THE sky is gray. The day is dry but cold. Very cold. We’re off on an annual pilgrimage. It’s festival time. It’s Punchestown Festival time. Time to drop in to see Dick O’Sullivan and his team at The Home of National Hunt Racing.
The place is a hive of activity. The painters are in; the marquee folk are in situ; the JCBs and the bulldozers are doing what JCBs and bulldozers do. Preparations are in full swing for Punchestown Festival 2013. Just two weeks to go and the place will be thronged. Hopefully.
Dick O’Sullivan’s team are beavering away as ever as we enter the genial Kerryman’s office along with his his very efficient PR lady, Shona Dreaper.
As ever Dick is positive and eagerly looking forward to Tuesday 23 April and the start of yet another Festival under his control.
Of course at this stage the main work is done and dusted. Each and every one of the 37 races has secured sponsorship, big sponsorship, as Dick emphasises.
“We don’t come cheap, we charge plenty but we give our sponsors good value and that is why they are back again, this time with an additional E200,000 in prize money, bringing the total on offer for the week to a whopping E2.2 million.
“We were concerned that maybe we were slipping a bit on the prize money front” says Dick “but with the help of our sponsors, Horse Racing Ireland, and indeed ourselves, we have managed to increase the prize money once again.”
In total there are seventeen Cheltenham and Aintree winners entered and when you consider we have a little over four million people in Ireland compared to sixty plus in the UK we are keeping up at the same levels, which is a great thing from our point of view says an enthusiastic Shona.
This time last year the Punchestown folk were a little down with the news that Oxegen will be no more. Well no more for 2012 at any rate. However later this year Oxegen will return, albeit in a slightly different format, as Dick tells us.
“A slightly smaller show but it will be back on the August Bank Holiday weekend and that will help us along.”
Punchestown, as ever, are looking to diversify, always on the look out for new ideas and new ways of generating income that ultimately will enhance racing, and they are presently in negotiations in an attempt to bringing ‘Bloom’ to this magnificent Kildare venue.
Bloom attracted 80,000 visitors last year to it’s gardening food and family event and O’Sullivan is very anxious that it relocates to Punchestown suggesting that ‘Bloom’ - presently held in the Phoenix Park - and Punchestown would be an ideal fit.
“That would be a really big thing for us if it were to happen but it won’t be this year but with that glint in his eye and that soft Kerry lilt in his voice, I wouldn’t rule out ‘Bloom’ moving to Punchestown come 2014.
Apart from the loss of Oxegen Punchestown also had to contend with some dreadful weather during the Festival twelve months ago.
Who could forget the Wednesday in particular, even Thursday was nearly washed out but, as Shone suggests, after Wednesday, Thursday seemed like a grand day weather-wise despite the wind and rain.
One could not but wonder if the man above had decided to cut the Punchestown folk out of his thoughts completely as the rain and wind swept across the place bringing everything to a standstill.
But again Punchestown survived and by the time the week had ended numbers had climbed back up to the levels that were expected and planned for, and budgeted for.
Tough people these Punchestown folk.
“Getting through the year with no Oxegen and getting over the weather early in the week gave us a lot of confidence and a lot of hope for the future but as usual out here we are looking for something” adds Dick.
“Rain would be very welcome at the moment, and it is thankfully forecast, along with a rise in temperatures but as long as we don’t get the rain we got last year we won’t be complaining too much.”
Dick O’Sullivan is in buoyant form as he looks ahead.
“The signs are good, bookings are up, the publicity is cranking up; the entries have never been better and the quality of the horses entered is absolutely top class.”
“But we can’t afford to let standards slip” insists Dick. “Take a look out there at present, the painters are in as we try to keep the place looking well which is not easy; it’s all a cost but we have to spend to keep up the standards, that is what people expect and that is what we do.”
Of course racing is what Punchestown is all about. Yes the side shows are important and in many cases essential but racing is the chore element and there is no doubt that once again this year that is the focus that the people charged with running the festival are concentrating on.
“The fashion, the kids, the, the face painting, the food, the entertainment, tented area, are all vital but if the racing is not up to scratch, if the prize money is not up to scratch then you are in trouble and this year we feel we have certainly got our core racing values spot on” says Shona, adding “that we must get the balance right, the kids are not just here for the bouncy castles, everything we do has a racing theme throughout the day, whether it be the colouring competition, the mascot race with the jockeys and all the other events geared for the kids, all have a racing theme.”
Dick is extremely anxious to ensure that Punchestown retains the confidence of the local people, something he feels they may have lost somewhat some years ago but something that he and his people have addressed over the last number of years and, he feels, is paying off as, for instance, the Saturday meeting has now become the real local day with people and families coming to the races “in their droves” with over 8,000 children alone last year.
“It is the one day of the Festival week that every acre of the place is used; the army are back again this year with all their gear and equipment, the schools are very much involved again so all in all we are looking forward to another very successful week on all fronts.
Racing of course, like most other facets of life in the times we live in today, is suffering and Dick O’Sullivan readily admits that.
“People don’t have the cash but we find they have the cash for the special days, for the big days; bookmakers are finding it difficult also, the on-line betting is certainly causing a problem, people are betting from the comfort of their homes but we should be getting something off the top and we also need to come up with some ideas that ensure that the punter at the races gets that little bit extra over those who are simply sitting at home pressing a button; in other words people going to the racing meetings must be getting value.
A few years ago we moved to ensure people would get that extra value. You can get a lunch for under a tenner and with the special ‘party pack’ again on offer this year for just E19 which includes a race card, a fiver bet, a fiver drink all thrown in, giving a saving of nearly E14; add in all the top class racing every day, you’d be paying 70 sterling to see the same across the water and that is why they come from the UK in such big numbers insists Dick.
“Some of those people have been coming for years and we actually ring them personally now to see if they are coming again and they are gob smacked getting a call from the Punchestown people.”
That’s the difference.
It’s the personal touch.
The Punchestown way.
You can’t beat it.
Long may it continue!