Fairyhouse General Manager Peter Roe in front of the empty stands at Monday’s Irish Grand National meeting. Photo: GERRY SHANAHAN/WWW.QUIRKE.IE

Roe hoping for brighter days ahead

FAIRYHOUSE Empty stands contribute to difficult times

It would be understandable if Peter Roe, the General Manager of Fairyhouse Racecourse, felt a great wave of relief wash over him when the Easter Festival of racing ended on Monday. Relief that this year's racing - with the famous Irish Grand National at centrestage - was finally over.

The great race - won so impressively by rank outsider Freewheelin' Dylan - has been taking place at Fairyhouse since 1870 but the only other time, certainly in living memory, that came close to resembling this year was in 2001 when the foot-and-mouth crisis hit. The Irish Grand National didn't take place until May that year - but it did take place and in front of the customary huge crowds with Davids Lad, trained by Tony Martin, romping to victory.

Normally around 25,000 would make their way to Fairyhouse over the Easter weekend with the racing, and all that went with it, generating in the region of €40 million for the local economy. This year, with the Covid crisis, that all fell by the wayside.

The stands were empty as were the bars and dining areas with the realities of the pandemic leaving Roe and his staff with plenty of new challenges to overcome - and right up there was ensuring all the Covid restrictions were complied with. There were other features of the weekend Roe found hard to grapple with.

"I wasn't allowed to have any sponsors, there was nobody here from BoyleSports or any of my individual sponsors and that was hard. I had no corporate guests, no fundraisers, no nothing and that's a very unusual way for us here but that's the way it had to be," he said.

"We had about 350 people involved which was the absolute minimum we needed to make the fixture work. There was about 80 people working with me in terms of looking after the track and then there was the jockeys, grooms, trainers."

Describing himself as "a Tipperary man through and through" this is Roe's 11th year as Fairyhouse Racecourse manager. He has grappled with numerous issues over the course of that time but this was different.

Someone who loves to meet and chat with people, Roe found it hard not to be greeting old friends from the racing and business worlds, especially on Monday when one of the great events in Irish sport was held - the great Grand National itself. "I just find it so frustrating not being able to meet people," he added.

While they got this year's racing completed - unlike last year when no National was run - Roe just can't help thinking what the racing landscape is going to be like when some kind of normality is restored.

"We've lost two Easters now due to Covid, last year we didn't stage at all, this year we staged without the people. A lot of things about the Easter meeting is tradition and for many people part of that tradition is going to Fairyhouse. It's going to be very hard to get them back again."

Roe was reluctant to say just how much Fairyhouse will lose by staging this year's festival, partly because it is a figure difficult to be exact about because of the new realities.

"A lot of our incomes now depend on streaming rights, the number of people tuning in to watch on their laptops, and we won't get that detail until post the event. Our costs are down, but our revenue is down a lot too. It's just a case of trying to balance the books like every other business in Ireland.

"We've managed our costs with great support from our sponsors and Horse Racing Ireland. We'll get to the other side, but it will be very different when we come back. Maybe there will be less people around, but there will be major changes."

Despite all the challenges - the new realities that go with the new normal - Roe remains an optimist at heart.

"We have to look on the positive side, we've had a horrendous 12 months, but at least we are operating. There was no-one at the races, that was sad, but it's a minimal price to pay. Our next major festival is in November, December and I do hope we'll be back to normal by then."

Peter Roe is sustained by the thought of that hope becoming a reality.

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