Dealing with horse racing amid a global pandemic presents its own unique set of problems for the boss of a racecourse.
Newry-born Emma Meehan took over the reins at Down Royal in 2019. But after little over a year of trading, bringing back a name and a business with a strong legacy, Covid-19 slowed progress down a walk.
Emma was recruited from a 14-year stint with Dundalk Stadium, taking over from the Down Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders, which had long been associated with the track.
“I employ people because of their skillsets,” Emma says. “A lot of decisions had to be reactionary. The team didn’t know each other when they arrived here. We were like a family by the end of the year.
“PR was needed to convince people that we meant business. There was a big push through that year and we did that successfully. You have to play the long game and take a lot on the chin. We are confident of the longevity of business. People seem to like the new way of doing things at Down Royal.”
Her first stint in racing began at Dundalk Stadium, following her degree and post-graduate study at Queen’s and Ulster University. That’s where she spent 14 years of her career, following a time working as a marketing manager in telecoms.
“It was greyhounds and the bones of a business plan. I came on to assist that. The track was built and a stadium developed.
“I’m not necessarily a horse person but I love the industry. It’s very hard to replicate that sector. Then, this opportunity presented itself. I was ready for the next step. It was challenging taking over Down Royal – I inherited nothing.
“It was shocking. They were difficult circumstances and there had been negative headlines. I took over in 2019. We really only had 14 months of trading before Covid hit. It was a stressful first tenure, taking over and having to hire a new fleet of staff.
Emma says the business enjoyed “tremendous success” in its first year, with turnover growing. “We did extremely well from a standing start… we had massive aspirations for 2020. Then Covid hit.”
The first hit came in March when it called off a race meeting, prior to significant subsequent government guidelines coming into effect.
“We got ahead of the curve. We had 3,500 people due to descend, so we were grateful for that foresight.
“Then everyone went on furlough and I continued to operate the business in terms of accounts, from home. My head groundsman worked heroically.
“We have been gravely impacted. We are operating at a loss, which is not tenable, long term. We were happy to stand united with Horse Racing Ireland – operating at the highest level of restrictions.
“Down Royal has capacity for more than 10,000 people. We need to get ahead of it. The forecast for ‘behind closed doors’ racing is frightening without hospitality.
“We haven’t receive a penny. I am fighting hard to make sure the Department for Communities doesn’t forget Down Royal and Downpatrick Racecourse.
“We have media rights which is keeping the show on the road. We garner income from streaming on the day.”
In terms of what impact not welcoming visitors through the doors and enjoying the hospitality on offer is having, Emma says it brought in around £500,000 in hospitality in 2019 alone, with a further £220,000 through ticket sales.
“Carrying forward, it is paramount to communicate to staff. It has been important to keep staff abreast of where we are. Our affordability and what our plans are.
“The jobs are here, and they will remain here, and they haven’t seen any real financial impact – making sure they have been topped up throughout this. That’s an important part of my commitment to them. This wasn’t anyone’s fault.”