at the Curragh. Those pillars of the final chapter of the flat annual were normally eight days apart, so snapping them together into a 'super weekend' was not such a stretch of the imagination.

This scribe would not be close enough to the fabric of Irish racing to make informed comment (read, I'm probably talking out of my pipe), but it seemed to me as I travelled to the respective venues that Leopardstown was quite similar to Ascot in terms of its relative accessibility and modernity, while the Curragh was more akin to Newmarket in terms of relative remoteness.

Success?

Your first 30 days for just £1

A brave move, and one behind which the full might of the Irish racing marketing machine has been leant, the questions now are less about logistics and more about performance? Did the inaugural Irish Champions Weekend work?

After all the talk, did people attend? Did they bet (and eat and drink)? And did the horses come? Yes, yes and yes is the management summary.

Leopardstown's Saturday attendance - aided, like Sunday, by good weather, it should be said - was 13,190. That was a 50% increase on 2013's figure of 8,786. Tote turnover was up significantly too, with €795,510 bet into the pools versus €445,410 last year (+79%). And even those poor put upon bookmakers reported increased handle, with last year's €668,737 usurped by a plump €891,631 (+33%), and a fair chance that some of it remained in the satchel.

The horses played their part too, with the three highest rated horses in the Irish Champion Stakes averaging out at 123.67, the highest since the - with hindsight - electric clash between Sea The Stars, Fame And Glory, and Mastercraftsman in 2009. The 2014 renewal was deeper still, with five horses rated 117 or higher, and all of them Group 1 winners.

Leopardstown's crowd was treated to six finishes with a half length or less first to second, and two imperious displays by very good horses. The 1-2 order in some of those races - most notably the vanquishing of Australia by The Grey Gatsby in the shadow of the post - may not have delighted every player, but the competitiveness of the racing was evident at almost every turn.

Sunday's Curragh attendance was 10,978 which was more than 107% above last year's 5,285, and made for a combined total attendance of over 24,000. Given the internal target of 20,000 across the two days, that can be regarded as a spectacular success, albeit one that sets a very high benchmark for the future.

With the first five favourites winning on the Sunday card, and twice as many punters as last year, it is virtually certain that both tote and bookmaker turnover were up significantly, though the latter's bottom line may have a dark crimson look to it when the dust settles on the ledger.

What next?

Up, up and up were the year-on-year data, meaning the visionaries who conceived and executed the first Irish Champions Weekend will have smiled contentedly into their pillows on Sunday evening as they slept their way to inevitable hangovers. Theirs has been an ambitious gamble, but one which - with the will of the nation's racing stakeholders - has paid off handsomely.

Sitting snugly three weeks before the Arc meeting, five weeks before British Champions Weekend, and seven weeks before the Breeders Cup, Irish Champions Weekend can hope to continue to attract the sport's biggest domestic and British stars for as long as the weather plays its part.

Good weather ahead of the meeting is a key contributory factor to the horses likely to turn up, and good weather on the days is essential from a live audience perspective. Both behaved impeccably this year, but cannot be counted on to do so consistently in the future.

Nevertheless, Horse Racing Ireland can now more confidently and aggressively market the weekend to British racing fans off the back of an even haul of the sixteen races (and a majority 3-2 haul of the Group 1's). And, weather permitting, HRI can also trumpet the success on the turf to those with the best horses, both owners and trainers.

The clash with Doncaster's St Leger meeting looks to be an issue for the Yorkshire track more than HRI and, though it would furrow many a tradishunalisht's brow, moving the Leger forward a week to the first weekend in September could work, despite the (current) clash with Haydock's Sprint Cup.

In any case, as I've written, this is not a problem for Irish racing, and they can rejoice in the overwhelming success of their inaugural Champions Weekend. There's every chance that horses like Gleneagles, Cursory Glance, John F Kennedy, Free Eagle, and The Grey Gatsby will be back again next year, along with a new wave of equine superstars.

If I have one suggestion to improve Irish Champions Weekend, it is one which I suspect will further ruffle the feathers of the old guard: I'd do a switcheroo with day one and day two. Leopardstown and the Champion Stakes felt like a much bigger deal than the Curragh and the Irish St Leger. A Racing Post straw poll had 87% of voters preferring Leopardstown to the Curragh, which suggests it may be a more widely held opinion.

Whilst that might have been a shallow poll, and the respondents considering far more than the quality of a single race, it lends credence to the perception that ending on a Champion Stakes high, having built excitement and anticipation with the National / Moyglare Stud / Irish St Leger, might be a better way to play the weekend out.

Whatever the order next year, it was a pleasure to be there this time, and I'm already looking forward to 2015.

