Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

Brian O'Connor's Latest Blog

The Public Interest

Mon 13th May 2019, 08:59

Sir Dragonet is now favourite to win the Epsom Derby
©Healy Racing Photos
A quick and very unscientific straw poll at Leopardstown yesterday came up with a figure of 8,000 being a satisfactory attendance target for each of the upcoming classic days at the new Curragh. No one expressed confidence about hitting that target. Eight thousand is about a quarter of capacity. Positivity is all well and good. But the dispiriting reality is that even that figure might be optimistic.

Last Monday the Curragh had an official attendance of 3,650. Official satisfaction was expressed at that. It's hard to see how. This was a first chance for Ireland's racing public to examine the biggest ever capital development project in the sport's history. Whatever about the card - and it was decent - one would have thought curiosity value alone would have generated a lot more interest than that.

For context, on Saturday a crowd of 3,800 people watched Kildare beat Wicklow in the opening round of the Leinster football championship. Wicklow finished towards the bottom of the bottom division in the National League. They ultimately put up a plucky fight but no one can argue they're box office. Yet the game pulled a bigger crowd than the Curragh.

For a little more context, yesterday's Leopardstown attendance was 4,373.

There's little point reheating the myriad of factors that influence Irish racing's complex relationship with crowd figures, just as there's no point pretending that in the context of its gates being thrown open for the first time a Curragh attendance of 3,650 was a deeply disappointing expression of public disinterest.

Both the Curragh, and those at the top of racing's hierarchy who've invested so much in this project, face a huge task in trying to turn that around. Broad engagement has to be the priority because what is the point of creating an €80 million state-of-the-art public facility if most of the public can't be bothered to go.

The Guineas festival is going to be the Curragh's first big test. On the racecourse it promises the best the sport can provide. Off it there is a facility that makes redundant all those old excuses about no one going to Irish racing's HQ because it was a kip. Given nice summer weather it is set up to be the sort of shop-window set-up the Curragh is designed for.

It will also have had time to work on the snag-list that last week's meeting produced. Considering the input from various industry professionals during construction, being forced into erecting another 'frilly tent' to accommodate the overrun from the owners and trainers bar is embarrassing. And not just for the racecourse management.

Such exclusive considerations aren't an issue for most of us. But in terms of engaging the wider public, stories of queues for food and drink, difficulties in accessing cash, no betting shop open, as well as long lines just to pay for a ticket in are obvious things to work on . Another might be some attempt to tone down the security presence. It was visually obvious and there's something about a High-Vis blocking the way that's like a red rag to a bull for racegoers here.

In the circumstances it all makes the decision to increase admission prices for the Saturday and Sunday of Guineas weekend to €25 look rash. Throw in disquiet about various membership prices, such as €950 for an annual option with access to a lounge, and it will make for an intense spotlight on the Guineas festival.

For a number of reasons plenty of fingers will be kept firmly crossed at York on Thursday that 2018's champion two year old Too Darn Hot returns to action with aplomb in the Dante.

Broome's Derrinstown victory on Sunday further cemented Aidan O'Brien's grip on the Derby and he is now 1-3 to notch a record-equalling seventh win in Epsom's 'Blue Riband' on June 1. Should Japan land the Dante on Thursday it will complete a remarkable display of dominance in the traditional Derby trials.

It is yet more evidence of the remarkable dominance exercised by O'Brien and Coolmore. But even their greatest admirers must concede that having the world's greatest classic dominated to such an extent by a single team is hardly good for the race. Of course that's hardly a Ballydoyle/Coolmore problem. But for competition's sake something really needs to come out of the pack on Thursday.

The noises made by John Gosden about suspecting a mile and a quarter, and maybe even a mile, being Too Darn Hot's optimum are hardly encouraging in a Derby context. Then again he made fearful noises about Golden Horn's stamina after he won the Dante. A Derby and Arc later confirmed once again how horses can make fools out of the best in the business, never mind the rest of us.

If Sir Dragonet goes on to win at Epsom maybe the same can be applied to Aidan O'Brien. The Camelot colt was a 14-1 second-string when he made his Tipperary debut less than three weeks ago and cantered up. This was a horse not even entered in the Derby by a stable renowned for its block entries. Then he went to Chester and won the Vase easier than Shergar.

On that evidence this is a rapidly progressive horse sure to stay but with an undeniable touch of class.

But the niggling doubt remains that if Sir Dragonet truly is top-notch, and the one to take O'Brien alongside legendary names, Fred Darling, John Porter and Robert Robson, on seven Derby winners, then surely he wouldn't seem such a surprise to all concerned at Ballydoyle.

After all identifying such gems is the whole point of having the best work riders and every machine that goes 'beep' in the greatest training establishment in the world. Yes Sir Dragonet might be exceptional in keeping everything for the racecourse. And maybe he's freakish in terms of bluffing the keenest judges in the game to the extent one would never want to play poker with him.

But still, you'd think they'd have twigged some sort of 'tell' before now.

Finally, it will be interesting to examine any decision reached by the Referrals Committee after Chris Hayes was sent on to them following a fourth offence since the new whip regulations were introduced last month.

Hayes had gone through the caution stage and on to getting days before his Blue Wind Stakes winning ride on Tarnawa at Naas on Saturday. A vets report said the horse was marked and on the back of three previous offences, as per the rules, Hayes was referred on.

He is the first jockey to go through to this stage in the new process and given the success he's enjoying, and with some big race engagements coming up, it's no doubt something he could do without. But judging by the number of whip enquiry cases that are occurring most every day now Hayes won't be the last.

It's a rate to put in context all those 'nothing to see here' reassurances that arose when the new nine-stroke rule was introduced just over a month ago.

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THE IRISH TIMES