‘Saving’ the Irish Derby…

Alan Sweetman is proposing that the Irish Derby should become a 10 furlong race. He argues that it is now a diminished sporting and social occasion. He is right that it is a diminished occasion. He is wrong that dropping the distance by two furlongs will address the problems. The main problems with the Irish Derby lie with the Curragh management. They spent €80 million redeveloping the Curragh but don’t know how to attract crowds.

The Irish Derby as a social occasion has completely lost its way. As a student, I remember attending when it gave those of us in baggy jumpers a chance to admire the well heeled and beautiful. It was the Irish Royal Ascot a place to be seen. That reputation is now gone. Over the past decades we have seen the Irish Derby flip flop between Saturday and Sunday slots and between day time and evening post times. What did all that tinkering achieve?
It was a further mistake to run the Derby at the Curragh during the redevelopment phase. The temporary facilities were more akin to a point to point. It cheapened the brand. When the Curragh reopened, we had long queues that led to a lousy customer experience. Then Covid came along and crowds were banished. The memory of the Irish Derby as a must attend event became even hazier..
Getting the crowds back should have been the priority. Instead Brian Kavanagh stated that €50 is a reasonable admission fee. He argued that it was cheaper if it was booked in advance- so that’s alright then.. Brian should be told that you can charge those premium prices for a premium event but its now just a race with no social element. They are soaking die hard racing fans. They don’t know how to appeal to racing savvy customers or the fashionable set looking for a social occasion.
The Melbourne Cup is a must attend/must watch event despite being a two mile handicap. Crowds attend Listowel and Galway because of the atmosphere- everyone goes because everyone goes. The Curragh management need to get crowds and atmosphere back to Derby. They seem clueless as to how to do so. The great race is not in good hands.

Champions Weekend at the Curragh and Leopardstown have outstanding cards and struggle to breach 12,000 attendees each day. I would like to see tweaks to the cards on Derby Day but realistically these changes will only appeal to a small racing cohort. There is no such limit on what a popular well marketed social event could attract.

The race itself should not be dropped in distance. Dropping the distance will make no material difference to attendance figures and will be throwing away a century of tradition. We have a well earned reputation for producing outstanding middle distance horses and yet its being proposed that we abandon our only Group 1 for colts over 12 furlongs! International participation may have waned in the past two decades but we lived through an unprecedented period of Ballydoyle dominance. Galileo drove much of that domination and that (boring) domination is now over and we can expect competition to increase and return.

Change because of a few unremarkable winners isn’t a good policy. Serpentine, Anthony Van Dyck, Wings of Eagles won Epsom Derbies between 2017 and 2020. You could just as easily argue that the Epsom Derby is finished based on those results…It’s not finished just as there is nothing fundamentally wrong with a 12 furlong mid Summer Irish Derby, that showcases the best of Irish breeding and training.

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