In what proved a seminal meeting, representatives from every spectrum of the Irish racing industry gathered at the Horse And Jockey Hotel in the equally aptly named town of Horse And Jockey in Co. Tipperary on Tuesday 1st March for a ground-breaking Forum organised by the Southern Region of the Irish Thoroughbred Breeders' Association.
Billed as an opportunity to 'Have Your Say'
the Forum did just that, as the lecture theatre was filled to capacity by 200 racing enthusiasts, most of whom were industry professionals involved at the highest level. The panel, too, guaranteed innovative ideas and the assurance all suggestions would be considered and implemented if possible by the relevant bodies. It is the first time such an open floor has been offered to such influential industry leaders and enthusiasts.
Chairing the Forum was Brian Gleeson, while facing the audience were panellists Brian Kavanagh, the CEO of Horse Racing Ireland, the administering body of racing; John Moloney, Chairman of Irish Racecourses; Michael O'Hagan, CEO of Irish Thoroughbred Marketing; Tony O'Reilly, Chairman of the Irish Racegoers' Club; Sinead Hyland, Chairman of the Young Irish Thoroughbred Breeders' Association; and guest Jonathan Irwin, who led the way during the 1980s when involved with Goffs and the Phoenix Park racecourse and was a driving force behind the establishment of RACE (Racing Academy & Centre of Education) and the European Breeders' Fund.
"We have leaders from every industry group represented here tonight and it's great to see so many young people here," ITBA Southern Region Chairman, Maurice Moloney, welcomed guests, "I would like this to be a positive view forward rather than a negative of what has happened in the past."
Jonathan Irwin was first to speak as he pointed out that, "There is absolutely nothing wrong with the theatre of racing - it has the best actors, best directors and best producers. But there is a disinterest among the general public of what you are all so passionate about. When I took over at Goffs, the Tattersalls phone number was ex-directory! That was the attitude to outsiders off the racing stage." Irwin went on to examine admission costs. "What is a grandstand?" he asked, "a stand for grand people! You should pay through the nose to get in to it - and let everyone else in for free. You wouldn't charge a mouse for the cheese."
YITBA Chairman Sinead Hyland provided an overview of their work, including an introduction to the highs and lows of racehorse ownership through the YITBA's racing club, which currently has three horses in training and enjoyed success at the highest level with Stand To Attention.
Irish Racegoers' Club Chairman, Tony O'Reilly, then said, "We have one very difficult task and I'm not even sure if it's possible. These people have a choice - get up to go racing or sit in the sitting room and watch racing beamed from all over the world. You have to pay to get in, buy a racecard, get food and drink, all without having a bet yet. If you back a winner at the racetrack and it's disqualified, you've lost your money. If you'd backed it at home, you get paid out.
"I don't expect to get in for nothing," O'Reilly continued, "it's the simple ideas that may help, we don't have much money. We all rely on the industry and should all play a part in its future. Breeders should go and support their product. There should be more admission packages. Most seats at a racecourse tend to be commandeered by people for the entire day and the Racegoers' Club love it when a table and reserved seat are included in the entrance fee. What we need is a halfway house between the high end and the cheap admission. Marquees provide plenty of space and seats could be offered for €5. There should be an opportunity for a table at a reasonable price. Limit the price of a coffee, if you can. And there should be a large screen at every racecourse."
Irish Racecourses Chairman, John Moloney, embraced the vision of the Forum, earning a hearty round of applause when he urged, "When going racing bring someone with you!"
As the holder of the purse strings, HRI CEO Brian Kavanagh took a realistic view. "We have 1.2 million racegoers, we must keep that in perspective," he said. "I personally feel we are going to move more towards a two tier system. We need different racemeetings for the industry, to put money back into the system, to give jockeys a ride and owners a chance to win."
He identified the three key challenges of, "How to improve the product, how to make it attractive for having a bet and how to broaden the fan base. When forming a Strategic Marketing Group we deliberately went to experts from outside the industry and their report should be ready within the next three months. I can see a vast number of those recommendations being followed."
With suggestions passing to the floor, trainer Fozzy Stack called for an awareness of all sports fixtures to avoid clashes. "If you want to attract the under-30s, to attract young men get the young women in! Let the women in for free. The gate price is too high, food and drink too high. Most women like to dress up, gear the market to that," he urged. Dick O'Sullivan, manager at Punchestown, agreed fully, pointing out, "We changed our Best Dressed Lady from Wednesday to the Friday and Friday became our most popular day."
