Laytown Strand Races

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On the northeast coast of Ireland, near the village of Laytown in County Meath, there’s a long, smooth stretch of beach that’s just perfect for horse racing and hosting an annual event each September known as the Laytown Strand Races. The venue features a straight near-level course that’s about six or seven furlongs in length. It has the distinction of being the only official race event in Europe run on a beach under the Turf Club’s Rules of Racing.

A Tradition of Running along the Beach

The Laytown Strand Races have a history dating back nearly a century and a half. In 1868, the first recorded meeting was conducted at Laytown, organised in conjunction with the Boyne Regatta. In those days, the horse races run at low tide were considered to be a side show to the rowing events held at high tide. Among the first stewards of the strand races was Charles Stuart Parnell (1846~1891), the leader of the Irish Parliamentary Party and Meath’s representative in the House of Commons.

The races soon became an annual tradition as huge crowds flocked to the beach to watch the horses run. Church leaders disapproved of the drinking and gambling that accompanied the festival. They protested similar events staged on the beaches of Baltray and Termonfeckin as well as at Milltown Malbay in County Clare, but even as those races eventually came to an end, the clergy couldn’t put a stop to the Laytown meeting. In fact, in 1901, the local Parish Priest became involved in the Laytown Strand Race organisation, much to the chagrin of the Bishop of Meath.

Racing along the strand continued throughout the early 20th century and by the 1950s and 60s Laytown had become an important meeting for horses preparing for the great Galway Festival. Of course, all-weather surfaces for training horses didn’t exist back then. The sands of Laytown provided ideal preparation for the Galway track and attracted more than a few famous trainers and breeders, including the Aga Khan, one of the sport’s legendary owners, who in 1950 was in attendance with his wife the Begum. The BBC even made Laytown the subject of a documentary entitled “Racing the Tide.”

Oddly enough, there has never been a true “racecourse” at Laytown. Each year the racing committee has had to lease a three-acre field and set up a temporary track and facilities based upon the condition of the beach. There is, however, an advantage to this process—the Laytown course could easily be adjusted between five furlongs and two miles with a U-shaped turn added at Bettystown. Unfortunately, the turn led to a devastating accident in 1994, so the Turf Club got rid of it and imposed restrictions on the number of runners per race. Thereafter, only experienced riders were allowed to participate and vehicles were prohibited from the beach along with all betting facilities.

Racing at Laytown Today

Even now, the only permanent building on the course for the Laytown Strand Races is the Gents W.C. Several weeks before each September meeting, senior members of the racing committee check the beach continually to determine the most suitable “bank” for raceday. Viewing always takes place from an elevated site above the beach and beside the finish line, as the race field is transformed into a racing enclosure, with parade ring, bookies pitches, judge’s box and a temporary grandstand. There are also marquees to house the bar, restaurants, weighing rooms, an ambulance room and the course secretary’s office.

This unique event on the beach at Laytown draws people from far and wide, including many annual overseas visitors. Attendance at the Laytown Strand Races grew as high as 11,000 in the 1990s, although more common since the turn of the new millennium are crowds of 5,000~10,000. Adult admission costs €10 per person, while OAPs and students pay €6. Children under 14 years of age are admitted free of charge.

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