Laytown racing occupies a unique position in the Irish racing calendar, as it is the only race event run on a beach under the rules of the Turf Club.
Many generations of people from the Meath area and the bordering counties have fond memories of their visit to the strand at Laytown and of the color and the excitement of race day.
Laytown, strand races have been in existence for over a hundred years. The first recorded meet was in 1868 when races were run on the beach in conjunction with the Boyne Rowing Regatta. It is assumed that the rowing competition took place on the high tide, and the racing when the tide receded. Initially the races were a side show of the regatta, and were only organized when the combination of high and low tides allowed the racing on the beach at the conclusion of the rowing events.
In 1901 the local Parish Priest became involved in the organization, and despite the disapproval of the Bishop of Meath, the races became a well organized event. In those days, strand races were quite common, being run in places throughout Ireland, such as MilltownMably in Co Clare, and nearer home, at Baltray and Termonfeckin. The racing continued throughout the years, and in the nineteen fifties and sixties, Laytown was considered an important meet for horses preparing for the great Galway festival. In those days, there were no all weather surfaces for training horses, and the sands at Laytown were considered ideal preparation for the Galway track.
The Laytown meeting was an important cultural event in the Meath calendar. Racing was run at distances between five furlong and two miles, with a U shaped turn at Bettystown, where the horses made a colorful sweeping return, before heading back to the Laytown finish. The whole beach area was a profusion of color, with race goers , bookies, fast food outlets, ice cream venders, hurdy gurdies and roulette tables, all sharing the strand. In the midst of all of these, the three card trick merchants appeared, disappeared and reappeared, constantly on the look out for the guards.
An unfortunate accident in 1994 served as a timely reminder of the necessity of new safety measures. The U shaped track was done away with, and the Turf Club imposed restrictions on the number of runners in each race, and also insisted that only experienced riders were allowed. From that date, vehicles were prohibited from the beach, as were all betting facilities.
The organization of Laytown Strand Races is a huge undertaking. The committee has a lease of a three acre field in Laytown known locally for generations “as the race field.” It is a wonderful elevated site above the beach and beside the finishing line, and race goers have a fine view of the races from this natural vantage point.
For several weeks before racing, the beach is continually checked by senior members of the committee to determine the most suitable “bank“ for racing on the day, and as all beaches are dynamic and constantly changing, this requires a skilled eye achieved over many years of experience. On the run up to the day, the race field is transformed from a green site to a racing enclosure, with parade ring, bookies pitches, judge’s box and temporary grand stand erected. Marquees spring up to house the bar, restaurants, weigh room, ambulance room and secretary’s office. All the necessary services have to be coordinated. These include gardai, civil defense, plumbers, electricians, caterers, doctors and veterinary officers etc. etc.
As in previous years, on the morning of the races, the beach is closed to vehicular traffic under a license granted by the department of the Marine. Some hours after high tide, the preparations begin.
The committee have available the advice of a senior course clerk, a person experienced with the course design who has great knowledge of the shifting sands, water outlets and stones on the Laytown beach. With the assistance of the appointed Turf Club officials, the course is identified and laid out hours before starting time of the first race.
During the past few years, the attendance, which is now mainly confined to the enclosure has been approximately 4,000. This is a far cry from the halcyon days of the early 1990’s when attendances of 10,000 were common.
Many celebrities have been spotted over the years. In 1950 The Aga Khan, one of the sports legendary owners and his wife, the Begum was in attendance. Former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds regularly attended.
Many leading trainers support Laytown, including Dermot Weld, Kevin Prendergast, Mick O’Toole, Tommy Stack and Michael Cunningham.
Local families have an association with this event that can be traced back several generations. The present chairman, Niall Delany, and his brother Eamonn are third generation supporters of this event. The Hoeys, the Crinions and the Lyons are all represented on the 2004 committee, and previous members of these families were actively involved.
It’s not Royal Ascot, its not Glorious Goodwood, but Laytown strand races is a fun event for horse and man when they come to the seaside for a relaxing day out. It is a surviving feature of a culture, fast disappearing from these islands and it is as much a part of our heritage as Puck Fair, or the all Ireland final.
Thank you to Horse Racing Ireland and Barbara White for their contributions to this article.