Down Royal owner insists racing will continue on course
The owner of Down Royal has vowed to continue horse racing at the venue when it evicts the current management.
Dublin-based property outfit the Merrion Group bought the racecourse near Lisburn in 2005 for £6.1m and announced its intention last month to evict the current managers at the end of the year when their lease expires.
This led to an outcry from the Down Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders, which has managed the grounds for more than 300 years.
The current management team took over 13 years ago, and said it was best placed to guarantee the track's future success.
DUP MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson backed it to remain last month, but now says he is reassured racing will continue at Down Royal after meeting with the Merrion Group.
The matter is due before a judge-led land tribunal this year, but it's feared the uncertainty until then will cause havoc with the racing schedule, which often requires events to be agreed 18 months in advance.
Down Royal chairman and leading wine importer Jim Nicholson vowed yesterday that the management team would fight to stay on.
The Merrion Group said it was very conscious of the long tradition of horse racing at Down Royal and the "justifiable affection" in which the venue was held.
"It is our intention and ambition that horse racing will continue on the site, and in fact that the whole race day experience is enhanced," it said.
"We have never looked at the possibility of using the Down Royal site for anything other than horse racing and other complementary activities."
Mr Donaldson said he had supported horse racing at Down Royal since he first became an MP and praised the role it had played in promoting Lisburn as a tourist destination.
Speaking after the meeting with the Merrion Group, he said his "overriding concern" was that the local community around Down Royal was not negatively impacted and that horse racing continued.
He said: "I accept there are no plans to abandon racing or to build houses on the site and I am reassured by that.
"I will continue to work with all parties to promote Down Royal and to ensure that we maximise our tourist potential here in Lisburn."
Mr Nicholson said the management team was working around the clock to make the best case to stay on and continue with its role.
"We've a fantastic team, we're putting together a £2m plan for improvements if we get to stay, and we've been working 24-hour shifts to make sure the grounds are in top condition," he explained.
"It's an enormous investment to run a race course, it takes a lot of time and money.
"It's not an easy commercial business to run, which is why I think we're best placed as a non-profit organisation."
He added there was no risk of the racing timetable being disrupted as the team would agree the next round of race meetings by September, and had no intention of "dropping the ball" while still in charge of the course.