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Great Strides

The Curragh and Longchamp, two of the most famous names in horse racing, are undergoing transformations. Ryan Herman reports.

They are recognised as two of the world’s most iconic racecourses. In recent times, though, Longchamp and The Curragh have been staging some of Europe’s biggest races against the backdrop of outdated facilities, stalled redevelopments and failing economies.

However, they are now both embarking upon major projects to revamp and reinvent what they have to offer.

The bulldozers moved in at Longchamp almost immediately after it staged the 2015 running of the Qatar Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe. A project that will cost in excess of €130m will transform the Parisian racecourse beyond recognition.

Meanwhile in County Kildare, it was recently announced that funding is finally in place to rebuild The Curragh to the tune of €65m. Subject to planning permission, the builders should be moving in by the end of 2016.

The Curragh’s redevelopment has been hailed by Joe Keeling, chairman of Horse Racing Ireland, as “the most important venture in the modern history of Irish racing.” If it sounds like hyperbole, then it is worth putting that statement into context.

No course in Ireland has undergone a development of this scale and cost. Furthermore, to finance it has meant a change in racecourse ownership. Whereas it used to be run by the Irish Turf Club, it will be a joint venture between Horse Racing Ireland, which is a state-funded organisation, the Irish Turf Club, and high-profile investors including John Magnier and JP McManus. The project has been a long time coming.

“This has something we’ve been working towards for the past 10 years,” The Curragh’s general manager, Paul Hensey, told SportBusiness International.

Indeed, two previous attempts to overhaul the racecourse in 2005 and 2008 fell by the wayside owing to a combination of planning issues and the collapse of the Irish economy.

“We’ve done as much as we can with the facilities to keep them in as good a shape as we can, but the challenge has been to afford people the comfort that they are getting at other modern racecourses around the world.

“There are people that come to The Curragh who are multi-millionaire racehorse owners. They are used to high standards everywhere.” Hensey anticipates a course that can adapt to the size of the crowd and ‘feel cosier’ for the smaller meetings as well as make more use of the venue on non-race days.

Changing Business

“The business at The Curragh has changed dramatically,” he said. “When I started here 13 years ago there was greater emphasis on admissions revenue and then through the good times there was a very lucrative market in corporate hospitality, but that market died away and it’s been a challenge to keep our numbers up in that regard.”

Attendances were up 6% in 2015, but The Curragh offered big discounts on admissions including a half price offer for Irish Champions Weekend – the most prestigious event in the Irish flat season after the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby.

“The important thing is to keep an atmosphere at a racecourse,” he added. “It’s like running a restaurant. No matter how good the food is, if you’re sitting there on your own it’s not going to be much fun.

“Furthermore, there is nothing worse than any empty racecourse particularly for the sponsors. They want to see people enjoying themselves when they are bringing clients to The Curragh. The trick is to try and do it and correct your revenues at the same time.” The boom in media rights and sale of live pictures in recent years has allowed Hensey more room to manoeuvre in that respect.

He is encouraged by the experiences of other racecourses such as York, Aintree, Doncaster and Ascot, where new facilities have helped to attract new audiences.

“First and foremost I think there will be novelty factor,” he said. “We’ve tried to design a complex that will allow us to grow as a business. Our current facilities would be difficult to sell for functions such as conferences or weddings. We’re up against it with modern hotels in the locality, but a brand new grandstand will make us more competitive.

“But the biggest challenge for racing in Ireland is attendances and to keep people coming back. If you look at the UK you’ve got 60 tracks but then you’ve got 60 million people.

Here we’ve got 26 tracks and four million people.” While events at The Curragh have been welcomed throughout the sport though, the same cannot be said for Longchamp.

Much like its Irish counterpart, Longchamp was in desperate need of a major facelift.It was a mish-mash of different buildings and, just like The Curragh, the main stand was built back in the 1960s. Plans were initially unveiled in 2011 but only got the go-ahead in August after it was also agreed that another, as yet unnamed, Parisian course will close.

The Prix de L’Arc Triomphe continues to attract crowds in the region of 50,000, but it not uncommon for other race-day attendances to barely reach four figures. To use Hensey’s analogy, on those days it feels like a restaurant with more waiters than diners.

The critics have said the new design looks ‘too corporate’ and question the cost. Would renovating the existing facilities have been a more sensible option?

But French racing’s governing body, France Galop, decided something radical was required.

Jean-Christophe Giletta, France Galop’s director of communications, marketing and development, was previously the head of events at the Stade de France.

“Longchamp was the largest racecourse in the world,” Giletta said. “Racing has slipped off the public radar, to the benefit of other weekend trips and pastimes – cinema, amusement parks and markets. He added that the sport has become “less and less attractive, hard to understand and the preserve of insiders.”

Giletta wants to change perceptions of racing, make it more inclusive and, of course, attract new faces to Longchamp.

He sees Ascot as the model for a modern racecourse and, like the Berkshire track, the redevelopment will be able to accommodate conferences, seminars and social events. Longchamp will also stage the equestrian events should Paris win the bid to stage the 2024 Olympic Games.

“We will also organise guided tours, perhaps a museum, to raise interest about this place like there has been for the Stade de France,” Giletta added.

No longer will a major venue located just 5km from the Eiffel Tower only be open for business 30 days per year. With revamp plans finally coming to fruition, Longchamp and The Curragh will be betting on the hope that the best things come to those who wait.

Fact File

The Curragh, County Kildare, Ireland

  • Capacity: 30,000
  • Number of race days: 18
  • Major events: Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby Weekend, Irish Champions Weekend Sunday
  • Architect: Grimshaw in association with NMA – other sports projects including Wimbledon Tennis masterplan and The Grand Stand at Lord’s
  • Completion date: Summer 2018 (subject to planning permission). Racing will continue to be held at The Curragh during this period with temporary stands being erected.
  • Features: New grandstand, Irish Racing museum, new jockeys’ weighing room, conference facilities, food hall, sports bar and adjustable racecourse capacity

Hippodrome De Longchamp, Bois De Boulogne, Paris, France

  • Capacity: 50,000
  • Number of race days: 30
  • Major events: Qatar Prix de L’Arc deTriomphe, Grand Prix de Paris
  • Architect: Dominique Perrault – other sports projects include Berlin Velodrome and Olympic Tennis Centre in Madrid
  • Completion date: September 2017. No racing will be staged until that date. The 2016 Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe will be held at Chantilly.
  • Features: New grandstand, 57 individual boxes, 17 larger executive boxes, spaces for seminars, conferences and cultural events, 360-degree vision overlooking the parade ring and the racetrack on every floor, adjustable capacity and increased efficiency through use of renewable energy, geothermal heat pumps and solar panels.

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