One of Horse Racing Ireland’s aims over the next five years is to grow racegoer numbers by 10%. One sure-fire way to achieve that would be to incentivise racetracks to let the public in for free, but that’s probably not a good business model.

However, free admission days are a growing phenomenon at Irish racecourses, often supported by a commercial sponsor or the on-course bookmakers, who are keen to see a good crowd there on the day.

Let’s do the maths: the average admission fee is €15 and a run-of-the-mill meeting might attract less than 1,000 paying customers. If you could double or treble that number by opening the gates, and if those people all bought food, drink and had a bet, then maybe everyone could be a winner. Of course, it helps when racecourses typically get €70,000 per raceday in media rights payments.

Free raceday

Naas Racecourse has been to the fore in the ‘free raceday stakes’. The progressive Co Kildare track always offers free admission for its August bank holiday meeting, which comes immediately after the Galway Races. In January, when Naas had to cancel its Grade 1 raceday due to fog, the meeting was rescheduled for five days later and everyone was admitted free. They did it again in mid-April when an ordinary jumps card had to be rescheduled due to heavy rain. The bookies backed that one for them.

Now Naas is offering the public another freebie this Sunday (19 May) for its Royal Ascot Trials Day. There is nobody sponsoring the gate, it’s a gesture to mark the racecourse’s ‘official’ 100th birthday. There’s even a prize on offer for racegoers who dress up in 1920s attire.

The racing should be pretty good too. There are two Group 3 races and two listed races, all sprints, and this meeting has actually delivered a fair few Royal Ascot winners in recent years. All they need now is a bit of good weather.

We asked Naas chairman Dermot Cantillon how the racecourse can afford to let punters in for nothing. “The business model has changed for racecourses,” he explains. “When I first got involved, many moons ago, entrance fees were the main source of income. But now media rights provide the vast majority of racecourse revenue and the gate receipts are way down the list.”

Value on the product

Cantillon says more racecourses should give it a try. “You can’t make it free every day - you have to place some value on your product - but this is a special occasion for Naas Racecourse. Some tracks have given free admission on ‘industry’ days or low-profile fixtures. But I’d love to see a track open the gates for a significant day’s racing. At Naas, we get a commission on the takings in the bars and restaurants, so If you get a big crowd the catering commission can offset what you lose in ticket sales.”

Fair play to Naas. Let’s hope they get nice weather next Sunday and are well-rewarded for their initiative.

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