Thursday, February 2, 2012

Looking forward at Leopardstown
By Stephen Dwyer

January is an important month at Leopardstown.

It is a time for looking back and a time for looking forward. Indeed the very of month of January is named after Janus, a Roman God depicted with two faces. One face looked to the past, the other to the future. Pat Keogh, the new CEO of Leopardstown racecourse is a man who understands the value of getting this balancing act just right.

Pat Keogh grew up in Rathfarnham and Leopardstown was his local track. The connection to horse racing was formed at an early age when Pat’s father brought him to Leopardstown. As a young boy, his family were avid racegoers and this instilled a love for the sport . Recalling these times brings back many fond memories and he has seen first-hand the changes at Leopardstown over the past forty years. Educated by the Christian Brothers at Synge Street in Dublin, Pat joined AIB bank in 1974. A stellar career would follow. He worked in all divisions of AIB before heading the bank's treasury operations in both London and New York. A twenty five year tenure within the bank saw him travel the world before being appointed as Director of Corporate Banking.

The changes rang in 1999 when Coolmore Stud were recruiting for a Finance Director. He joined the team in Tipperary and remained there for almost 8 years. Looking back at his time there Pat recalls “what Coolmore have achieved is fantastic, their success is wonderful to see and this is true of so many bloodstock and horse racing entities in Ireland where we are truly world leaders”. Aside from a sharp financial mind, Pat’s Barton Bloodstock showed considerable breeding acumen in partnership with the Villiers syndicate. Some years ago they purchased an unraced Sure Blade mare who was out of Moyglare winner Flamenco Wave. The mare was Leaping Water and her last foal was European champion two year old, multiple Group 1 winner and last year's Breeder's Cup Turf winner, St Nicholas Abbey. Due to changing family circumstances Keogh returned to Dublin in 2007 when he joined the Cosgrave Property Group. He stayed there for four years until last September before formally taking up office on October 1st as the new Leopardstown CEO.

Taking over the reins from Tom Burke as the man in charge of Leopardstown is no easy task. At the time of his retirement, Tom Burke had worked within the horse racing industry for 42 years and was with Leopardstown since 1986. Brian Kavanagh, CEO of HRI publicly noted that Tom “will be greatly missed and a very hard act to follow”.

Taking charge of Leopardstown may be Pat Keogh’s biggest challenge to date. As the only racecourse in Dublin it attracts around 140,000 racegoers each year. It is a Grade 1 track and the logistics of running 23 meeting a year, amounting to some 163 races, takes careful planning. Aside from the racing, the facilities at Leopardstown include a state of the art driving range and a GUI affiliated golf course upon which 35,000 rounds of golf were played last year. The market is difficult at present and the sport and entertainment business areas are notoriously competitive. Pat Keogh however sees these challenges as opportunities and one of his first goals is to bring more people inside his doors. “We have a significant catchment area both in Dublin and nationally and many people have never gone racing. For us it’s a case of opening their minds and showing what racing has to offer”.

Leopardstown has an definite advantage in its location, just six miles from the nation’s capital. By contrast, Kempton contract is sixteen miles away from London city centre. About 1.5 million of Ireland’s population live within commuting distance of Leopardstown, an audience Pat intends on tapping into. With such a potential market on their doorstep, a strategic plan has been set in place at Leopardstown to attract new racegoers. The potential is there, the Christmas Festival drew crowds of 55,000; the most on a single day topping 16,500 was the highest in many years. Notably this is not far from attendances at the King George meeting in Kempton such was the quality of fare on offer. Sometimes though, the racing is not enough.

Aside from the championship meetings of Christmas and the Hennessy, Leopardstown will hold a Students Day for the first time on the 28th of March. This is an initiative to attract racing societies from third level institutions and echoes similar success stories at Limerick and Sligo. Children will take centre stage also as two family days are scheduled for later in the year in April and May. Pat believes these will be a success; “people want to be entertained as families, we have to have a better offering on all days so it’s more conducive for families to come. We are bringing in activities for children who are the future of our sport to ensure their first experience at Leopardstown is a good one” Catering for a diverse audience is also crucial. The successful summer evening meetings drew an average of 5,000 each last year and are a success story all of their own. Pat agreed; “we believe that the Bulmers Live series is now like a mini music festival, it attracts the younger people in Dublin with its music, food and craic and with an increase in attendance we are confident it’s going the right way”.

There is a significant annual spend on attracting racegoers to Leopardstown, to Pat this is an investment. The figures reveal themselves, €22 million spent on betting and prize money exceeding €6.5 million. Leopardstown is also the first racecourse in Ireland to announce development plans for 2012/2013. €5 million will be spent upgrading and installing new facilities and there will be an additional spend of €2 million on other improvements.

This revenue will be supported by Horse Racing Ireland’s racecourse development fund. A new weigh room is planned along with a retail and children’s area. A new permanent structure to replace the marquee is similar in concept to the Centaur event centre at Cheltenham racecourse. Pat acknowledged the contribution from the industry “HRI’s racecourse development fund, enables racecourse to develop facilities, improve our offering and ultimately improves the whole industry. We’ve been improving the facilities such as the new food and tote hall but now it’s time to make a big leap forward which we intend on doing over the next two years”. Racing is core to Leopardstown, it always will be.

What is planned for the development there are structures that will enhance the racegoers experience. As Pat admits; “The more people have to do at the races the better. We plan to build a permanent structure, a spine that can be reshaped to fit our needs. For example it will allow us to hold a fashion show at Hennessy day or music nights during the summer. It will allow us the flexibility to cater for different race days and events”. The team in Leopardstown take a holistic view of their business. They notice how the Galway festival keeps improving and evolving each year. They also notice what Leinster rugby have achieved, a lot of people without prior knowledge of rugby attend matches for the atmosphere.

Events like these gather their own inertia but still require monumental planning. The same is true of weekends like the Christmas Festival and the January Jumps weekend. “Over Christmas we worked very hard and the team tried a few things like the festival marquee that went down a treat. With the focus now on the January Jumps, we are looking forward with great anticipation to a top class weekend of racing” admitted Pat.

As with any organisation, you cannot achieve results without the backing of your team. Pat holds a Master’s degree in Management from Trinity College Dublin and is quick to praise the staff at Leopardstown. “We are very fortunate to have Willie Gibbons as course manager. Everyone speaks very highly of the condition of the course. On the commercial side Ciaran Conroy works with our sponsors. Jane Davis has recently left to manage Tipperary Racecourse which is a big gain for them but Nessa Joyce has come back to us as racing and operations manager. We have a good team who will harness opportunities”.

From his commercial background, Pat understand economies of scale and how to plan and execute complex projects. He is the ideal match for a position that involves time, dedication and the capacity to think ahead. Leopardstown is also quick to embrace technology.

With a large following on Twitter and Facebook Pat notes; “technology is a great way of getting your message out but you have to keep up on top of your game, if people have a bad experience, they will let it be known. We are fortunate with racing that it is so strong at the moment we have a great product to sell.” In addition to serving as CEO of Leopardstown, Pat on the advisory committee for the Tote. He is on the board of the Ronald McDonald House in Crumlin Children’s Hospital, an involvement he admits he gets a lot more from than he puts in. With the crucial first 100 days in office now behind him , Pat Keogh and his team are looking forward to the future at Leopardstown.

I believe it will go from strength to strength.

Copyright - The Irish Field - January 2012.

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