Down Royal's last race meeting will be on Boxing Day
Confirmation that top class horse racing may cease at Down Royal racecourse, in its present form, is a hammer blow to the sport, the bloodstock industry and hospitality sector.
Boxing Day will see the last race meeting staged by the present management, the Down Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders, who announced yesterday they will close operations at the Maze site on December 31.
It signalled an acceptance of defeat by the organisation in their five-month fight to remain after the course landowner, Dublin property developer Mike Roden, informed the Down Royal management earlier this year that he would not be renewing their lease.
Fears that they could be fighting a losing battle were first flagged up when news of the impending order to quit was revealed by the Belfast Telegraph in a front page story on May 9 this year.
At that time, Mr Roden stated his intention to continue the 300-year-old tradition of racing at the course. This was reiterated by his group in a statement yesterday, saying: "We have always stressed our determination to assume the day-to-day operational management of Down Royal, with horse racing at its centre.
"The withdrawal of the Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders from the Lands Tribunal process brings forward that outcome and we will continue our preparation to deliver horse racing from the beginning of 2019.
"We are looking forward to a new era at Down Royal and to enhancing the experience of racegoers and other stakeholders while contributing to the local and wider community."
But there are hurdles to be overcome that could prove insurmountable. A major stumbling block is the Northern Ireland Horse Racing Fund overseen by the Department of Agriculture. With no Assembly and no Minister for Agriculture in place, the fund cannot be transferred from the Down Royal Corporation to the landlord. In addition, Horse Racing Ireland prepare the annual fixture list and only they could transfer the Down Royal fixtures for next year to an approved entity.
The current course management, meanwhile, have stated their intention to identify a new site to start over again.
That would mean finding an expanse of land suitable for the construction of a race course within Co Down, as stipulated by the Corporation charter. Planning permission would also have to be sought and a roads infrastructure put in place.
Yesterday's news was met with regret by leading horse racing figures, including legendary former champion jockey AP McCoy.
He said: "Obviously the Maze was the first racecourse I ever went to or rode around so it is very sad to hear this news.
"I was lucky enough to ride a winner there in my early days for (trainer) Ian Ferguson which meant a lot as I've known him since I was a child."
Fellow Ulsterman Richard Dunwoody, also a former champion jockey and twice Grand National winner, added: "I am very sad. Since watching my father riding and training winners there in the late 60s and early 70s, I have enjoyed many happy days at the Maze, not only riding around the course but since retiring from the saddle it was always an honour to be invited over by Mike Todd and Jim Nicholson to help promote racing there. It is particularly incongruous as the course was voted Irish Racecourse of the Year just last year."
There will also be dismay in the horse racing industry at any loss of a showcase venue that has provided top class racing since the present management, headed by chairman Jim Nicholson, the noted wine merchant, and general manager Mike Todd, began a transformation in 1996 that led to the investment of more than £5m in the facilities as a not-for profit organisation.
Down Royal's final £1m November Festival next month, which will now become a poignant occasion, has become recognised as a testing ground for Cheltenham Festival hopefuls the following March.
With tens of thousands of racegoers passing through the gates each year, it would be a loss to the sport's followers and the hospitality industry which caters for them.
It is unclear what will happen to the 11 full-time course staff. Race events support 400 part-time jobs, mostly in hospitality, while the site also incorporates Down Royal golf club.
In a statement, the Corporation said it would like to thank "everyone who has made the racecourse the top class racing and social venue it undoubtedly is. The committee, ground staff, management team, sponsors and contractors have all played a vital part in the delivery of world class race days for all the supporters of Northern Irish racing. "
Jim Nicholson said his committee will now consider a number of sites which could accommodate a new racetrack and facilities to accommodate Down Royal's 12 annual race meetings.
"We are facing new opportunities and there is every likelihood that Down Royal will find a new home," he said.
"Down Royal's approach was always based on a not-for-profit approach to ensure the racing sector in Northern Ireland which employs between 2,000 and 2,500 people benefited from raised standards and generous prize money. All profits have always been ploughed straight back into the sector. It is essential to the future of the sector that this contribution continues.
"I want to acknowledge the generosity of our sponsors, many of whom have been quietly but significantly helping fund programmes such as youth work experience, apprenticeships and other essential schemes aimed at helping people out of unemployment."
The course was previously owned by the late, respected racehorse owner and entrepreneur Kelso Stewart. After his death in 2005 it was sold to the Merrion Property Group which paid £6.1m for the site which they are now reclaiming.