Conor O'Neill, CEO at Punchestown Racecourse. Photo: Aishling Conway
Talk about a baptism of fire. Back in 2019, Conor O'Neill took up the reins at Punchestown from Dick O'Sullivan, the man who brought Punchestown from the brink to what it had been pre-covid.
Not to be missed.
Having enjoyed his first year at the helm, Conor was all set to build on that come 2021, until covid hit.
And while the Festival returned in 2021, it was held behind closed doors.
And as Conor readily admits, down through the years it has been the people who made Punchestown what it is, and holding it behind closed doors, while better than not having it at all, still came a long distance second to what Punchestown is all about.
Conor recounts the days and weeks prior to 2020 as he, and some of his team were heading to the annual Cheltenham Festival, on their usual promotional campaign.
“Cheltenham Week in 2020 is a week I don't think anyone in racing will ever forget; Cheltenham is a very important week for us at Punchestown as we send a team across in both November and March and I remember that day only well the Monday before the Festival – we had a Trade Show in the Event Centre here and the CEO of the Trade Show rang me to say he was canceling it and at that stage I was somewhat taken aback but that was the decision he made.
“I had a meeting in Dublin that day with Janet Creighton our Sponsorship Manager; we were on our way to Cheltenham, along with Shona (Dreaper), Hilary (Cahill) who were already over there; we had a Trade Show set up, I got as far as the check-in desk, put my bag on the carousel, looked behind and Janet was as white as a ghost.
I said to Janet, 'Janet you're not too sure about this' and she said 'no'.
"Janet got a taxi home; I continued on my way to Cheltenham but had made up my mind at that stage it was a case of a day or two at Cheltenham or 14 days at home in Punchestown, we obviously had still been intending to run our Festival that year but I made a decision on the flight over that I wasn't going to go racing, I was going to come back the following the morning.”
“I met the girls that night and while we left a few over there; it was a dilemma as we had to have a presence in Cheltenham because if not, that would signal the end and really if we weren't willing to go over there, well how did we expect to attract them over to Ireland a few weeks later but little did we know then it would be 2022 before we would have a Punchestown Festival that we have known.”
Conor admits that while 2020 was cancelled and 2021 was held behind closed doors.
"One thing that really came home to roost last year when we knew we were going to have a Festival with no one in attendance but that said it was fantastic to be able to have a Festival and hopefully people enjoyed it from the comfort of their own homes but the atmosphere around it last year, no matter how much you build yourself up, I remember the team leaving here on the Tuesday evening and we were literally trying to pick them up off the ground.
“We had a clash on the opening day with Envoi Allen and Monkfish, a massive clash between two superstars but it was like it was just two horses schooling around Punchestown, that was how it felt.”
As a business model Punchestown is quite unique.
There are very few businesses that get 80-90 per cent of their annual turnover all packed into one week but it must have been an extremely worrying time for all concerned with no Punchestown at all?
“As I say when I was in the car coming back from Cheltenham in 2020 on the Tuesday morning, the very first phone call I made that morning was to my bank manager, set up a meeting the following day.
“If you had said to me we are not going to have a Festival I would have said we are very much going to struggle but I suppose we were very fortunate, both from an industry perspective, a racing perspective whereby we couldn't welcome people through the gates we still managed to continue racing and we certainly could not take anything for granted when kids could not go to school we were still racing and while it is not the same it still gave us, from a media rights perspective and income perspective, helped us to keep people in jobs, remember the racing industry keeps 30,000 people in employment so from an industry point of view that was very important also.”
The CEO admits it was tough, as some very tough decisions had to be made during that period with significant redundancies but as Conor admits “we had to protect the business but I must say in fairness, and it is a testament to Punchestown and indeed to the support and the loyalty from our support base was phenomenal; the majority of our corporate customers who were booked in for that Festival all left their money on account, 'when you are back we will be back' they said while the same can be said of all members, they have all stood with us and supported us; we rolled on their membership to this year and now ready to go again.”
