As we move into the second month of 2014, many National Hunt trainers’ thoughts and attentions are already turning towards the Spring and its array of major festivals.
Cheltenham kicks-off the festival season while the end of April and beginning of May has become an essential date in the diary for the Punchestown Festival, which represents top class championship racing and a last chance to gain Grade 1 glory after a long season.
Of course Punchestown hosts many Grade 1 races during the course of the season and has become a destination for Irish and UK champions alike during the season, but the Festival brings together the atmosphere of Cheltenham and competition every bit as fierce.
This month we caught up with Shona Dreaper, Punchestown Racecourse’s Head of PR and Communications, to look behind the scenes at one of Ireland’s most historical and successful race tracks.
What is the history of Punchestown Racecourse?
In 1824 the first recorded race meeting was held at Punchestown and in 1850 the Kildare Hunt Club chose Punchestown as the permanent home for their annual meeting. In 1868 the first of many high profile visitors arrived at Punchestown racecourse when the Prince of Wales who would eventually become King Edward VII visited the track. This visit was monumental in the history of the racecourse and attracted a massive crowd of 150,000 people.
The racecourse also had a visit from the legendary Fred Astaire in 1939.
Brush fences made the appearance in Punchestown in 1960 and three years later a young Arkle arrived on the scene with a win in the John Jameson Cup. Since then on, the popularity of Punchestown racecourse has gone from strength to strength with the Festival increasing from two to five days. The Spring Punchestown Festival is the highlight of the calendar at Punchestown. The Punchestown Festival became a four day event in 1999 a year after the new complex was completed. In 2008 the Punchestown Festival became a five day event and is the highlight of the racing calendar for Irish jump racing.
Where is the course located?
The racecourse is around 42 kilometres south west from Dublin city centre and can be reached from Dublin International Airport in less than 40 minutes. Rosslare Port in Co. Wexford is 2 hour drive, Belfast Port is under 3 hours and Dublin Port less than an hour. The course is located with wonderful views of the Dublin/Wicklow mountains in the parish of Eadestown, Co. Kildare. The annual Festival spills over to the local towns and villages including Naas, Ballymore Eustace, Two Mile House and Kilcullen.
What are its statistics in terms of course length and number of fences/hurdles?
The festival circuit is approximately 2 miles. In a circuit horses would jump 8 hurdles and 10 fences. The cross country course meanders through the 400 acre site and covers around 4 miles and requires under 30 jumping efforts.
Have there been any major investments on the race track itself or the facilities over the past year? If so, what have these been, at what cost – and what benefits will these bring?
The most recent development at Punchestown was the opening of the new entrance gate in 2013. This major project involved removal and replanting of up to 1 kilometre of hedging, erecting new fencing and building a stone entrance in keep with estates and demesnes throughout the county. The project cost €150,000. It is an impressive and fitting entrance and clearly states you have arrived at a world class venue.
Are there any plans for development/investment during 2014?
We are always making improvements and enhancements to either the track or enclosure but given the current funding arrangement we do not envisage a major development this year.
What is the capacity for race goers at Punchestown?
On one of our Festival race days the capacity would usually be about 40,000 – 50,000 however in 1868 the Prince of Wales visit to Punchestown attracted a crowd of 150,000 people. Punchestown racecourse sits on a 400 acre site so the potential for crowd capacity is massive.
How accessible is the racecourse in terms of driving and public transport?
The racecourse is very centrally located with the M7 motorway just 1 mile away. The motorway network allows excellent access from all corners of the country. During the festival a full coach service is supplied from Dublin city centre. Sallins is the nearest train station and is located around 5 miles from track and a shuttle service is available. Naas town is located about a mile from the racecourse with the main bus services run on a circuit from the town’s main street.
Has the internet played an important role in helping to market the racecourse and attract new demographics?
Of course. Any business that has not seen massive benefits from the internet have not used it. The website attracts a massive number of visits allowing people to access and plan their trip thanks to the huge volume of information available. Social media is the fastest method of communication to a massive audience and at present we have around 38,000 followers. Traditionally the racing attendance would be male and aged 40 plus. Now the festival attracts 49% female attendance and each age demographic is represented almost equally.
