Pat Keogh, CEO Curragh Racecourse
The last time we spoke with Pat Keogh, CEO of the Curragh Race-
course, we parted with Pat's immortal words “hopefully there's a bit of light at the end of the tunnel.”
That was back late 2020.
Little did we know.
Little did Pat, or anyone else for that matter, know, or realise, that some nine, ten months down the road, we would be more or less still in the same boat.
Covid-19 still with us.
And while racing continues, after an initial three months or so lockdown, it is continuing behind closed doors, no punters, no crowds, no owners, in front of empty enclosure and stands — but at least still operating.
All things considered and in many respects the racing fraternity, unlike many other sports — or industry as the racing authorities prefer to describe it — continue to operate and very very successfully at that.
Pat Keogh is a man of many parts. Experienced in various and varied positions from a currency trader with AIB for some twenty years, where he operated in both London and New York; to a position with Coolmore as financial controller; back to one of the well-know building firms in Dublin, Cosgrove Developments, a firm he had worked with previously; to taking up the position of CEO at Leopardstown Racecourse.
There Pat oversaw a major revamp of the Dublin track before the Curragh came knocking in 2019.
The Curragh had just completed the redevelopment of its facilities, a redevelopment that was costed at some €65 million, ran over budget by many millions, eventually coming in at €81.2 million.
And even at that when opened came in for some very harsh criticism.
After the Dubai Free Irish Derby in 2019 the then CEO, Derek McGrath parted company and in came Pat Keogh.
Pat was coming to the end of his time in Leopardstown, just a year or so before retiring, but agreed to take on the role of CEO at the Curragh for a year or so and now, despite being offered the opportunity to stay for a further 12 months, at least, he has decided to step aside and bid farewell.
In many ways Pat's time at the Curragh has been something of a unique experience as he never, due to Covid-19, managed to see packed enclosures throughout his tenure.
There is little doubt that the re-development of the Curragh brought with it much criticisms, the main one being that it had lost, or was in the process of losing its connection with the everyday punter, the ordinary man and woman in the street who liked racing on a regular basis whether it be on the Curragh, Naas and Punchestown
There was a perception — rightly or wrongly — of a “them and us; an upstairs-
downstairs attitude” and Pat Keogh quickly identified that and vowed to change it.
Not unlike what Dick O'Sullivan did in Punchestown, Pat Keogh vowed to get the locals, particularly the Newbridge and Kildare town folk back on board, and made some instant changes to various aspects of the new Curragh.
Now you must remember that this new Curragh had cost in excess of €81 million but nevertheless, and with some astute re-designing and reshaping, made the place a much more punter-friendly place to race, regardless whether one was a regular racegoer, a regular punter, someone looking for something different, while making it a more family-friendly place that can be enjoyed by one and all.
The shame of Pat's tenure is that he did not witness how the general public would take to the re-shaping of the facilities.
And while as a regular racegoer he will in the future, unfortunately he will not see it happening under his watch.
Crowds will come back, insists Pat, adding “the problem, or the trick, will then be to keep those punters coming.”
And what has been done to ensure when the lockdown is over and racegoers are allowed to return, what has been done to ensure they will stay with racing?
“Just from the Curragh point of view, we have done a lot throughout the lockdown along with the new facilities; and I am very confident that when we re-open the Curragh people will like what they see and will want to keep coming and we are very aware of that when people come back racing again, we have to ensure that they will keep coming; it will be a great opportunity for us to showcase the Curragh and what we have to offer; we have done quiet a bit, they will like it.
“One of the fundamental changes we have introduced is in the front of the racecourse, on the second floor the Lilywhite Lounge, and I would say it is certainly the best I have seen in racing, overlooks the finishing post, a big lounge that is open to the general public, something that was not there as it was part of the reserved area initially but not anymore.
“We have also reconfigured the entrance area what used to be a reserved area, now a fast food outlet, renamed The Orby — after the first Irish trained winner of the Epsom and Irish Derby — another fantastic facility; and then the Champions Hall has all been laid out with new facilities; we have extended the children's area; we have done a lot; there aren't many good things one can say about the lockdown but it certainly gave us the opportunity to make changes here to make it a fine, fine facility but it gave us the opportunity to make the Curragh house a home and I think people will really like it.”
