Down Royal success story must not be hampered by owners' plans, insists MP
A DUP MP has expressed his concern that the owners of Northern Ireland's top horse racing venue have confirmed their intention to evict Down Royal's long-standing bosses by the end of the year.
For over 300 years, the racing at the Maze site has been staged by the Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders.
The Dublin-based Merrion Property Group bought the land for £6.1m in 2005, but there was shock when they said they would not renew the Corporation's lease at the end of the year.
In a statement they promised to continue to stage race meetings with "ambitious plans to enhance the racegoers' experience while seeking to develop additional uses for the site".
Lagan Valley MP Jeffrey Donaldson said he was "very concerned" by the statement while the Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders have said they are preparing for a fight in a judge-led Land Tribunal later this year.
A spokesman for Merrion Group said they respected the "justifiable affection" the venue is held in, but believe the experience could be built on for "everyone who enjoys a day's racing at Down Royal".
Merrion has assembled a team of industry experts and professionals to plan the track's long-term future.
"We are fully supportive and enthusiastic for the continuity of racing at Down Royal and are determined to safeguard it," the spokesman said. "We will respect the integrity and the confidentiality of the formal process which has now begun."
DUP MP Mr Donaldson said he would raise the issue with the Merrion Group directly.
"I'm very concerned about the proposals by the owners of the racecourse," he said.
"The corporation that runs this venue has made it a great success, and my wish would be that they continue in situ and continue to organise racing at this prestigious venue.
"I'm very happy to meet the owner to discuss his other plans but I would be strongly opposed to any move to evict the Down Royal Corporation."
With the uncertainty of the Land Tribunal, it's feared the racing schedule will be thrown into chaos with meetings required to be planned 18 months in advance. Mr Donaldson continued: "The present board of Down Royal have transformed this venue and invested millions of pounds in upgrading the infrastructure.
"It would be a shame now if they were to be evicted at a time when the racecourse is enjoying unparalleled success."
He said it was also vital that any future plans were consistent with the Royal charter that established the racecourse.
"This is an area I will be exploring further with both the corporation and the owner of Down Royal," he said.
General Manager Mike Todd took over the course 22 years ago after it had fallen into a state of disrepair.
The not-for-profit model saw millions invested and, with the backing of chairman and wine importer Jim Nicholson, it was named Racecourse of the Year at the Horse Racing Ireland awards in 2017.