Pat Smullen named ambassador in campaign to promote Irish Champions Weekend

Steps to reinvigorate the momentum behind Longines Irish Champions Weekend have begun with the appointment of Pat Smullen in an ambassadorial role.

A recent Horse Racing Ireland-instigated think tank sought to generate ideas by which to improve the two-day event’s profile.

Since its inception in 2014, ICW has struggled to grow attendance figures and has failed to capture the imagination of the broader sports media.

Various concepts are being discussed following last week's forum, but the appointment of Smullen, whose recovery from pancreatic cancer has resonated beyond racing’s confines, is the first action to materialise.

It is hoped the presence of the nine-time champion jockey, who retired last month, as the face of Irish Champions Weekend will generate added interest.

Crucially, the benefit will be mutual as there will also be fund-raising activities implemented over the two days in aid of the fight against pancreatic cancer, which remains one of the most resolute forms of the illness.

“Plans are very much in their infancy but it’s something that will help a cause very close to my heart and hopefully also raise the profile of Irish Champions Weekend,” Smullen said on Friday.

“After going through what I have over the last year and a half, this is something that I’ve wanted to do. 

“I want to give back to the great people who looked after me, but also raise awareness of and funding for pancreatic cancer. That’s important to me personally, and Irish Champions Weekend has been a great addition for Irish Flat racing and I want to see it keep pushing forward and being promoted. It is all quite exciting.”

Brian Kavanagh, chief executive of HRI, said: “Pat Smullen is the perfect fit for Longines Irish Champions Weekend being a nine-time champion jockey in Ireland. We are very excited that he has come on board as the Longines Irish Champions Weekend ambassador and we will all be working hard to make the weekend a success and fulfil Pat’s fundraising ambitions for pancreatic cancer research.”

John Osborne, chief executive of the four courses under HRI’s remit, chaired last week’s forum. One of the key ambitions underpinning the movement to reignite ICW is to get the industry fully behind the event.

“There is no magic wand to these things, it is about activating a few good ideas, but at its core it is the greatest racing product that we have," Osborne said. “But if we don’t recognise that ourselves within the industry, it is very hard to expect a random person who only has a fleeting engagement with racing to understand what it is.”

The first leg of ICW at Leopardstown clashes with the Listowel harvest festival this year, while the prospect of switching the days around, with the Curragh instead being held on the Saturday evening building to a Qipco Irish Champion Stakes climax at Leopardstown on the Sunday, remains a longshot at the moment.

“From an international Flat racing point of view the getting the dates we have for Irish Champions Weekend was key to the success of it,” Osborne said.

“That’s one of the most precious assets that Champions Weekend has on a global scale, but fixture allocation is a complicated procedure and there are an awful lot of people who have skin in the game and whose opinions have to be respected. A lot of time the solution is simple but getting to the solution is not so simple.

“Right back to the very start of Champions Weekend people felt there might be a different way of doing it, but that’s not to say it’s guaranteed to work either.”