There are many places that host horse racing in Ireland, but few can boast the remarkable racing history of the beautiful seaside town of Tramore in County Waterford in the south-east, which stages its final meeting of the year on Thursday.
Featuring fluctuating fortunes, multiple natural disasters, a Derby contender, Bob Dylan (yes, really!), threats of permanent closure and perhaps one of the biggest white elephants in the history of Irish horse racing, the history of racing in Tramore has a bit of everything.
The first organised horse race took place on the beach at the famous Tramore Strand on May 17, 1785, and the early meetings were so well received that an annual six-day festival began in August 1807. With the arrival of the railway line in Tramore in 1853 came even more success for the races on the Strand, with the August Festival becoming the focal point of the town’s social calendar.
In common with many good things, the popularity of the original Tramore Races didn’t last forever, and racing was held there only sporadically at best during the 1860s and 1870s, with other popular local race meetings at Williamstown and Curraghmore taking away from the crowd.
Lost to the sea
Meanwhile, between 1855 and 1880, the extensive area behind the Tramore Strand called the Back Strand was reclaimed from the sea by the Malcolmson family. It was on this land that the Budd Brothers, of Sweet Briar Lodge, developed what would be the first turf racecourse in Tramore and the first races were run around the tight turns there in 1880.
Racing fixtures at this new track were inconsistent at best until Martin J Murphy became involved, and under his guidance racing continued on a regular basis from 1888. Unfortunately, the location of the racecourse dictated that it would always be vulnerable to Mother Nature, and the original grandstand was destroyed by a storm in 1904. Undeterred, Murphy soon built a replacement, which reportedly accommodated over 1,000 people.
However, weather-related woe soon returned in the form of an infamous storm in April 1911 which broke a 20-metre hole in the Malcolmson Embankment, partially flooding the racecourse.
The damage was soon repaired by the persistent Murphy and racing returned to Tramore the following August, but another storm just a few months later in December created an even bigger breach, which resulted in the entire area being lost to the sea.
Over the decades that followed, various proposals were made to reclaim the Back Strand once more, but they were never acted upon. Now the area is considered a conservation area of international importance. At low tide, the remains of Murphy’s grandstand can still be seen poking out of the sands of the Back Strand close to the car park for Tramore Strand.
Resembling the gradients of Epsom
Following the flooding of his beloved racecourse, Martin J Murphy would have been forgiven for abandoning his ambition for horse racing in Tramore, but he was not to be beaten and he turned his attentions to the higher ground of Graun Hill on the north side of the town.
Never a man to hang around, everything was in order for racing to return to Tramore at the new track for the August Festival in 1912, and it has continued there ever since.
Unfortunately, Murphy didn’t live to enjoy it for long, as he died at the age of just 54 in 1919. For many years after, the Murphy Memorial Plate was run at Tramore in his honour.
Of all the stories that have emerged from Graun Hill in the century that has passed since racing began there, one of the quirkier ones is that the Liam Browne-trained Carlingford Castle was galloped the wrong way round there in preparation for the Epsom Derby in 1983, as Browne felt that going left-handed at Tramore closely resembled the unique gradients of Epsom racecourse on a smaller scale.
While deemed a very unorthodox preparation by many, Carlingford Castle nearly brought off a famous Irish win at Epsom only for Teenoso to get the better of him under Lester Piggott.
Bob Dylan and Ray Charles
Even more randomly, in 1993 Tramore Racecourse played host to the Fleadh Mór, a weekend-long music festival that saw international stars such as Bob Dylan, Ray Charles, Jerry Lee Lewis, Hothouse Flowers and Van Morrison among many others play to the masses. Despite the star power of the acts, the event was a financial disaster and resulted in a loss of €1 million for the otherwise very successful music promoter Vince Power.
Perhaps calling on the never-say-die spirit of Martin J Murphy, Vince Power didn’t show any reluctance in going back to the well in 1997, when the future of Tramore Racecourse was under threat of closure as the lands were under consideration to be sold off for a housing development.
Power, along with a group of businessmen and racing figures led by Dawn Meats supremo Peter Queally, made an investment of over €5 million to save the racecourse and undertake vast improvements to the track and facilities. This investment brought about another period of prosperity for Tramore Racecourse, but perhaps the most dramatic saga in the long and dramatic history of racing in Tramore was only a few short years away.