Your first 30 days for just £1
15 replies
  1. bones1966 says:

    I reckon you’ve nailed it there, Matt. It was a brilliant weekend, and showed to the world how good Irish racing is. Does it matter that it clashes with the Clashics? I really enjoyed them all and I’m shure I’m not the only one. Personally, I’m tapping up my mates over there for next years bash. See ya there!

  2. twood715 says:

    Great piece of writing Matt. Geegeez is a gem of a website, I feel sorry for all those race fans who haven’t discovered it yet.

    Terry

      • Pat Dennehy says:

        There were far more than 10000 people at the Curragh yesterday while I wasnt at Leopardstown friends told me that yesterdays crowd was much bigger than Saturday.
        Great weekend of racing in brilliant sunshine.
        The traffic situation yesterday was chaotic and needs to be sorted out for next years renewal.

        • Matt Bisogno says:

          Hi Pat,

          Those were the official numbers, though it did ‘feel’ busier on Sunday.

          As for traffic, that’s a sign of success, albeit an irritating one. Try getting away from Ascot after British Champions Day!!

  3. Pat Dennehy says:

    I wast affected by the traffic yesterday as we set out early, it was the late comers that suffered some stuck in traffic for an hour.We left after the last yesterday and went south on the back exit via Kildare and were on the motorway in 30 mins .
    Newmarket have good traffic arrangements in place on race days.
    Huge thanks to all owners and trainers who travelled over from the UK and helped make the weekend a huge success,with room for improvement.
    its a shame they dont come on a more regualar basis. They were well rewarded for their efforts
    I can only imagine what Ascot could be like on Champions Day. hope it goes well

  4. John says:

    Was there to see next years Derby winner JFK A fine speciment and very much a superstar will prove much better than the talking Austrailia

  5. blamirecolincolin B says:

    Can’t they think of original names for their races.
    The St Leger , The guineas, The Oaks, The Derby are races characteristic to the courses on which they are run
    Thus being run at the Irish track they are NOT those races – sticking “Irish” in front of them is meaningless
    Will they be having an “Irsh Arc” or “Irish Melbourne Cip” next
    The same applies to the Welsh/Scotish grand nationals , Lancashire Oaks etc.

  6. David Skelly says:

    An opinion piece that fails to mention even a hint of controversy involving the Australia ride leaves me cold. Your piece mentions good ground and good weather as attractions but singularly decides that the presence of Australia (similar to the Frankel allusion) did not swell the Dublin gate? very odd.

    As for the “shurely shome mishtake” malarkey….I just don’t get it.

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      Hi David

      You’re as entitled to your opinion as I am to mine, and if you send me the link, I’ll take a look at your blog. You’ll note that I didn’t comment on any of the riding. That’s because it wasn’t the point of the article, which was about Irish Champions Weekend as an event, its place in the calendar, whether it was well supported, and so on.

      Regarding Australia ride, 1. I imagine he was riding to instructions, 2. I may be in a minority of one thinking it was no worse than average. Regarding Australia swelling the gate, the Curragh had a far bigger year-on-year attendance increase and Aus wasn’t there.

      So, no, I’m totally fine with not mentioning ‘that’ ride, or anything else about the on track action. And yes, I’d be delighted to read your version of events when it’s written.

      Matt

      p.s. shurely shome mishtake is a Private Eye-ism. No need to get it. I imagine plenty of people don’t understand some of my esoteric allusions… it shouldn’t detract from the overall flavour unless, as you generally seem to, you want to find a reason to pick a hole. Can’t remember a favourable comment from you in your many – generally interesting and often valid, it should be said – contributions.

  7. David Skelly says:

    Hey Matt! let’s no fall out over needless verbosity and some curious missing verbosity.

    I admire your passion and commitment to the game but you can surely expect plenty of scrutiny when you are offering opinions on racing outside your usual territory.

    I have plenty to say, generally, on Irish racing on a variety of fora and whereas I am not of the usual “hang ’em, flog ’em” brigade – and I never descend to namecalling – one doesn’t necessarily require a blog to make a point or, for that matter, to reply to a board that generally welcomes comment.

    I know the provenance of your PE-ism and its the tone of the piece I object to frankly seeing as it is followed by the inevitable reference to “hangovers” when seems to be par-for-the-course when visitors review Irish racing. That is one tired old bias that needs to be retired and I don’t recall similar views attached to Ascot, York or Doncaster reviews. (Alternatively, I may be over-sensitive associating speaking difficulties to inebriation in your piece?)

    The introduction of ICW was most welcome and its a progression from a standing start probably aided by many, many free tickets. Ony circa 8,000 souls turned up to watch Sea The Stars win his Champion some years ago so, at least, there is some evidence that joined-up thinking can help to improve attendances and public perception. Nonetheless the programme was peculiar in some ways and, even at two days, reminds me of the now watered-down 4-day Cheltenham Festival. We only have so many horses in this jurisdiction and without European support the top table will always be missing a few guests. As you rightly point out, the demise of the Irish Derby has been a disaster and following thirty years of support it is now a mere shadow of its glorious past attracting little interest from punters and racegoers.

