A most unique racing venue

Nestling in the heart of the midlands is one of the true success stories of Irish racing. Kilbeggan Racecourse, just outside the town at Loughnagore, is part of Westmeath heritage and something the county can be justifiably proud of, but itıs also testament to what can be achieved with vision, planning and sheer hard work.

It hasn’t exactly been all plain sailing for Kilbeggan since horse racing was first staged in the locality over 160 years ago, but the modern history of one of the most unique racing venues in the country has been marked by extraordinary progress, ensuring that the track is one of the most popular anywhere in Ireland and a thoroughly pleasant place to spend a summer’s evening viewing the Sport of Kings.

So where and when did it all start? A long time ago, on March 9, 1840, to be precise when a group of men came up with the idea to organise a race meeting in Kilbeggan where the main feature was a race for a Challenge Cup, valued at 40 guineas, with 10 pounds added for good measure by the steward.
Between then and 1855 race meetings were staged at several locations around the town, including the present site at Loughnagore, but they then lapsed due to a combination of land agitation and emigration.

However, the races were revived in 1879 and the first official meeting was staged over a course at Ballard on April 17 of that year in a field provided by the Locke family, owners of the renowned distillery which is still in operation in Kilbeggan. Racing continued there until 1885, before the meetings lapsed again.

But persistence was obviously the order of the day and another revival followed in 1901 when the races were staged again on September 2 that year, with a meeting at Loughnagore. And with the exception of the troubled period between 1941 and 45, during the Second World War, race meetings have been organised there every year, including 53 when Prince Any Khan scored a famous victory on a horse with an unpronounceable name, Ynys. The sympathies of the entire country must have gone out to the unfortunate course commentator!

The voluntary committee survived serious difficulties during the 1950s and 60 when the Racing Board withdrew financial assistance, but during the 70s there were highly significant developments which gave Kilbeggan Racecourse a massive boost and helped pave the way for the tremendous success the venue has enjoyed over more recent years.

The biggest move, and the one that makes Kilbeggan unique among Irish racecourses, was made in 1971 when it was decided to switch to all-National Hunt racing and stage no further flat events. It was a big and bold step and one that many thought would sound the death knell for the track, but it was also one that worked out brilliantly and has helped to make Kilbeggan what it is today - the envy of many other tracks.

Two years later, in 1973, the first sponsored races were held at Loughnagore and it is highly significant that valuable sponsorship is now so vitally important to the great success story that is Kilbeggan Racecourse.

Fast-forward to 1990 and the progress at the track had advanced to a stage where the magnificent new complex was opened. Kilbeggan also won the Irish Racecourse of the Year Award, which was fitting recognition of the huge amount of planning and work that went into making it such an outstanding venue.

Another highly significant development was to follow in 92 when the course, consisting of 88 acres, was purchased.

Up to that stage Kilbeggan had the track on a lease basis, which meant they were very much restricted.

There have been huge further improvements in recent years which have helped make Kilbeggan a pleasure to attend.

These include the provision of superb restaurants and bars and the magnificent Balcony suite on the first floor of the pavilion which boasts top-class facilities to cater for up to 200 people and offering a panoramic view of the course.

But such developments (amounting to a capital investment of E2.1 million over the past 10 years) only account for a small portion of the massive work that has gone into Kilbeggan. There have been improvements to the track itself, including its widening to cater for larger fields of runners, surfacing of the concourse area, extension of the enclosure and development of a new site for a tented village. And in May, 1999, the fabulous new pavilion was opened.

Since 1992 the number of race meetings has increased from three to the eight that will be staged this year and attendances more than doubled from 24,000 in 1995 to 50,000 per year at the start of the new millennium. With eight meetings now, that figure will surely rocket and when all is said and done, that is the acid test for any sports venue - the number of people entering through the turnstiles. Kilbeggan is certainly passing that particular test with flying colours.

An accurate indication of the impact Kilbeggan has made is clear in the fact that course manager/secretary Paddy Dunican has won the Irish Racecourse Manager of the Year Award no fewer than three times, in 1996, 97 and 98.

There have also been major sponsorship developments which have done so much to enhance Kilbeggan s reputation - with the input of the business community vital to its growth - none more so than the Elan sponsorship which commenced in July, 1997 with the first staging of the Elan Midlands National, a race won in its inaugural year by a horse called Cristy s Picnic which was owned, among others, by film director Neil Jordan and actor Stephen Rea.

An indication of just how important the Midlands National is to Kilbeggan can be gauged from the fact that that particular day has become Ireland s biggest race day outside the Budweiser Irish Derby at The Curragh and the famed Galway Festival meeting.

The earlier years may not have been so progressive for racing in Kilbeggan, but the venue has certainly moved on at a frantic pace in recent times and answered the needs of a modern day racing public who want their comforts after paying their cash at the turnstiles. They also like big fields of runners, which is a feature of Kilbeggan s all-National Hunt menu, and the strong betting which such large fields generate.

Yet, despite all its progress, Kilbeggan has, thankfully, managed to hold onto its genuine rural charm and atmosphere.

Its setting, which affords superb views of the action, and the fact that it caters purely for National Hunt racing has a great deal to do with its appeal and undoubtedly account for the huge number of people who simply wouldn’t miss an evening at Loughnagore. In essence, Kilbeggan Races are more than a race meeting, they are a special social occasion.

Visitors are assured of that friendly atmosphere whilst, at the same time, enjoying the action in modern, comfortable facilities.

It’s all a far cry from that day over a century and a half ago in March, 1840 when man and horse first participated in the Sport of Kings around the green fields of Kilbeggan.

Taken from Maroon & White 2003