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Why Down Royal supremo Jim is always at the races

Nicholson insists he is primarily a fan but he can get 16,000 punters to visit Down Royal

Daragh Ó Conchúir

There is a notion that people who accomplish results tend to be doers rather than talkers. The Clint Eastwood type. Silent but effective. And you see it often.

Jim Nicholson isn't Clintesque though. There will be no lengthy silences with this man around. But Nicholson isn't a bore-the-pants-off-you waffler. Listen and you understand very quickly why he is a high achiever, whether it is in his business as a wine merchant, a racing administrator or a sponsor.

Pinpointing problems is easy. Identifying solutions and applying them more difficult. The way has flourished thanks to evolution and innovation over the past 37 years is testament to Nicholson's ability in this regard.

It is the same with Down Royal, where he has been chairman for the past 22 years. And for the Champion Chase, which Nicholson first sponsored on a one-off basis in 1999 because a patron couldn't be found.

Who knew then that the race would become the first Grade 1 contest of the national hunt season in Ireland? That it would become a regular home of Gold Cup winners past and present, from Looks Like Trouble to Kauto Star? That they would be targeting around 16,000 people coming through the gates over the two-day Festival of Racing this weekend?

How does this happen? Not by accident, that's for sure. Nicholson is quick to pinpoint the role of an overall team and teams within teams. At Down Royal, it's Mike Todd who is the racecourse manager but then there are the ground staff, the administrative staff and so on.

What is easy to imagine, though, is Nicholson bouncing into a room and infusing everyone with such positivity that they go out and do their jobs to the best of their ability. They believe in the project; are invested in it. Enthusiasm seeps out of every pore of the man as he surveys the field for the Champion Chase.

"The entries are fantastic, a who's who of top chasers," he says and three Gold Cup aspirants (On His Own, Boston Bob, First Lieutenant) have stood their ground.

Nicky Henderson and perennial supporter Paul Nicholls - the most successful trainer with four wins - both have runners.

There is a clear sense of satisfaction that the festival and the race have built in stature. The Champion Chase was a Grade 1 contest by 2002 and the competitiveness has always reflected its status. There are many memories but two stand out for Nicholson.

"I think when Willie Mullins brought Florida Pearl up the first year. It was very important to get it off to a tremendous start and having him up to win the race was nearly establishing the race immediately. Then he came up the second time.

"Don't forget, I'm primarily a fan and I think a lot of people who sponsor races and are on committees of racecourses, they're there primarily because they're a fan.

"I remember going down to the stable yard for the first time, going down to see Kauto Star when he was stabled overnight. The hairs would be rising in the top of your head, just seeing this superstar standing in front of you. I think that was the tops for me to think 'We've brought this thing so far and there's the Gold Cup winner in front of me'."

Down Royal has always aspired to have this calibre of festival, which now includes a strong support programme of Grade 2 and Grade 3 contests, as well as some valuable handicaps. They intend to build their summer festival too and have upped the prize-money for races like Her Majesty's Plate.

The improvements are gradual, continuous and across the whole spectrum. A €5m development programme is now concluded.

"One of the keys is we spent a lot of money on the track over the last 12 months. We've had a whole programme, with maximum effort going into making sure our track, which we think is a pretty tremendous track, being improved all the time. And the rain we've had over the last couple of weeks has really helped us.

"I walked the track last Sunday and it felt like a billiard table under my feet. It felt perfectly smooth and now there's a nice ease in it."

Nicholson once chaired a strategic marketing group on attendances at Irish racecourses but he considers such committees a waste of time, because the answers appear obvious to him. See Exhibit A: the new public bar that is the final piece of the Down Royal development.

"That's going to make enormously more welcoming facilities for the general customer and I think that's what all racetracks need. The general punter has to be much more catered for. He has to have more luxurious surroundings.

"If you're going in for a pint of beer and something to eat, you're entitled to go into a nice room that's the equivalent of any good hotel. That's where we're going to get racing crowds back again. We're not going to get them with one-off gimmicks. Quality facilities, decent food… I say if I can't go and eat a hamburger, why should we be selling it to someone else?

"The service, the way people look after you. The way you're treated at the entrance. I always think if you can put a smile on people's faces coming in, it makes it a bit easier if they lose a few bob.

"There's a band. A bit of humour, a bit of life, a bit of vitality. It's not terribly hard. You don't actually need a team of marketeers and strategists to tell you what to do. It's all dead simple stuff… If you're supplying mediocre facilities, poor food, you won't get any people coming racing."

The Nicholson template is that there should be one improvement from one meeting to the next, even if it is just the addition of a flower pot somewhere to improve the aesthetics. He praises the progress made at Leopardstown, Galway and Dundalk and is effusive about the work done by Richard Little and his crew at Downpatrick. With the recent welcome increased funding of racing, he is hopeful that the much-needed Curragh development will begin shortly. Such improvements should set off light bulbs in the minds of other racecourse managers too, he hopes.

It is interesting to hear the Nicholson take on the support given to Irish racing by the Republic government.

"I think the Irish government always understood the importance of racing, they were just strapped for cash. The north is an example of people that don't understand racing. We have 4,000 people employed in the industry in the north but our politicians certainly don't buy in.

"I'm very envious when I look at the support their Ministers give to racing. They understand the employment, they understand the bloodstock sale side - there's nowhere else in the world that grows horses like Ireland.

"We're at the opposite end of the spectrum in Northern Ireland where we really have to fight with government. There's no funding at all. A very small amount comes through the bookmakers' side. We've been lobbying for 14 months - we've a mandatory coalition so we've met every political persuasion."

The administrators need to get their act together when it comes to what he argues is boring, stale fixture-planning. Moving big races to later on a Saturday has paid off for the likes of the Irish Derby and Punchestown festival because you have to race when people are available. So putting Down Royal's big weekend on Hallowe'en is "anything but helpful". But the tracks need to do their part too.

"Hallowe'en is an enormous draw for people. You've people going away, cheap flights for people. Michael O'Leary can take you anywhere for very little money. You're competing with those kinds of things.

"They sit down and do the fixture list and it is boring and dull and needs enormous innovation. It's just the same old, same old, every year and everybody is worried about clashing with someone else, whereas in actual fact they are going to attract customers.

"I know there's a Listed programme, Group programme and clearly there can't be that many clashes, but I think we've reached a point where we're going to have to look quite seriously at the way we construct our fixture list because it's just 'same time next year'. Nothing changes.

"It needs more innovation in terms of how you launch the season. If I had my choice, I'd be launching the national hunt season with Friday, Saturday at Down Royal and I would put Navan in on a Sunday and try to make it a championship national hunt weekend launch.

"I think it could work and you could talk to people like Paul Nicholls and Nicky Henderson and say 'Look, we've got three days here'. We have a fabulous programme. Why can't we kick on to Sunday. People who are going to Down Royal on Saturday could avail of a weekend ticket to go racing on Sunday. There's all sorts of things you could do." Stay tuned.

Daragh Ó Conchúir writes for The Irish Field racing newspaper

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