In this week’s Association of Irish Racecourses (AIR) column we spoke to AIR Chairman and Punchestown CEO, Conor O’Neill as he briefly reflects on the Covid-19 pandemic in the world of racing now that it’s very much a case of back to business at Irish Racecourses.
The Chairman began with “It’s been a very long and tough road to get to where we are today and I would like to wholeheartedly thank our members who have been exemplary in keeping it all together during the many hurdles that we’ve all had to overcome over the last two years.
“They, and indeed the industry as a whole, should be so proud of themselves for safely keeping the show on the road and continuously repurposing facilities in order to do so. While that has been a costly exercise for racecourses nationwide, it was crucial to protect and support the many livelihoods which are dependent on racing taking place.
“On behalf of AIR, I would also like to thank all the stakeholders in the industry for their patience, co-operation and support of our members’ racecourses during this time. I particularly want to acknowledge the owners who despite not being able to attend racecourses continued to keep their horses in training and support the industry. This was vital to ensure racing continued.
“I would also like to thank the racing public for your continued support and patience during what seemed like ever-changing restrictions. I’m sure was frustrating at times, but also necessary to keep everyone safe and it’s most appreciated indeed.
“I’m thrilled that restrictions in our industry have been removed for the most part and we can all go back to enjoying many great days of racing as we welcome everyone back to each of the 26 courses throughout the country – finally!”
“It’s almost two years ago since I doubled back from Dublin Airport and missed what was to be the last chance for a trip to Cheltenham for some time. Most of the Punchestown team were in Cheltenham already but I had that gut feeling nagging at me. Things were evolving quickly and I suspected that if there was going to be isolation and complications for my team when they returned, the rest of us would have to step up and fill the gaps and I had to lead by example.
“To be honest, I also wondered if I was being a bit over-the-top and a bit sorry to be missing what is always a very important week for both Irish Racing and Punchestown as I made a U-turn and waited for events to unfold.
“Fast forward a few days and my team were isolating, working remotely and we were arranging contingency plan after contingency plan for the Punchestown Festival, not knowing what was ahead of us all. Little did I know that more project management would be required to turn our facilities into one of the largest Covid-19 testing and vaccination centres in the country and that we wouldn’t race again until September of that year.”
“The role of AIR Chairman is a busy one. I knew that coming into the position, although I didn’t envisage a pandemic! I must commend our CEO Paddy Walsh and the board of AIR for the hard work that went on behind the scenes as we navigated our way through the uncertainty and the challenges with which we were faced.”
“It’s strange to speak of it all in the past tense just a week after the announcement that nearly all restrictions are lifting and we could get back to normal but thankfully, here we are. I’m sure like many of my peers in racecourse management, at first, it was hard to even remember what a normal race day, meeting or AGM was like before restrictions due to the intensity of the past 22 months.
“I’m certainly very excited about getting back to normality once again and the Punchestown Festival can’t come quick enough. It is often said around here that it is the people that make Punchestown and recent times have really proved that more than ever.”
By Leo Powell