Down Royal racecourse bosses face eviction by Dublin-based landowners
Northern Ireland's top horse racing venue, Down Royal, is facing a fight for survival in its present form amid fears for the future of the sport after 333 years at the Maze track.
Shocked racecourse chiefs have been told they face eviction by the Dublin-based landowners of the course, near Lisburn, and that they could be out by the end of this year.
Racing has been staged by the Down Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders since 1685 and at the present venue since 1789.
But the present day Corporation management team, who run Down Royal, have been operating for the past 13 years as tenants of the landowners, Dublin company Merrion Property Group, who bought the course for £6.1 million in 2005. The site also incorporates Down Royal golf club.
A lease issued then to the racecourse will expire at the end of this year and despite attempts to secure a renewal, the Down Royal management have been informed legally by Merrion owner and leading property developer Michael Roden, that he intends taking over the course and racing operation.
The matter is set to come before a Judge-led Land Tribunal later this year, probably in September, and the uncertainty until then could mean disruption or even suspension of racing at Down Royal in the short term, at least from the end of the year.
Down Royal chairman and leading wine importer Jim Nicholson admitted: "We are facing a fight. The landowners say they will maintain Down Royal as a racecourse but, in my view, it would be better for racing if it remained with the Corporation, which puts all profits back into the track.
"There is a process we must go through and we are fairly confident. Our priority is that racing will continue and the track prospers. We hope the racing industry will agree that Down Royal has served it well in the past and deserves support at this time."
Since the threat of eviction emerged in recent weeks, Nicholson and his team have been quietly seeking support for their position from the racing industry, local Lagan Valley MP Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and Lisburn and Castlereagh Council.
At the same time, the Merrion Group has shown its determination by working to convince the Irish racing authorities of their bona fides and already a team of racing consultants appointed by them have made presentations to Horse Racing Ireland, the Turf Club and the Association of Irish Racecourses.
A solid endorsement from the racing industry would be required for them to continue racing as, by law, a tenant running a viable business cannot easily be evicted. That decision will be down to the Land Tribunal which will hear evidence from both sides.
Down Royal has grown significantly in recent years to become one of Northern Ireland's premier sporting venues and the track was named Racecourse of the Year at the 2017 Horse Racing Ireland Awards.
That success has been driven by course manager Mike Todd and his Nicholson-led management team of unpaid volunteers who took over the running of a decaying, debt-ridden track in 1996 and transformed it into a leading UK and Ireland racing venue with £4 million invested in first class spectator and racing facilities.
Todd previously recalled: "The roof had blown off the saddling boxes... we had rats... the place had fallen into terrible disrepair. We'd been bankrupt, there was no money, the race meetings we were staging were run-of-the-mill, crowds were meagre. I wondered what I'd signed up to."
The course now employs 10 full-time staff and up to 300 part-time staff at their 12 meetings annually, the next being the two-day Ulster Derby meeting on June 22 and 23.
In winter, Down Royal's jumps highlight is the two-day festival, on November 2 and 3 this year, headlined by the Nicholsonsponsored Grade 1 Jnwine.com Champion Chase whose previous winners include top horses Florida Pearl, Looks Like Trouble, Kauto Star (twice) and Don Cossack. That is followed by the traditional Boxing Day meeting which could be the last staged by the current management.
Down Royal was previously saved by leading horse racing figure and entrepreneur Kelso Stewart who bought the run-down course in 1984 to keep the sport going at the Maze. He died in 2004 and, the following year, his family sold the land to Merrion.
As Down Royal grew and prospered, there was always a realisation of the lack of security a tenancy agreement afforded.
Now the time the course management feared has come and Mr Nicholson accepted: "The landowners paid a high price for the course and understandably are now seeking a return on their investment."
Another concern for Nicholson and his team is that any transfer to a new course management could lead to a delay in getting racing up and running again with fixtures needing to be put in place 18 months in advance.
Mr Nicholson added: "By their own admission, the landowners accept there is a problem with access to vital funding. This is paid to the Down Royal Corporation, which is us, not the course itself. The absence of an administration at Stormont is an added complication in the funding issue.
"This could mean racing being put on hold. The most favourable outcome, for the good of racing, in our opinion, would be for the status quo to continue under a new tenancy agreement.
"We have worked hard to make Down Royal what it is and awarding us Racecourse of the Year in 2017 was an acknowledgment of that by leading figures in the sport, jockeys, trainers and owners. We have now begun enlisting support to show that we are best placed to ensure the future success of racing at Down Royal."
In their submission to the industry, Merrion have countered that they "intend to vastly intensify the usage of this unique asset and thereby realise its true potential".
To that extent they have assembled a high powered advisory panel to put their case.
On Track - Mark Kershaw: Industry veteran with expertise in all aspects of racecourse and equestrian management; Director of Ffos Las racecourse and the Arabian Racing Organisation; Managing Director of Newbury racecourse 1999-2008, Ayr and Musselburgh racecourses 1992-1999; Operations Director of the Tote 1988-1990.
Off Track - Gareth Graham: Bookmaking industry veteran and manager of the largest local bookmaking chain in Northern Ireland.
Regulatory - Michael O'Rourke: HRI and IHRB (Turf Club) veteran with extensive experience in the horseracing industry.
Events and Entertainments - Gar Holohan: Multi-disciplinary events veteran specialising in the design, event planning, programming and safety management of sports, entertainment and leisure.
Property and Leisure - Guy Hollis: Property Industry veteran and former Managing Director of CBRE Northern Ireland and CBRE Ireland.
Business Planning - Top 4 advisory: Multi-disciplinary business advisory practice.
A spokesperson for Merrion said its intention was to keep the land for racing and that there were no plans to put it to another use, such as housing.
"The intention is very much to retain it as a racecourse," said the spokesperson.
"Racegoers and the racing industry won't know any difference and racing will continue."