Down Royal racecourse set to close at the end of 2018

After 300 years of racing, the Down Royal track near Lisburn looks set for closure at the end of this calendar year
Shaun O'Dea

NEXT month's 20th staging of the Festival of Racing looks poised to be the penultimate fixture at Down Royal racecourse.

It was announced yesterday that the current lease of the site near Lisburn ends on December 31 this year and the following day it will revert to the ownership of Merrion Property Group, just six days after the final fixture on St Stephen's Day.

After yesterday's initial announcement of the pending closure from the racecourse management, The Merrion Property Group contacted media sources to state that it was their intention that racing would continue in 2019, but without funding, the racing fixtures and fixtures and fittings, which will be removed next month, it is hard to envisage how the track can be back up and running in 2019.

The Merrion Property Group statement read: "We have always stressed our determination to assume the day-to-day operational management of Down Royal, with horse racing at its centre."

Local owners, trainers and the public yesterday expressed shock at the news. One local bookmaker said “ I knew it was coming for some time, but had hoped there would be a rescue plan.

''We [bookmakers] have the 13 fixtures at the Maze – that's gone – Downpatrick race only six months of the year – so really we have now only half a course locally.”

Horse Racing Ireland CEO, Brian Kavanagh said that talks had already been planned for next week but he conceded that yesterday's development came out of the blue.

''It's a sad day and the news has come as a bit of a shock,'' he said.

''We were aware of a dispute between the new owners and racecourse management. We'd like to sit down with both parties to establish what the situation is and we have a meeting in the pipeline with Mike Roden of Merrion Properties which will possibly take place next week.”

Around £5million has been spent in recent years upgrading facilities at the track – part funded by Horse Racing Ireland.

Down Royal chairman James Nicholson indicated yesterday that new sites to build a replacement racecourse would be sought, but that proposal was described as “pie in the sky” by a long-standing industry insider.

“Finding a site would verge on the impossible and you're looking at a minimum cost of £15 million to build a new course and facilities – it won't happen!”

Three-hundred years of local racing history will disappear with the closure. Some of the best Irish-trained horses have run at the track which is regarded as one of the very best Grade One courses in the country. Only last year it was voted as Racecourse Of The Year at the Horse Racing Ireland Awards evening.

The course stages the Harp Ulster Derby, along with the relatively new Champion Chase at the Festival, a race twice won by the legendary chaser Kauto Star and Ruby Walsh.

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