Down Royal future plunged into uncertainty after dispute
The future of Down Royal was thrown into serious doubt on Wednesday after the management company of Horse Racing Ireland's current racecourse of the year revealed it was preparing to cease racing there at the end of the year.
Management at the Grade 1 track had been involved in a dispute after the company that owns it, Dublin-based Merrion Property Group, sought to evict the Down Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders, the group which had overseen operations at the track since it was bought by Merrion for €6.1 million in 2005.
Merrion is understood to have met the criteria set out by a Land Tribunal to evict its tenant.
A press release issued on behalf of the corporation stated it is preparing to wind down operations at the site at the end of the year, less than two months after its marquee two-day fixture at the beginning of November. The current lease ends on December 31, and it is understood the corporation withdrew from the land tribunal process on legal advice.
Shortly after it issued its statement, Merrion, which is owned by multi-millionaire Mike Roden, issued its own press release indicating that it plans to assume control of the course from January 1 and run it as a going concern.
However, there is no guarantee that racing will take place there as scheduled on Tuesday, January 29.
The Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board confirmed that any new operating company would need to acquire a licence to race, and ownership of critical elements such as fences and railings could pose problems. The course might also have to be rebranded as the Down Royal Racecourse title is owned by the corporation.
"It would depend on the terms of the transition, but the overriding feeling now is one of shock," said HRI chief executive Brian Kavanagh.
"The tracks in the north are licensed by the IHRB for licensing purposes, and we provide funding and capital funding, but we’d need to sit down with both parties to understand the terms of any transition.
"There are a number of issues in relation to the ability to run racing, just the various practical requirements that you have in terms of rails, fences, starting stalls and so on.
"All those sort of things would need to be resolved so that will depend on the terms of transition and what’s going to happen with the facilities – that’s something we don’t understand.
Merrion's statement read: "We have always stressed our determination to assume the day-to-day operational management of Down Royal, with horseracing at its centre.
"The withdrawal of the Down Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders from the land tribunal process brings forward that outcome. We are looking forward to a new era at Down Royal and to enhancing the experience of racegoers and other stakeholders while contributing to the local and wider community."
Gold Cup heroes such as Kauto Star, Looks Like Trouble and Don Cossack were all targeted at its November festival of racing, which celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. Brave Inca and Jezki were Champion Hurdle winners who also graced the stage there.
The latest jumps sensation Samcro is due to reappear there next month.
"We are very excited about this year’s festival," said Todd. "It is going to be very poignant as it will be the last as far as this management is concerned. It is the end of an era."
He added: "I’m immensely proud to have been at the helm during the most successful period in the history of the sport in the north. Look at the Gold Cup and Champion Hurdle winners who have run at Down Royal over the past 20 years at the festival.
"It is surreal now, but everything we have done here we have done with a passion and enthusiasm."
Noel Meade, chairman of the Irish Racehorse Trainers' Association, said: "As trainers it would be very sad to think that racing at Down Royal would finish. It is a first class racecourse that has been very well run and it would be terrible to lose it. Hopefully, something can be sorted out to ensure that racing will continue there."
Statement from chairman Jim Nicholson
Earlier, Down Royal chairman Jim Nicholson said that the corporation were looking at various sites to race on in future, although that is likely to be a long-term process.
"We are facing new opportunities and there is every likelihood that Down Royal will find a new home," he suggested.
"Down Royal’s approach was always based on a not-for-profit approach to ensure the racing sector in Northern Ireland, which employs between 2,000 and 2,500 people, benefited from raised standards and generous prize-money.
"All profits have always been ploughed straight back into the sector. It is essential to the future of the sector that this contribution continues."
Down Royal, which could hold its final day's racing on December 26, is one of 26 tracks in Ireland and has been allocated 12 fixtures for next year.
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