    Your piece on ICW is welcome and my main gripe is that it is almost relentlessly positive and should be more rounded when there were plenty of issues/incidents requiring some ventilation(imo, of course!)

    • Matt Bisogno says:

      All fine, David, and, to clarify, my reference to hangovers was based entirely on the fact that after a hugely successful project implementation, there was always a good drink in my ‘working’ days, and I assume that to be a fairly global phenomenon. It was nothing at all to do with a national stereotype – as if my writing would ever stoop to such a base level!

      I’d welcome any thoughts you have on the negatives associated with ICW – the racing excepted, as that wasn’t the point of the piece, and nothing done by those who devised and executed the plan could dictate results, or tactics, on the track.

      So far, the only negative I’ve heard is the traffic jam, which is in itself a measure of success.

      Best,
      Matt

      • David Skelly says:

        Hi Matt,

        I do not have many “negatives” associated with the effort but I would question the overall strategy of a “weekend” event.

        Ireland has gone from no recognisable “Champions” event (the concept of many championship races run consecutively) to attempting to squeeze two into the one weekend. For many of us this is typical of how we approach things here whereby we endlessly stretch successful formulae to breaking point and, for example, we now have 7-day festivals in both Galway and Listowel. Both successful in their own right but low on overall quality and attractive to a particular band of racegoer/holidaymaker.

        Historically, Leopardstown ranks as #2 in the Irish flat racing pantheon and is owned and controlled by Horse Racing Ireland. You will recall that Newmarket lost their autumn showcase event (Ch. St.) to Ascot in favour of what was perceived as for the overall betterment of British racing and it was within the gift of HRI to do something similar if a more daring and innovative plan was hatched for a “champions” event.

        My concept would involved running all five Group 1’s on a single day -Sunday, on one of the best flat racing surfaces in the world-the Curragh – and promoting that single day on a European and International basis. Maidens and handicaps have no place on a champions card in my view and hence my earlier allusion to the watering down of a brilliant 3-day Cheltenham event to a so-so 4-day jaunt. Cheltenham Thursday leaves me entirely non-plussed nowadays but the bean counters will justify “financial success”. The fact that the Curragh, structurally, at present, is a Havanan backstreet is neither here nor there as it is the quality of the racehorse that turns up that is paramount. (There are plans afoot to finally improve this situation).

        Leopardstown, until a couple of decades ago, never really featured in the BEST of what Irish racing had to offer – they acquired the Champions Stakes from a defunct Phoenix Park – so dropping the metropolitan track from the programme offends few traditionalists. Furthermore, two separate days involves a battle of the big cheeses for supremacy (HRI versus Turf Club – owners of the Curragh) and these parties are involved in incessant internecine warfare over such matters as economies of scale, control of the programme etc. so its inevitable there will not be optimum co-operation.

        Champions Day Sunday (8 quality, top-class races) should be run in its present slot (the second Sunday in Ireland avoids the two major Gaelic sporting events – 82,000 attendees at Croke Park for football and hurling finals) and avoids a needless clash with the Doncaster St Leger. It should easily attract 25,000 (greater than the aggregate attendance of last weekend’s event thanks to an industry free-ticket extravaganza) and could rival, but never beat, the excitement generated by the greatest racing day in the world- American Breeders’ Cup day.

        • Matt Bisogno says:

          Excellent stuff, David, and much more grist to the mill.

          I can see the argument – and the counter – for a single day. It is worth noting, though, that all of the Champions Weekends (Arc, Ascot, Breeders Cup) have non-Group events, and minor Group events.

          You’re clearly a hard core racing fan – you’re in the right place! – but there ARE other considerations, whether you want to especially acknowledge them or not. Selling the ‘Irish product’ is about more than *just* the racing. It is about the corporate experience, the casual racegoer experience, the tourist contribution (i.e. overnight stays, food and beverage spend), as well as the class on the grass.

          Although I have no right nor reason to, I would contend that the Curragh would attract a crowd of 25,000 if Elvis was receiving a blessing from the Pope (excuse flippancy). From all I’ve spoken to, getting 11,000 on Sunday represented some sort of minor miracle. And, whilst I don’t for a second dispute the free ticket giveaway (they’re doing the same at Newmarket on Future Champions Day), I’d argue about the depth of its contribution to the attendance figures.

          Very interesting points regarding HRI vs Turf Club, something that as an outsider peering in I didn’t appreciate.

          Best,
          Matt

Comments are closed.