When this corner started out, it was the issue of racecourse attendances that slapped it in the arse and got it roaring. Any number of grievances got aired and plenty doom-laden forecasts were made about Ireland’s racecourses becoming deserted. And all of it remains relevant. But are things bottoming out?
The suspicion must be growing after Leopardstown’s January Jumping Weekend. A Saturday attendance of 5,057 is hardly earth-shattering in itself for a card that included what purports to be one of the most competitive and prestigious handicaps of the whole season. But it is up from the 2011 figure of 4,710 when it was run on a Sunday and the 2010 figure, when circumstances dictated the race was run on a Saturday, of 4,176.
Yesterday’s 7,029 tally was technically down -by one – but considering weather conditions were dire from early morning, it’s hardly surprising some took a gander outside and decided on discretion.
Coming on the back of Horse Racing Ireland’s 2011 statistics which reported a 3.3 per cent increase overall in attendance levels, then an argument can be made that Irish racing’s core racecourse audience is being revealed.
Of course there will be many of you out there arguing that attendance details should be treated with more than a little scepticism. Popular rumour has it that every body which darkens a racecourse gate, be it guard, steward, or stable staff, is taken into some tots, though why any organisation would want to artificially boost their figures when the Revenue Commissioners are ravenously chasing every cent is a question often conveniently ignored by the sceptics.
There is no doubt some racecourses have made an effort when it comes to pricing arrangements and offers to encourage people to go racing. And cold statistics suggest it is having an impact.
What would be interesting to establish though is how many are newcomers to racing, and how many are former regulars returning to the fray after getting sick of being fleeced: In short racing’s hard-core support prepared to give the game another shot. Their readiness to return shouldn’t be discouraged by going for the easy buck.
At Leopardstown yesterday a 500ml bottle of Coca Cola cost E2.60. Cans of the same product were going for two Euro. That’s ludicrous and scant reward for those that paid through the nose at the gate and endured rotten weather conditions.
In terms of racing rewards however, they don’t come much better than what Hurricane Fly did.
Officially Willie Mullins’s superstar remains rated 1lb short of Istabraq at his peak. The intriguing thought after the Irish Champion Hurdle is that Hurricane Fly’s peak could be still to come. If that’s the case, then everything else at Cheltenham faces a desperately uphill task that looks all but impossible given normal racing luck.
Willie Mullins looked genuinely taken aback by what he’d seen and when a champion trainer gets surprised like that then you truly are dealing with an exceptional animal.
There’s also no disguising the regard Mullins has for Boston Bob, something emphasised by how he threw him into one of the hottest Grade 2 novices imaginable and having to concede a Grade 1 penalty.
Ruby Walsh reported afterwards the horse hated the ground so as well as class Boston Bob also has the tenacity required to find a way of winning. That looks a helluva combination in terms of Cheltenham where a Mikael d’Haguenet type performance in the Neptune might not be out of the question.
And as for Peter Casey, amidst all the bally-hoo about his colourful post-race comments, don’t forget how he got his best ever horse to produce a career best performance when it really counted in a Grade 1. What’s more, he then came out immediately and said Cheltenham was out for Flemenstar. If only some more of his colleagues could be as decisive. Peel away the ephemeral stuff and both Casey and his horse were impressive.