Kilbeggan Races 1840-2017, by Stan McCormack

Next meeting 21 April 2017

It is probable that some form of racing took place in Kilbeggan before the first recorded meeting on 9th March 1840, which according to tradition was held in the townland of Kilbeg. The main race was the Challenge Cup worth 40 guineas and an entry fee of £3, which clearly indicated that it was for the gentry and not the common people. The race was won by T. Crofton’s Razor but “not without very keen stroping”. The races were held over three heats of two miles- all run on the same day. It was stated that 30,000 attended and “on every side was to be seen happy hearts, smiling countenances and sparkling eyes”. The races continued during the famine years and mass emigration with the support of families like the Locke’s, Codd’s, Connolly’s of Loughnagore, Clarkes of Meldrum, Colgans, Kelly’s,  etc. The racing ended in 1855 due to financial problems & faction fighting. The first ever races in the current Loughnagore site was held in 1846.

The next phase of racing from 1879-85 was at Ballard on a course provided by the Locke’s. Fences were made of hazel and gorse bushes stuck into the ground & winged at each end. The first official Kilbeggan Races, under the rules of racing, was held on 17th April 1879. Famous jockeys in this era included the Beasley’s, Garret Moore of Jockey Hall and W.P. Cullen, Galway. Willie Beasley went on to be the oldest jockey to compete in a race, when he rode in Baldoyle in 1935 at the age of 83! The committee included Wm Flynn, James Scally, Matthias McManus, T.J. Lalor, Wm Horan etc. The centenary of this meeting was celebrated in 1979.

The present site at Loughnagore became the permanent home of racing when it was revived in 1901. A meeting was held in the historic Volunteer Inn, where Thomas and Mary Cuffe were knighted by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in the late 18th century. The first meeting was held on 2nd September 1901, as the people walked or came by bicycle, by ass-and-cart, dray, and sidecar to the races and by train to Tullamore, Clara, and Streamstown. Except for a period during World War II, it has been held every year since. A last minute telegram from the House of Commons saved the races in 1917.

Dick and Catherine Cleary
The trainer of All Sorts, Dick Cleary and his wife Catherine

In the period 1916-23 great horses raced on the track like Shaun Spadah (Aintree Grand National 1921); Koko (Cheltenham Gold Cup 1926); Punch (Irish Grand National); Clonsheever (two Galway Plates); and All Sorts (Irish Grand National 1916), the horse who walked home 60 miles because of the Easter Rising. The prize money in 1901 was 25 sovereigns and only 21 sovereigns in 1939, to illustrate the difficulties for racecourses to survive. Kilbeggan had two meetings for the first time in 1948. The two main events in the 1950’s were the tragic death of P.F.”Mutt” Conlon in 1952, which almost caused the closure of the racecourse.

On 11th May 1953 Prince Aly Khan came to Kilbeggan to ride and win on the

Gene Tierney
Gene Tierney, the actress who attended the Kilbeggan Races in 1953 with Prince Aly Khan

unpronounceable Ynys and with him was Gene Tierney one of the most beautiful actresses in Hollywood and star of great film noir “Laura” (1944). The Kilbeggan races were under  threat of closure in 1956, 1963, and 1969, with a debt of £13,000 at one point. Through the great will of the committee and the local people, the money was raised through dances, draws, card drives etc and Kilbeggan survived (Mullingar closed in 1967).

The 1970s brought significant changes, when Kilbeggan Race Committee decided to concentrate on National Hunt Racing (jumping) and the last flat race was won by Grá Mo Chroí in 1971. In 1973, Fabri-Cast and D.E. Williams, Tullamore (through Guy St John Williams) provided sponsorship for the first time. The most extraordinary event occurred in 1973, when Ted Walsh’s mount Undecided was drowned in the pond on the far side (this was how Loughnagore got its name) in a freak accident. A cruel headline on a paper the next day stated “Undecided finally makes up his mind”.

The course improved in the 1980s and on the 20th May 1990, a new complex costing £165,000 was opened and the same year Kilbeggan was voted Racecourse of the Year by the Racing Club of Ireland. In the 1990s Paddy Dunican was named Manager of the Year on several occasions. In 1992 the number of meetings increased to four and the Committee purchased the 88 acre site from the Fox family and this led to the many subsequent improvements on the track and buildings, like the New Pavillion in 1999 and in July 2007 a new €2.3 million development of the administrative offices, parade ring etc was opened. Now eight race meetings take place between April and September.

In 1997, the Midland’s National in July became the highlight of the season. The first running was won by Cristy’s Picnic trained by Mouse Morris and appropriately film director Neil Jordan was one of the owners of the winner.  Tragedy occurred in 2003 when jockey Kieran Kelly was killed in an accident on the track. Kilbeggan continued to improve its facilities, and kept the formula that mixes the spectacle of races over jumps with the relaxed laid back charm of a genuine rural meeting. All the great jockeys like Ruby Walsh, A.P. McCoy and Barry Geraghty, have shown their great talent over the years on the track. It is in many ways the heart and soul of racing providing Family Fun Days, Best Dressed Ladies Competition, music, and now better quality racing. Two horses who won at Cheltenham this year, Cause of Causes (2016) and Tiger Roll (2016) won at Kilbeggan. It is hoped that Kilbeggan will continue to thrive and win the uphill battle that faces small racecourses. Perhaps we should leave the final words to the Westmeath Examiner after first meeting in 1901

“…and when the meeting terminated and the field was no longer the scene of animation, when the sun’s had rays kissed the landscape, a final kiss of sleep & repose, when the cars and pedestrians were started on their several ways and ‘some to the rising moon had gone and some to the setting sun’- all were agreed that a very pleasant day had been spent at old Loughnagore

The eight meetings this year are on 21st April, 12th May, 4th June, 26th June, 21st July, (Midlands National), 12th August, 25th August, and 8th September. You can contact the course at 0579332176 or info@kilbegganraces.com.

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