News that horse racing at the Down Royal course is to cease in its current form at the end of this year has shocked the sport. The track, which has been in operation for more than 200 years, is the current Horse Racing Ireland course of the year.
The closure follows the decision by the owner of the course, a Dublin property developer, not to renew the lease to current operators the Down Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders. While the owner has said that racing will continue to be at the centre of operations, there are several hurdles to be overcome before that could become a reality.
Down Royal is a firm favourite with punters from across this island, running 12 meetings a year including the forthcoming prestigious Festival of Racing next month, which is a must for all fans of steeplechasing.
Renowned as a true test of jump racing, it has hosted some of the equine stars who have gone on to win big races at the Cheltenham Festival each March.
It is also home to flat racing including the valuable Ulster Derby, ensuring year round entertainment for race-goers.
The Down Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders has ploughed £5m into improving facilities including hospitality suites under a restoration project begun in 1996. The result is a course that can cater for all kinds of race-goers from the hardened punters to those who like to view the action from the comfort of a suite with food and drink flowing.
Its role as a hospitality venue as well as an employer – it has 11 full-time staff and up to 400 part-timers during prestigious meetings – should not be overlooked, nor can its position as a first class racing venue attracting trainers from throughout Ireland and from Britain.
Many will be disappointed that the Down Royal name will disappear as it was owned by the corporation and any new operation by the landowners would have to be rebranded. It is a title dating back to the early 18th century.
The corporation may have been forced to vacate the premises but it is determined to find a new home and most race-goers will hope that it succeeds.
It has done much to raise standards and increase prize money in the sport, which employs up to 2,500 people on this side of the border, and has ploughed all profits back into the sector.
But whatever the future holds, it is impossible to take history with it to a new venue.