One of the biggest racetracks in the country, Leopardstown, is not far from where I live and racing on St. Stephen's Day (Dec 26) is one of the biggest days of the year on the sport's calendar. I'm not a big fan of horseracing, but I've always assumed St. Stephen's Day racing is a big deal given all the media coverage Leopardstown attracts on the 26th.
However, a report in today's Irish Independent has me wondering about things: Is the Stephen's Day festival that big? Is horse racing as popular here as I've always thought?
Why am I asking such questions you ask? Well, the Independent says the attendance at the racecourse on Saturday was 14,605, down by 1,400 over last year. So 16,000 attended the year before and, I'm guessing, that is about normal for Stephen's Day.
Like I said, I'm not a big fan of the sport, but when I was younger I used to go to Saratoga, which is near where I grew up. And on a big day at Saratoga the crowd would be a lot closer to 50,000 than 15,000. Yes, it's winter here and yes Saratoga is only on during the summer, but still.
If horse racing as a sport is as big as the media coverage would indicate I would've expected a much bigger crowd at Leopardstown on St. Stephen's Day. A million people live in this city and although it was cold, it was dry. The Leinster vs Ulster rugby game on the same day - a relatively minor affair based on media coverage - attracted a bigger crowd.
Irish people love gambling; there's no argument on that. Horseracing and gambling are closely entwined and it can be difficult to separate the fans of the sport from those who simply like betting, but the small crowd on Saturday tells me that gambling and not the racing is the real attraction.
Real fans would like to see the action live, no? 18,000 rugby fans could have watched Saturday night's game on t.v. but opted to put up with low temperatures to experience the game in person. If horseracing were truly a widely popular sport then a big event like the St. Stephen's Day meet would attract a much bigger crowd than that which turned up for the rugby game. It didn't, but I assume the bookies - all legal here - don't care.