And when does he expect to see the place buzzing with crowds again?
“Very difficult to say, but we are moving in the right direction but from a crowd point of view we can write off March, April and May anyway” adding “all going well, fingers crossed and all that, I would like to think we might, might, have a limited number at our Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby meeting in late June, but that all depends on the continuing decline of covid numbers and especially the roll out of the vaccination programme.”
Of course when most of us think of the Curragh, we think of racing. Full stop.
Not for the first time Pat Keogh points out that it is in fact the Training Grounds that are the real life blood of the place.
“A lot of people look at the Curragh and just think of it as a racecourse with 20/21 meetings a year but the bigger part of the Curragh is actually the Training Grounds, and the training grounds operate 365 days of the year, every single day of the year there is activity there, that is a fine business and getting bigger and better all the time; that is the real life-blood of the entire operation here and that creates very solid employment as well.”
Economically the racing industry is not just vital for Kildare and the local area, it is a vital asset nationally.
“Nationally it contributes €1.8 billion to the economy globally and supports almost 30,000 jobs nationally, so it is a very big industry and most of the jobs are in rural areas, so very valuable and vital employment to the entire country.
“We estimate that the Curragh — between the Training Grounds, the racing and the visitors to the National Stud— contributes about €100m to the economy; very significant business nationally and very significant business to the Kildare economy also.”
Fáilte Ireland, and all the local entities, including the Curragh, National Stud, Kildare Village, the Military Museum, and the Co. Council, are all involved working in bringing forward Kildare as a major tourist destination; part of the Ancient East Programme; that is all happening now and we would be confident that as soon as things open up you can expect more flesh on the bones on that project and we at the Curragh are ready to open a Tour of the Curragh; the National Stud is a fantastic Visitors Centre; you have the Military Museum; Kildare Village; the other racecourse, Naas and Punchestown, and that is all going to be pulled together in one initiative to attract more and more visitors to the area; not just when there is racing but all year round.”
Pat points out that during the lockdown one of the positives, from a racing point of view, is the numbers that tuned into racing on TV in 2020, adding “there are more people engaging with the sport and hopefully from that then when we do reopen to the public there will be a great appetite for racing and people will flock back to the live racing here.”
Recent happenings in racing, Pat acknowledges, has done little to enhance the sport.
“The Gordon Elliot story was very sad and a great shock to the whole industry. Gordon not only let himself down but he let everyone in the industry down. We all love the horses and their care is an absolute priority for us all. Gordon has accepted that he did wrong and received a fair hearing from the IHRB.
“I hope that it is behind us now and that we can regain the confidence of the general public which has been damaged.”
While accepting that the sale of media rights to a pay-per-view company, Pat says those rights “are very lucrative, they are vitally important and to be honest if it were not for the deal that the Hri struck at the time many of the smaller tracks in particular would simply not have survived.
“And while the bigger courses would have more hospitality, more visitors and everything that goes along with those, the small tracks, where most of the mid-week racing is held, they simply have less opportunities and from that point of view the media rights issue is very, very important to racing as a whole.”
From a sponsorship point of view Pat says that overall “the Curragh has done well; picked up quiet a few sponsors during last year and even into this coming year” adding “people see the Curragh for what it is, the home of flat racing in Ireland and while we have been blessed with some great sponsors down the years, getting new sponsors involved has been very positive and encouraging.”
Pat admits that the Curragh have a lot of sponsors from within the industry; those sponsors realise how important prizemoney is and how important the Curragh is, so they have stayed with us.
So it is all systems go and while the flat season has commenced behind closed doors hopefully by the time the final meeting of 2021 comes around in the Curragh in late October, all at Headquarters will have returned to something close to normal.
In the meantime the task of getting a replacement for Pat Keogh has just got under way.
Pat Keogh's tenure at the Curragh may have been short but the impact and the changes he has made have the potential to benefit the home of flat racing for a long time to come!