Saturday 19 October 2019

The close of Tralee

With the finishing line fast approaching for Ballybeggan Park, Noel Twomey looks back at some of the track's defining moments

P'TIT Fute is unlikely to go down in the annals as a superstar of the turf, but last Wednesday in Tralee he secured his own small place in racing history.

In landing the Denny Havasnack, Francis Flood's gelding almost certainly became the last horse to win around the famed Ballybeggan Park circuit.

We say 'almost' because, well, while there is no such thing as a dead cert, the future of the sport of Kings at Tralee is hanging by a thread.

A fall-off in attendances in recent years has seen the racecourse losing money, calling into question its long-term viability, especially when that great leveller -- progress -- has come a-calling. The result was the sale of an option on Ballybeggan Park to a local consortium for €47.5m. And while the course's 50 or so shareholders stand to gain tidy sums of between €750,000 and €3.5m each from the sale, they believe the closure is inevitable. Tralee just isn't economically viable anymore.

The consortium, led by John Casey and Seamus O'Halloran, is hoping to construct the largest sporting and retail development ever in Co Kerry. Their plan includes transforming the racecourse into a purpose-built 15,000-seater stadium for the GAA in Kerry, whose town-centre headquarters at Austin Stack Park will then inherit its own concrete future.

There is, however, at least one snag. In August, on the eve of what was billed as the final meeting at Tralee before the weather gods intervened, the non-sporting element of the venture met with disapproval from Kerry County Council, who refused planning permission for the housing and retail element of the consortium's ambitious plan.

The developers have remained tight-lipped since, but, even if they don't go ahead with the project, it looks increasingly likely that after this last week's re-scheduled meeting Tralee will join such racetracks as Baldoyle, Mullingar, Tuam and the Phoenix Park in the file marked 'defunct.'

While many townsfolk, including a 'Campaign to Save Tralee' group, remain steadfastly opposed to the closure, the Ballybeggan directors have already relinquished their fixtures for 2009. And general manager Timmy Griffin believes there's no going back.

"It's very sad. Not only for me but for the people who worked here before me," says Griffin.

"I've enjoyed it hugely but you won't get too much sleep when you are running a racecourse. But since I came in here, people in Tralee haven't been supporting the course. Hundreds of people say it is sad for the town, but they don't go racing. The economics don't add up. You can't win in the present set-up."

Despite the gloomy outlook, Tralee's racing bloodlines cannot be disputed. The first recorded meeting took place in the vicinity in 1767, with racing at Ballybeggan running from 1898 up to the 1930s, before it resumed again in 1946 when the present Ballybeggan Park Company was formed.

Indeed, the Rose of Tralee Festival, such a staple of the local economy, came into being on the back of an idea first mooted by the race company and its then chairman, Dan Nolan.

As the Festival grew in stature, so did the accompanying race meeting which has always benefited from the infusion of glamour provided by the Roses.

"I attended the meeting in 1946 as a young fella when it was two shillings to go in," recalls Griffin, whose most vivid memory concerns the day a riderless horse galloped off the track and into the carpark.

Having miraculously survived that adventure unscathed, the frightened animal then crashed through a wire fence into the enclosure.

"He galloped through the crowd in front of the stand, colliding with at least three people, sending them flying like paper dolls," recalls Griffin. Disaster was averted by a brave punter who grabbed the reins and brought the horse to a halt.

Tralee's 'last' meeting this week was also a bittersweet one for Griffin's predecessor as secretary manager at the course, Pat Crean, who held the post for over 30 years and whose late father Diarmuid was the course's first secretary.

Crean, who helped to attract racing luminaries like Lester Piggott and Frankie Dettori to Ballybeggan in his time, believes that Tralee's recent decline has come about on the back of the country's bigger tracks being afforded the lion's share of incentives.

"We were always trying to do something extra, something different in Tralee," he recalls. "A lot of our attendance at the Festival (of Kerry) over the years were younger people. So we introduced a lot of people to racing."

Dettori's visit to Tralee in 1998 to mark a century of racing at the venue was a particular highlight for Crean, with the affable Frankie charming the crowds and performing his trademark flying dismount after riding a winner for John Oxx.

Of the horses that have run and won at Tralee, the great Dawn Run and Irish Derby hero Desert King lost their maiden tags there, Melbourne Cup hero Vintage Crop won the Carling Gold Cup in 1992, while classic winners Vintage Tipple and Alexandrova also tasted success at Ballybeggan Park.

Aidan O'Brien's first winner as a trainer came at Tralee in the early '90s when Wandering Thoughts obliged for the fresh-faced 23-year-old on his first day in the job.

At least three Cheltenham Gold Cup winners have run at Ballybeggan and Pat Crean remembers Dawn Run's victory with particular fondness.

"The word was out that Paddy Mullins had this super horse, a mare, and the owner (Mrs Charmaine Hill) wanted to ride her," he says. "Mrs Hill at that stage was well into her sixties. The Turf Club had decided that they wouldn't renew her licence, so it was her last ride and Dawn Run duly won."

Crean remembers Dermot Weld training six winners in one day, but perhaps the ultimate table-quiz moment at Tralee came when a dead horse won a race there.

"It was an incident that happened before my time," says Crean. "As the horses passed the winning post, the horse that finished second dropped dead."

There was a stewards' inquiry about some incident in the race and the stewards in Tralee referred the matter to the Turf Club. They decided that the placings should be reversed and the dead horse won the race!"

Crean also believes that the future is bleak for Ballybeggan -- but maybe, just maybe, all is not lost.

The developers have retained a get-out clause that will see them lose their deposit of €1m on the sale plus the costs of the planning application if they are refused permission. So, the recent Kerry County Council decision was "good news" for local businessman and bookmaker Eddie Barrett who fronts the 'Campaign to Save Tralee' group.

"The fact that they were turned down for the housing and the retail park is a huge blow for the developers as it makes the thing unviable," says Barrett, who believes the GAA stadium could be incorporated into the racetrack.

He rejects the belief that Tralee can't return to its profitable heyday and is taking his fight to An Bord Pleanala.

"I'm a traditionalist and there is such a tradition of racing there that it would be a shame to let that die," he says.

"Saying that it is not viable is a nonsense. The facilities there need to be upgraded and run better. All that sale is doing is making multi-millionaires out of existing millionaires.

"We are optimistic about getting the fixtures back.

"The racetrack is an amenity for our town, the land is zoned for that purpose.

"I think they (the race company) should go back to what they should be doing and that is running successful racing and coursing meetings.

"I am quite ebullient about it and we have no doubt that there will be racing there in the long-term."

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