Belfast Telegraph

From bankruptcy to vibrant and thriving modern racecourse

By Brett Campbell

Down Royal racecourse has been proudly hosting the 'sport of kings' since the 17th century - but despite major redevelopment its future now hangs in the balance.

General manager Mike Todd took over the reins of the Lisburn club 22 years ago and has transformed the venue, which had fallen into a state of disrepair.

In a previous interview with the Belfast Telegraph he recalled how the races were "run of the mill" in the mid-1990s, and attracted only meagre crowds.

"We'd been bankrupt, there was no money," he said.

But under his dedicated leadership the not-for-profit business now has a multi-million pound turnover and attracts tens of thousands of visitors after overcoming many hurdles.

A new grandstand, which incorporated 14 corporate boxes, a VIP hospitality suite, public bar and an elevated viewing area overlooking the track and finish post, was built in 1993.

Five years later the exclusive Governor's Stand, featuring a cafe and spectacular views of the course, was introduced for the Freeman of Down Royal Racecourse.

Then, in 2009, a new hospitality pavilion comprising numerous suites overlooking the finishing straight was built.

The £6m cost was covered without any help from outside the industry or handouts from the public purse. When the inaugural November Festival was up and running by 1999, bosses struggled to find a sponsor for the main feature race.

Jim Nicholson, who had only recently been appointed chairman at the time, took the first gamble by using his company JN Wines to back what became the JN Wines Champion Chase.

That paved the way for what has become an essential fixture on the local sporting calendar.

The multiple race-day events now attract hordes of punters, with the autumn highlight established as a proving ground for top trainers harbouring hopes of Cheltenham glory.

Every leading National Hunt jockey, including AP McCoy, has graced the November Festival, along with celebrity owners such as Ryanair boss Michael O'Leary.

Home-grown heroes including Carl Frampton, Jimmy Nesbitt and Darren Clarke regularly line the rails, with UTV presenter - and committee member - Pamela Ballantine considered a permanent fixture.

Just last October, Todd revealed plans to make "the Down Royal experience bigger and better" for visitors who flock there for Ladies Day, hoping to win the best dressed competition.

"Everything we make is reinvested into the course and the racing," he said.

The course is kept in pristine condition by track boss Carson Lyons and five full-time employees - but more than 400 part-timers are regularly drafted in to manage and cater for the vast crowds on race day.

Todd, a former car salesman and former head of Unilever's Northern Ireland hospital division, said he is "fuelled by passion" to do the job he loves.

But the married father-of-three's "sole desire" to provide quality racing is now facing an uncertain future.

Belfast Telegraph

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