Has the economic downturn impacted on attendances? What have you done to try to mitigate these effects?
Punchestown is the largest corporate sporting event in Ireland with more hospitality clients than the Ryder Cup had. The economic downturn almost halved this market. The midweek fixtures of the festival also suffered from the downturn. We spoke to our clients and asked them how we could make it easier to come to Punchestown. The result: tailored packages at a lower price point, later race start times to allow people to do a half day in work, early bird ticket promotions offering value, and reduced ticket prices. The numbers have sustained and increased. The UK market has remained at its peak of 20% of overall attendance. In 2013 the festival attendance broke the 100,000 for only the second time ever.
Similarly what impact has the economic downturn had on sponsorship – has this become harder to acquire, with fierce competition from other racecourses/sports?
Clearly companies don’t have the same budgets they used to and so the strong reputation that Punchestown has stood the test. There are other sports that have packaged their product better and may have a more mainstream appeal. The obvious major loses came in sponsorships held by developers, builders and banks but thankfully there hasn’t been a race without a sponsor at the Festival.
When do you start planning and marketing the Punchestown Festival?
The Punchestown Festival review a couple of weeks after the Festival is the natural start of the following years event. In earnest the campaign starts in October each year.
How has this grown in recent years?
In the last five years pre-booked tickets has grown massively. Direct mail and digital campaigns have been key to this success.
Are you able to increase capacity for the Festival?
Yes. We have a massive site and capacity.
Do you have any figures for the financial boost this has for the region?
In 2011 National University of Ireland in Maynooth carried out research and the 5 day National Hunt Festival alone generated €59 million for the local economy. That figure does not include non-festival fixtures or non-racing events hosted at Punchestown.
How important is it to attract some of the top British horses as well as Ireland’s finest?
It is key to the success and quality of the festival. We have 11 grade 1 races and attract the best of British and Irish racing talent. In recent years the Cheltenham Festival tally for the Irish team has rivalled and surpassed that of the host. It is fitting that those same horses should ‘play the away leg’ at Punchestown to cement reputations or overturn champions. The cross channel racing has become more popular as it is easier to ship horses. Infact it is sometimes easier for UK horses to reach Punchestown than the tracks at the opposite end of the UK! Our prize money is very good also and we like to show overseas connections and racegoers great Irish welcomes and hospitality.
Does your marketing targeting the British racegoer?
Yes. 20% of our Festival attendance is Britain based. There are only around 4 million people living in Ireland versus around 60 million in the UK. Racing is so popular in Britain it makes sense to visit the showcase of Irish jump racing. A huge Irish pilgrimage make their way to Cheltenham each year and many return the favour by travelling from Britain to Punchestown. There is super value on offer for flights, hotels, tickets and hospitality packages.
Looking ahead to 2014, how many race meetings will there be at Punchestown and do you have the dates please?
There will be 17 fixtures at Punchestown.
- Jan 11,
- Feb 2 & 19
- April 29th to May 3rd
- May 17
- June 4
- October 15 & 16, Wed 29
- November 15 & 16
- December 7 & 31
What do you feel are the main operational challenges you face on race days?
Small team, large overheads and a massive site to fill on non-festival days.
Does Punchestown Racecourse also market itself as a corporate venue for non-race days? Is this a growing revenue stream and what kind of events does Punchestown cater for?
We have an active trade show and corporate event market. Very popular for national shows given our good location, huge variety of venues and facilities and free parking for up to 70,000 cars.
How can people book tickets/become members and what benefits does this bring?
Great ticket promotions and offers are available on: www.punchestown.com/ticketing.asp
Membership offers amazing value with a reciprocal programme including over 35 UK fixtures and a further 26 Irish meetings. Perks like exclusive venues, reserved parking, free tickets, members receptions and more can be found on: www.punchestown.com/membership.asp