"It was a great relief, a great boost when we were at our lowest," said the CEO, adding, "you must remember Punchestown is a 12-month project, every year, a hell of a lot of work goes into it and then the rug was pulled from under us but that gave us the foundation to build on and the signs are very positive for 2022 and indeed the team here are more determined than ever to come back with a bang; we are the first real big event in the country, I don't want to use the word post-covid as it is still a big factor, but essentially this is the first big event back in the country that is able to run at this moment in time and the team here take such great pride in it.
"We are very fortunate to have the team we have here and like that the team stuck with us.”
"Compared to this day back in 2019," adds Conor, "we are running between 60 and 65 per cent ahead of pre-bookings; sold out hospitality-wise, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, essentially only filling gaps on Tuesday and Saturday at this stage."
And despite what they have gone through over the past two years, Punchestown continue to plan for the future and have recently been given permission to extend the track, the straight to be widened by some 35m while a new 1 mile track (with just one bend) is also in the plans “while also safeguarding our ability from a watering point of view; delivering the optimum ground conditions right throughout the year is fundamental from both a welfare perspective and also from attracting the very best horses, that is absolutely fundamental, it is very much on track and we will be commencing that work once this year's Festival is over.”
During the pandemic Punchestown linked up with the HSE and provided facilities for both testing and vaccination and that will continue during the Festival as Conor explains.
“The HSE have been on site since August 2020 and continue to be site, both for testing and vaccination facilities. And testing will remain in situ in the Event Centre; that will not be affected.
“The Covid 19 vaccinations which currently takes place in the Pavilion, which is one of our corporate facilities which we need as we continue to build the business back up, and we are constructing a temporary facility at the rear of the Event Centre to accommodate the vaccination for the HSE, we are very mindful of the fact that covid has not gone away and we appreciate as a country getting back to some sort of normality and we want to continue to play our part in that and as a result we are ensuring facilities remain in place right throughout the Festival.”
Sponsorship has always played a huge part in the success of the Festival and 2022 is no different with every race again fully sponsored; title sponsors include William Hill on the Tuesday; Ladbrokes on the Wednesday and Thursday; Paddy Power on Friday and Ballymore on the Saturday, and in a major boost for the home of National Hunt racing, last year all the titled sponsored renewed three year deals.
No less than 12 Grade 1s again this year and with prize money in the region of €3.25 million, no doubt not just the top home horses will be running but a fair sprinkling of overseas entires are expected again this time around.
It is something (overseas runners) that Conor O'Neill says is very important to the success of the festival.
“Last year Paul Nicholls trained the winner of Punchestown Gold Cup and I think that was very important for racing and indeed very important for Punchestown. This year was a bit more balanced in the Cotswolds between the Irish and the English as regards winners and that will help to attract them back over again.
“Interest very strong from the UK and remember the strike-rate of horses coming over the sea is very high, on average we have 50ish and I would be confident that will continue and increase which is very important from our point of view; it is all part and parcel of the Festival.”
Fashion plays a big part of the Punchestown Festival and this year that is set to continue; Ladies Day is on Friday with the build-up to that throughout the week.
One race that has been missed out over the past two years is the Charity Race in aid of Irish Kidney Research, a race that has raised thousands over the years through the hard work and dedication of Kilcullen's best know and much appreciated butcher James Nolan.
Conor O'Neill admits that this year he has a special interest in this race, the last race of the festival as one of their 'own' will be participating.
“I am going to be a bit bias this year when I am looking at it, we have one of our girls in the office taking part this year, Leona Hughes, so looking forward to cheering her home.”
Into Kildare have come on board as partners with Paint The Town Red, promotion in Naas, which is very much an integral part of Punchestown in terms of attracting visitors, not just from Ireland but with some 25,000 visitors from the UK and it is the experience they enjoy throughout, apart from the racing, but it is a fantastic boost to the local economy.
There is a noticeable increase in enquiries regards to accommodation, insists the CEO, and with Punchestown linking up with various hotels in the area in this regard it should bring a much-needed boost to the hospitality which has suffered more than most over the past two years or so.
So all in all a great week to look forward to.
A week of sheer magic.
And hopefully a bit of sunshine.
Hardly too much to ask for after what we have all been through!
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