The Glory Days of Irish Racecourses

By Noel Coogan

Once upon a time, long, long, ago, there was a racecourse in nearly every county in Ireland but now just 17 of the 32 hold meetings under rules of racing, with 26 venues catering for the ‘sport of kings.’

Since the 1960s, five courses have closed their gates for the last time with Mullingar, Baldoyle, Tuam, the Phoenix Park and Tralee joining the long list of former courses.

Racing at Mullingar dates back to 1754, but the track at Newbrook a short distance from the town staged its first fixture in 1852 and racing was held at that venue up to 1967. Patrick Costello was the main man behind the course in its early years with a stand and a ladies’ enclosure among the facilities, while a road from the local railway station to the venue was laid.

A few years later, the course was bought by Percy Nugent from Multyfarnham, Co. Westmeath before being taken over by the Mullingar Racecourse Company. In 1939, a grant of £10,000 was made available in recognition of the course being graded as one of the second-tier racing venues in the country.

The Phoenix Beer Steeplechase was one of the most valuable races held at the midlands track. In 1961, the legendary Arkle made his racecourse debut in the Lough Ennel Plate bumper at Mullingar and finished third with Mark Hely-Hutchinson in the saddle. Hely-Hutchinson holds the distinction of being the only jockey to ride Arkle on the racecourse and not win on the great horse.

Mounting financial problems led to the closure of Mullingar Racecourse with the final meeting being held on Monday, July 1st, 1967. The loss of the track was a big blow to the midlands, but another Co. Westmeath course, Kilbeggan, grew from strength to strength.
Baldoyle racecourse in north County Dublin staged meetings from March 1868 until the final fixture at the venue on 26 August, 1972. As at Mullingar, Arkle ran there during the early part of his racing career.

That outing was in the Balbriggan Handicap Hurdle over two miles in April 1962, when the future champion finished down the field. Another Tom Dreaper-trained star of that era, Flyingbolt, won a hurdle race at the track in 1964.

Baldoyle was a popular venue for racegoers, staging races over jumps and on the flat. For a few years the course held the distinction of opening the Irish flat racing season on St. Patrick’s Day. Many followers of the sport felt sadness after the last meeting in 1972.
There was another closure 12 months later when the Tuam course in north Co. Galway held its final meeting, ending an association with horse racing dating back to October 1754.
The first meeting at Tuam was a four-day fixture and that was later increased to six days.
In 1812, with the Irish racing fixture list very congested, the Turf Club sorted out the problem by allocating annual dates to courses with Tuam, given meetings in the first week of August.

For many years the Parkmore course on the Dublin Road outside the town staged an annual fixture on the Friday after the big Galway meeting. For a few years before its closure the Tuam course had a race in honour of 1958 Aintree Grand National winner Mr What. The horse’s owner, David Coughlan, was a director of the track.

With Tuam racecourse being hit by dwindling attendances, the decision was taken to hold its final fixture on Friday, 3 August, 1973. The land was sold to Galway Country Council in 1978.
The Phoenix Park at Ashtown on the Navan Road north of Dublin city was a popular horse racing venue for many years, having been opened in August 1902.

Meetings were held there on and off in the 19th century before an enclosed course opened for the sport in 1902 and was run by members of the Peard family for a few decades.
The Phoenix Stakes, a race for two-year-olds over five furlongs, was a popular annual feature at the Park for many years and while the venue was mainly a flat track, some hurdle racers were staged. Wednesday evening meetings were very well attended, especially the fixtures during the week of the Spring Show and the Horse Show at the RDS.

The Phoenix Park should be remembered by older racegoers as a course where it was very difficult to name the winner in close finishes with the spectators a good distance away from the winning post.

The racecourse was temporarily closed at the end of the 1981 flat season but was reopened in 1983 with a consortium which included well-known owner Robert Sangster and champion trainer Vincent O’Brien taking over the running of the track.

Even though the venue staged some high-class racing, notably the Irish Champion Stakes, sadly, the popular and picturesque course staged its final meeting on Saturday, 30 October, 1990.

Ballybeggan Park

Racing at Tralee dated back to the 18th century before the final fixture was staged at Ballybeggan Park in 2008. The inaugural six-day meeting at the Kerry town started on 10 August, 1767 and one of the races during that week, long, long ago, was an event for Kerry-bred horses.

After racing took place at a few courses in Tralee, the move to Ballybeggan Park was made in 1898, the new site formerly being a deer park owned by the family of Daniel O’Connell.
While there was free admission to meetings up to then, the course was enclosed with racegoers having to pay in, from near the end of the 19th century. Racing at the new venue continued until the 1930s before there was a break until a company was set up to purchase the course from the O’Connells.

Racing resumed at Tralee in October 1946 and fast forward a few decades and some famous horses won at the course on the way to more notable triumphs. Captain Christy, Dawn Run, Vintage Crop and Monty’s Pass are among the big race winners who entered the winner’s enclosure at Ballybeggan Park.
All-conquering trainer Aidan O’Brien gained his first training success at Tralee when the then 23-year-old sent out Wandering Thoughts to score at the track in 1993.

For a good number of years, racing at the course coincided with the Rose of Tralee festival but with attendances dropping to unviable levels in the present century, the decision was taken to close the course with the last meeting taking place on 1 October, 2008.

Feature image: Photo: Paul/Flickr.