With Ireland’s Celtic Tiger economy roaring in the mid-2000s, prices for urban land banks were going through the roof, and the land on which Tramore Racecourse was situated was said to be worth in excess of €50 million. Thus, in 2005 it emerged that those that had saved Tramore Racecourse in 1997 had their eyes on another site just outside the town on which to build a new state-of-the-art track to replace the Graun Hill site, which would be sold for development.
A major asset to Irish racing
In what some would say was an ominous connection to the past, in common with the original turf track at Tramore that was lost to the sea in 1911, the 183-acre site of the proposed new racecourse at Lisselan was also on land that had been reclaimed by Malcolmson family in 19th century.
The plans were ambitious, with one of the headline features being a three-storey grandstand with a capacity for 5,000.
But the centrepiece was the track itself. A vast track with a circuit of one-and-three-quarter miles, it would be literally double the distance of the circuit at the tight track at Graun Hill. At 80 metres wide, it had more than enough scope to race regularly throughout the year under all codes. It promised to be not just be a major upgrade from the existing track at Tramore, but a major asset for the Irish racing industry.
Having surmounted some drainage and access issues that emerged during the planning permission process, the project was given the go-ahead in April 2007. Work began on what would become the racing surface, and it is estimated that €2 million was spent on drainage and other ground works to transform it from arable land to race-ready turf.
Of course, only those living in the darkest of caves will not know what is coming next, as the financial crisis of 2008 changed the world in which we lived. The brakes were applied to the Lisselan project and its future remained uncertain as the world plunged into recession.
Praise from Ruby Walsh
In October 2010, with plans to commence work on the racecourse infrastructures on hold, the Lisselan track was opened as a schooling ground, offering trainers the chance to gallop their horses there and participate in schooling races. The track was very well received by trainers and jockeys, with leading rider Ruby Walsh commenting: “It is a lovely surface and has settled in well. There is a great sod on it, which will stand up to plenty of racing. It’s going to be some track!”
In what was seen by some as a tentative step forward for the project, the first point-to-point meeting was held there on April 24, 2011, but it wasn’t without controversy. The meeting, which was to take place on a Sunday, was cancelled the previous Friday after being found to be “unfit for racing” by the Turf Club course inspector, with the notice of cancellation being widely circulated. However, such is the ample width of the track, the track officials subsequently presented an entirely different potential racing line to the inspector, which he found to be fit for racing, so permission was given for the meeting to take place as previously planned.
As it transpired, it was only the briefly of steps forward, as only one more point-to-point meeting would be held there - in April 2012. With the re-zoning of the lands at Graun Hill set to expire, in August 2013 the 183-acre site in Lisselan was put back on the market as farmland. While there was reportedly some early interest, it failed to lead to a sale and the land languished on the market for over two years.
€1 million upgrade
The end of the saga came in December 2015, with the Lisselan site being offered for sale at public auction. The guide price was €490,000, but the bidding halted at just €195,000. Following prolonged negotiations between the auctioneer and two interested parties, the land was sold to what was described as a “local farmer” for a sum believed to be close to the mid-point between the guide price and the final bid.
When the hammer fell, any hopes that racing might one day take place on the new site at Lisselan were all but vanquished, and the announcement in May that Tramore Racecourse would be investing €1 million to upgrade the existing facilities at Graun Hill was perhaps the very final nail in the coffin of Lisselan.
The current Tramore Racecourse at Graun Hill is a lovely place to go racing. It is full of character, very well run and the facilities are very good for a country track. However, the tight and undulating course is quirky to say the least and can be downright scary for horses and jockeys when the ground is on the firm side.
As for the promised state-of-the-art facilities at Lisselan, perhaps the most regretful aspect of the entire saga is that its failure to materialise robbed Tramore and indeed Irish racing of what would have been a top-class track in the southern half of the country.
One thing that cannot be disputed is that racing at Tramore has had to deal with more than its share of misfortune and disaster in its 231-year-history. That racing has continued to take place there in spite of so many setbacks and threats is a testament to the perseverance and passion of those who have taken on the responsibility of maintaining racing in the area over the centuries.
With support like that, it wouldn’t be wise to bet against racing continuing at Tramore for many decades to come.