Jonathan Irwin was also in agreement, "We gave free tickets to the nurses in Beaumont," he said, "the champagne bar was still going strong three hours after the last race!" Irwin acknowledged that once through the gates, the newcomers had to engage with the sport. "They don't understand what's going on, we talk in a language no one else understands. Jockeys appear six or seven times in an afternoon in a different uniform every time, compare that to Wayne Rooney, who always wears the same shirt and even has his name and a number on it to identify him! Why not give a golden cap to identify the Champion Jockey," he suggested, to a round of applause.
One mother spoke up to say, "I can take my children racing for nothing. I have to pay to take them anywhere else. I don't have to make them sit, they can go look at horses, get autographs, run around - we should publicise that." A statement which earned her loud applause.
|Another suggestion was for charity racedays. "Racecourses had such a high percentage of corporate business and that has now collapsed," Kavanagh agreed, "but the charity events held in the pavilion at Leopardstown are still going. There's not the same reservation in going to support a charity as there is in having a day out. Can we go to a bigger level, perhaps, and identify a couple of major racedays for charity?"|
It was also asked that owners who have survived and remained in the game be rewarded with more opportunities to race their horses. "With the reduced population of horses the number of races shouldn't be reduced," it was argued. "It's all about winning races, if there are more races, there are more chances. I can't see the sense in dropping meetings."
"It's a simple equation," Brian Kavanagh responded, "we have a minimum prize money of €7,500 per race. Tomorrow in the UK there are four meetings worth £90,000 combined. The [single Irish] card at Downpatrick tomorrow is worth £70,000. Do you drop prize money and have more meetings?"
A call from the floor revealed that, "There are still races in Ireland where the owner doesn't get a prize, which is just astonishing! You want the cup, not the €100," which drew a round of applause.
Jonathan Irwin examined enticements once more when saying, "You should be looking at promotions with local pubs, restaurants, hotels - competitions and deals to get local people coming. There is not enough to do in most towns in Ireland for tourists so why not package a day at the races?"
One of the racecourse managers in the audience replied, "We are doing that, we're all concerned at value for money. I've counted 11 racecourse managers here tonight. People who have been are happy and more are coming back. I don't think free admission is the answer, we must be careful that we don't undervalue our product."
"Why not have racing on a Friday night," John Barrett of Sean Barrett Bloodstock asked, "when everyone is looking for something to do? Make it a night out. Prize money won't get people to go, they're not the ones getting it. Run a big jackpot. Rather than have someone sponsor a race, have them sponsor a jackpot. You can insure against it being won quite cheaply, it might cost €2,500 to insure a €250,000 jackpot." Sinead Hyland agreed, "The only day I can get my friends to go is Friday night. If you look at Pretty Polly day at the Curragh there are loads of women, but there are none on Sunday."
Kildangan Stud's Joe Osborne reminded the Forum that, "We might be losing the mark by trying to chase twenty-somethings when our demographic is fifty-plus. How do we market to them?" Manager of Punchestown, Dick O'Sullivan, was in agreement, "There is only one star - the man or woman who comes through the gate. We don't pay enough attention to those coming through the gate. We talk an awful lot of attracting young people, but what of those older people who already come?"
"Dropping prices is not the answer," said Curragh manager Paul Hensey, "We need to promote our stars, promote the horses and jockeys." Tom Ryan, manager of Naas, agreed, saying, "We're getting cleaned out chasing the social aspect. We need to focus on those who genuinely have an interest in racing."
"We have a girl in the office who works on families," Dick O'Sullivan added, "she trots around all the schools and 25 parents came racing. It's not a con job, you have to really do something for them and make them go home feeling they're special. We offer a party pack - vouchers for food, drink, bet, and a racecard, for €15."
The Forum was brought to a conclusion by the final suggestions from industry stalwart Sally Carroll. "We should be using our Champion Apprentices Ben [Curtis], Joseph [O'Brien] and Gary [Carroll] to promote racing," she urged, "couldn't they visit the schools and colleges in their home county, take their trophies and promote racing?
They could offer those kids free tickets and a behind-the-scenes tour.
We should have our young stars as ambassadors in all the colleges.
"And the Best Dressed Lady, who wins?" she asked. "What about the teenagers and young girls who can't afford designer clothes? Why not get the cheaper high street stores to sponsor a Best Dressed for teenagers and offer them vouchers as prizes?"
The ITBA will be keeping the Forum open by featuring the main topics on their website www.itba.ie giving everyone the opportunity to contribute over the coming weeks.
The topics open for discussion are:
Admission Prices And Packages
For a preview of Lissa Oliver's new release novel click here
'Shaping The Future Of Irish Racing' Forum - 1st March, Horse And Jockey, Tipperary
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