Kevin Blake

Kevin reflects on the raceday experience at the new Curragh on Irish Derby day and rues the lack of official sectional data for Ireland’s premier classic.

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Reflections on the first Irish Derby at the new Curragh

The Irish Derby was always going to be a big focus point for the “new Curragh.” In some ways, it was destined to be damned before the gates even opened, as the chances of it attracting anything like the 25,000 that had supposedly attended the 2015 renewal fell somewhere between slim and none. There remains a price to pay for continuing to race at the Curragh during the redevelopment period and that is the consequence of breaking people’s routine of attending the Irish Derby as part of their social calendar. Getting back to the anything approaching the numbers of 2015 was always likely to be a slow build as a result and last Saturday gave us our first look at what Irish Derby day at the new Curragh is like.

To start with the positives. From well over an hour before the first race until well after the last race, personally I felt there was a great buzz around the track. Around the enclosures, the crowd of just under 12,000 felt big without being overbearing and the parade ring was surrounded by people for each and every race. In contrast with the impression one routinely gets on big days at British tracks, a large portion of the crowd seemed to be engaged and interested in the racing rather than just the day out.

With reference to those complaining about the comparatively low attendance, while big numbers look nice on paper, I would dare venture that those pining for a return to the days of 25,000+ at the Irish Derby have short memories. My recollection of those days are of a thoroughly unpleasant raceday experience at which just moving around the crowd was a struggle. That was not the case on Saturday and it made for a much more pleasant day. Of course, everyone should be aspiring to get as many people to the track as possible, but doing so to an extent that compromises the quality of the experience for those in attendance isn’t something to be wished for.

Let us also not lose our sense of perspective here, as attracting over 12,000 to a Flat meeting in Ireland is not something that is achieved with regularity. Nearly a decade may have passed, but the memory of just 9,100 people turning up on a sunny day at Leopardstown to watch Sea The Stars in the Irish Champion Stakes remains to remind us that Flat racing in Ireland is a hard sell.

Getting back to Saturday, having stayed until an hour or so after the last race, it was great to see such a large crowd remaining at the track and socialising in various bars and seating areas. I drove back through Kildare town on the way home and that so much activity had carried over to the town was another positive. All involved are striving to make Derby weekend the driver of a proper festival in the locality and with that in mind Saturday felt like a solid starting point.

In terms of the negatives, a walk underneath the stand and through the public bars at most stages of the day would have quickly revealed the main source of public ire, that many of the facilities couldn’t cope with the number of people in attendance. Queues for the male toilets and the time it took to be served at many of the public bars were particularly lengthy. There were also reports of some bars running out of popular drinks before even getting to the halfway point of the day.

None of that is satisfactory and falls short of what you would expect from what is billed as a premium sporting event. Queuing is a huge source of frustration for most and everything should be done to reduce it. If people want to spend their money, the process should be as quick and easy as possible for them.

Considering the Curragh would have been more aware than anyone of the scrutiny they would be under at this meeting, it is disappointing that they didn’t adopt more of a “better to have too many than too few” approach to such matters. Given the problems that were encountered with the attendance being less than half of the stated capacity of 30,000, one can’t help but wonder just how bad those problems would have been had more people attended.

What played out at the Curragh on Saturday clearly showed that more provision has to be made for additional temporary toilet and bar facilities on days where bigger attendances are expected. It may seem odd to suggest that temporary facilities should be required at a newly-built facility, but much like the new Longchamp, the Curragh has said from the outset that they intended to use temporary facilities on their biggest days rather than build what would be an over-the-top facility for all bar the biggest days.

The new Curragh is clearly a massive improvement on what was there before. It is a really lovely place to go racing and personally I’d be proud to bring anyone from anywhere in the world there to showcase what Irish racing has to offer. However, there is quite clearly much more work to be done on an operations level and one can only hope that the mentioned issues are dealt with as a matter of priority.

It is worth recalling that Ascot was heavily criticised following its redevelopment, but given some time to correct the oversights, it quickly established itself as one of if not the very best racecourse in the world. The Curragh deserves to be given a chance to correct the shortcomings that last Saturday exposed, but given they are already fighting to regain lost supporters, they can’t afford to get it wrong for much longer.

Absence of sectional timing felt at the Curragh

Sectional timing is an issue that has gathered renewed momentum in recent months and if ever a race illustrated the need for official timing data, the Irish Derby was it. Even those that are indifferent to the subject most days of the week could surely see the benefit of having factual, real-time information to tell us as to how fast the leaders went at all stages of the race and thus guide us in our analysis of what had happened and why.

Without such information, both professional and amateur observers were largely left to conjecture and speculation to try and work it out. Followers of other sports that have better embraced the data revolution are likely to have been looking in with bemusement at how such a high-profile race couldn’t be analysed in any great objective depth due to a lack of real-time data.

Even those that sought to undertake the laborious task of manually collecting sectional timing data using video analysis of the Irish Derby were hindered by an issue raised in this space  just a couple of weeks ago, that of inaccurate furlong poles. The leader didn’t pass the 11f pole until 18.75 seconds into the race and it took him just 9.1 seconds to get from the 6f pole to the 5f pole. Neither of those timings are in any way plausible and clearly indicate that the furlong poles are in the incorrect positions.

Such a lack of attention to crucial detail on the greatest stage of Flat racing in Ireland is really disappointing and frustrating. Sadly, such cases are far from uncommon in Irish racing. As was called for here earlier this month, the IHRB simply have to issue a directive to all Irish racecourses requiring them to get their ducks in a row on fundamental matters such as getting their race distances and furlong poles right, as many of them clearly have no interest in bringing their standards up to scratch off their own backs.

To come back to the subject of sectional timing, the clamour for the timing information after the Irish Derby presents the opportunity to ask the rarely-posed question of just why we don’t have such data in Ireland when it was promised to be made available for all Irish racing from the beginning of 2017.

Almost three years ago to the day, SIS confirmed on their website that they would launch sectional timing for both Flat and National Hunt racing in Irish racing. A month earlier in emails that I have copies of, SIS had sent information to every Irish racecourse informing them of the various technological surveys and trials that would be conducted at every track in the months ahead with a view to sectional times being made available at every track on “January 1st 2017.”

Clearly, it has not been delivered in the two-and-a-half years that have passed since that planned launch date. SIS or HRI have not publicly commented on the matter since then and all inquiries to SIS on this subject from various parties have gone unanswered. This is hardly a satisfactory situation and SIS have really been let off the hook by Irish racing and its supporters by the lack of scrutiny they have been subjected to on it. Irish racing deserves better than this and it certainly deserves answers as to just what has gone on with SIS’s undelivered promise of sectional timing.

Kevin Blake
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