Curragh ready for a ‘fresh start’ as flat racing begins

The new Curragh boss believes the Irish racing venue will start on a relatively clean slate when the 2022 flat-grass racing season kicks off on Saturday.

The revamped €81m display facility – the largest capital development project in Irish racing history, which included €36m of state funding – opened in 2019 and has had a turbulent time ever since. .

Problems during construction included the parade ring having to be rebuilt because it was too small.

Within months of opening, the track’s chief executive, Derek McGrath, resigned, citing a lack of unity among the higher echelons of racing about the Curragh’s better long-term future.

There was also significant criticism of an ‘up/down’ atmosphere for racing on the course, particularly in relation to the 2019 Irish Derby, when a crowd of just 12,000 attended a service designed to cater for up to 30,000 people.

Racing was largely held behind closed doors due to the Covid-19 pandemic throughout 2020 and 2021.

There was also an embarrassing problem with the roof of the grandstand making a loud hissing noise in windy conditions, though officials are confident this has been fixed.

The Curragh’s third chief executive in four years is former Horse Racing Ireland boss Brian Kavanagh, who was a key figure in the racecourse’s controversial redevelopment.

Kavanagh spent five years (1994-1999) running the country’s most famous track and took over again in November after 20 years at the helm of HRI.

“The first year was an opening year with teething problems, there is no doubt about that. The last two years have seen a pandemic. So now we see an opportunity for people to come and enjoy the facilities. They are like new.

“Without a doubt, it is a new beginning. There is a great team at the Curragh and we are all looking forward to a successful run of the season with no restrictions and good racing,” Kavanagh said on Friday.

The former HRI chief said he was putting an emphasis on attracting locals to the Curragh this year, but was not going to set targets in terms of attendance figures.

“I don’t think it’s a question of numbers. The main objective is to engage Curragh with the public attending the race and, in particular, with the local community.

“We are on a mission to open up the Curragh to local events on non-racing days and enable the local community to share the facilities effectively.

“We think it’s a two-way thing with the local community in terms of contributing and capitalizing on it,” Kavanagh said.

Flat stop-start

Just over a week after Cheltenham, and before an upcoming Grand National race, the emphasis is on the level of the next few days.

Naas hosts a Sunday card and Navan also runs at the same level on Tuesday.

“There have been criticisms in the past of [the start of the flat] being very from start to finish, let’s put it that way, in the sense that he wouldn’t have another meeting for six days, then another span after that, and stutter until Fairyhouse and Punchestown are finished.

“To be fair, HRI allocated the matches differently this time around and I think two Kildare tracks to launch the season is great,” added Kavanagh.

The campaign launch sees Ryan Moore make a first trip of the year to Ireland for eight trips over the weekend.

Aidan O’Brien’s number 1 jockey will team up with last year’s 1000 Guineas star equine attraction, hero Mother Earth, when she begins her four-year campaign in the Group 3 Park Express Stakes at the Curragh.

The Englishman also does a couple of outdoor races at the venue, including Bowerman, who will be attempting to repeat his 2020 win at the Paddy Power Irish Lincolnshire.

He is one of seven runners in the €100,000 handicap highlight for Ado McGuinness.

Colin Keane, who is an almost overwhelming 1-12 favorite to retain the jockey title this year, is aboard another McGuinness hopeful, Saltonstall.

Irish in Dubai

McGuinness will help fly the Irish flag in Saturday’s hugely lucrative Dubai World Cup program at Meydan, where Abbaye winner A Case of You lines up in the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint kicking off at 1:35 and live on Sky Sports Racing.

Ronan Whelan’s mount renews his rivalry with Man of Promise, who beat him by almost five lengths in distance and course earlier this month.

“I think he has a few pounds of improvement on him. The preparation has gone well and he has adapted well to Dubai. He is much more settled than in his first race here. If all goes well, I think he can win a big check,” said McGuinness.

Coach Ado McGuinness.  Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

Coach Ado McGuinness. Photograph: Morgan Treacy/Inpho

The top prize at Al Quoz is nearly €800,000, though even that pales in comparison to the $12 million up for grabs in the featured World Cup, which starts at 4:30.

American superstar Life Is Good is the favourite, but he extends his endurance to 10 furlongs for the first time in his career.

The other Irish interest in Meydan will be Joseph O’Brien’s Baron Samedi, who has his chance in the Gold Cup over two miles at 12.55.

Ryan Moore skips Meydan and will also be busy after Saturday’s race as Aidan O’Brien is expected to work with some of his top contenders for the year at the Curragh.

The trainer of champions has half a dozen runners over the weekend, including Cleveland in the Listed feature at Naas, as well as Royal Breeding Tuesday at a maiden.

Minding and Empress Josephine’s sister lines up for a pageant the latter won a year ago on her way to classical glory.