Laytown Racecourse holds a unique place in the Irish horse sporting schedule as it is the only race occasion staged on a beach.
Several generations of individuals from the Meath region and the neighbouring countries have intimate memories of their tour to the elaborate strand at Laytown and of the thrill of this incredible venue.
Laytown strand events have been in operation for well over 140 years. The first documented meeting was held in 1868 when racing events were staged on the expansive beach in liaison with the time-honored Boyne Regatta.
It is widely assumed that the sailing competition occurred on the high tides and the horse racing when the tempestuous tide subsided. Initially, the events were an accompanying sideshow to the popular regatta and were thus only organised when the mixture of high as well as low tides permitted horse riding on the beach at the end of the rowing competitions. Charles Stuart Parnell, the exemplary Home Rule head, was one of the very first overseers of the widely attended strand racing fixtures. In mid-1901, the local clergyman got involved in the track’s organisation and regardless of the widespread disapproval of the controversial Bishop of Meath, the events turned out to be a huge success.
In those early days, strand racing activities were rather common being held in different places in Ireland like Milltown Malbay and closer home at Baltray and Termonfeckin. The activities continued for many years and about 1950s/60s, Laytown was regarded as a significant meeting place for horses rehearsing for the grand Galway Festival. During those initial days when there were virtually no all-weather track surfaces for training horses and the sprawling sands found at Laytown were deemed ideal for horse preparation.
The Laytown race meeting was a significant cultural function in the Meath sporting calendar. Horse racing involved distances that ranged from 5 furlongs and 2 miles with some U-shaped twist at Bettystown, precisely where the animals made a colorful sweeping go back prior to going back to the Laytown finishing post. The entire beach region was a scene of color with excited racegoers, bookies, thriving fast food outlets, smiling ice cream sellers, hurdy-gurdies, shiny roulette tables that all shared the well-laid-out strand. At the center of these, the ubiquitous tree and card-trick traders emerged, departed and returned, continually on the keen lookout for the much-needed gardai.
An unlucky mishap in 1994 operated as a well-timed reminder of the need of new security measures. The prominently well-drawn U-shaped track was abruptly eliminated and the strict Turf Club enforced sanctions on the count of participants in every event and also maintained that only professional riders were permitted. From that day, automobiles were banned from the beach area as were all adjacent betting stands. The organization of Laytown track event is an enormous undertaking. The executive committee has a let-out of a three-acre field in Laytown locally famed for many generations as “the race field”. It is a magnificent lofty site above the beautiful beach and beside the finishing line and spectators have a panoramic view of the track from this naturally apt vantage point.
Laytown as a physical track is non-existent . The only enduring structure on the racecourse are the washrooms! For numerous weeks before sporting activities, the beach is repeatedly checked by seasoned members of the central committee to gauge the most appropriate “bank” for sporting on the racing day and since all beaches are lively and continuously changing this calls for a practiced eye, attained over countless years of devout practice. On the very run up to the time the racing field is changed from a green location to a sporting enclosure, with a gorgeous parade ring, perfect bookies pitches, judge’s box and impermanent grand-strand set up.
Marquees spring up to accommodate the bar, well-furnished restaurants, well-stocked weighing rooms, exquisitely kitted out ambulance room and secretary’s formal bureau. In the course of the previous decades, attendance presently contained in the racing ground totals to the neighbourhood of 5,000. This is a distant estimate from the nostalgic times of the 1990’s when spectators amounting to about 10000 individuals were witnessed at Laytown Racecourse.
Many noteworthy celebrities have been seen over the past few decades. In 1950 the Aga Khan, one of the celebrated owners and his spouse attended track events at Layton. Many foremost trainers sponsor Laytown including Dermot Weld, the iconic Kevin Prendergast, the inimitable Mick O’Toole, the ever-smiling Tommy Stack, as well as Michael Cunningham neighbouring families have an intimate association with this uniquely thrilling event that may be traced back to several generations past.
The current chairman Delany and his sibling Eamonn are some of the third generation adherents of this singularly entertaining event. The famous Hoeys, the Crinions and the well-regarded Lyons are well-represented on the well-formed 2011 committee and in the previously notable members of these famous families were busily involved. It is an enduring aspect of a culture that is fast vanishing from these historically famed islands and it is therefore as much a piece of their legacy as Puck Fair as well as the Rose of Tralee.
People come from all over the world to get a glimpse of this unique occasion on the beach at Laytown. That word “unique” is variously bandied a lot by high-profile sponsors of sporting events that hold many spurious allegations to such value but this exciting scene is rightly deserving of the nickname since it's the only formally sanctioned beach sporting in Europe. Hordes of spectators who are usually as many as 11,000 show up to see the event every year.
The very last time that numerous individuals were on a beach in Ireland was the time the aboriginal Irish were attempting to push back the crowds of attacking Vikings during the Medieval Period. The elaborate enclosures at Laytown comprise a three-acre field that is elevated beyond the beach and the wonderful grandstand is expertly cut from steps shaped into the prominent sand dunes. The marquees are set up to be used as a weighing room, the great-looking jockeys' room and pubs. The racecourse itself is a portion of the 3-mile-long strand, which is shut down on the very morning of the racing day, which usually occur once the tide has subsided.