I Do Love To Be Beside The Seaside
For me one of the greatest attractions of racing in the UK and Ireland is its diversity. With 60 courses in the UK and a further27 in Ireland there is a course to suit everybody.
From the natural beauty of Goodwood and Cartmel, to the dramatic amphitheatre that is Cheltenham. From the sweeping straight courses at Newmarket to the tight turns of Chester. From pancake flat Southwell to the undulations of Chepstow. Every taste is catered for.
That is why I despair when some advocate the construction of even more and more all weather courses. All weather racing has its place, however it needs to be controlled.
You can get exciting races on the all weather, you can even get group races for goodness sake. The downside for me is they are all much of a muchness. Racing on characterless oval tracks. If you ignore the surrounding scenery there is no difference between watching racing at Wolverhampton, Southwell of Lingfield.
The diversity of our racing was really bought home at 3:00 last Wednesday afternoon when I found myself on a near deserted Irish beach. The relevance of it being deserted was that just 24 hours later there was to be a race meeting staged on this very beach – I was at Laytown, a small town about 30 miles north of Dublin. The only sign of the impending meeting was a handful of marquees on the cliff overlooking the beach.
For the uninitiated Laytown hosts the only official race meeting to be held on a beach in Europe. Racing only one day a year the actual meeting date is determined by the tide tables more than anything else.
The next morning was even more concerting, arriving at about 10:00, five hours before the first race there was still little sign of there being a racecourse.
There were a few stakes marking the edge of the enclosure and almost a mile away the seven furlong start was being set up.
Walking the course was interesting and the going was quite surprising – I thought it would be on the soft side but, in truth, it was nearer good to firm. A couple of horses cantered past and the indentations from their hooves was no more than half an inch.
By the five furlong marker there was a worrying patch of “false” ground – effectively a little streamlet cutting across the track and a group of council workers were constructing a makeshift dam to stem the flow.
Three hours before the first race and stakes had been planted where the furlong marker poles were to be erected and marker posts for the running rails were appearing. Actually running rails were few and far between. There were a couple of short sections by each of the starts and rail on the far side for the final furlong only. The rest of the course was on open beach.
An hour before the first race and the main focus was on setting up the finishing post. The judges box was a half size Portacabin on top of the cliff and great attention was being paid with complex measuring equipment to ensure everything was in the right place. It was quite amusing to watch as the absolute attention to detail seemed to be in complete contrast to the seemingly relaxed attitude to the construction of the remainder of the course.
It was only half an hour before the start of the first race that the final sections of running rail were complete and the empty beach had been transformed into something resembling a racetrack.
Watching the racing was a democratic experience. You could watch the racing for free from the beach itself or for €15 you could go into the enclosures.
Of course being a “once a year” event the facilities were rudimentary. The weigh room / press room was a marquee. As were the “restaurant” and bar.
Toilets were of the mobile variety and that was more or less it. There were a few benches around the parade ring but nowhere to sit. The stewards were perched precariously on top of some scaffolding and I never did locate the commentary box.
There was a minor excitement before racing when one of the ambulances became stuck in the sand just before the first race – the on course JCB was summoned to pull it out and there was a sharp intake of breath when the rope used to pull the ambulance free made a terrible creaking sound and bets were quickly made as to whether the rope would snap or the ambulance would be pulled free. Luckily for racegoers it was the latter.
There were also some lovely scenes a little earler on as a number of the afternoons runners were taken into the water to be exercised or just for a paddle – there were some beautiful sights.
One of the many odd aspects of Laytown is the proliferation of jump jockeys riding, even though it is officially a flat meeting. Indeed the weights of the races are framed to cater for the heavier jumps boys.
One of the aspects I most like about going racing in Ireland is the atmosphere – it is so different from in the UK. The welcome is invariably friendly and although the level of drinking is similar you don’t get the same edge at the Irish courses. It is just a jolly occasion with everyone having fun. I was hoping for the same at Laytown but was, I’m afraid to sy, disappointed to find the vast majority of racegoers at the course were Brits. They easily outnumbered the locals and as a result the atmosphere wasn’t as I expected it to be. It was a mixture of a point-to-point and gaff track atmosphere.
Viewing of the racing was limited, although there was a big screen behind the parade ring – in all honesty it was probably too risky putting a big screen on the beach – it would have sunk without trace by race three. It was also possible to stroll down to the starts, not surprisingly flag starts as nobody would risk stalls on the beach, where there was, apparently a nice relaxed atmosphere.
The biggest spoiler of the afternoon was the weather. On moment warm sunshine the next “liquid sunshine” and when it rained it really rained. Of course there were more people at the races than there was room to accommodate them in the limited marquees, consequently there were some very wet individuals by the end of the afternoon.
The six races went off without incident. Not the highest quality racing but most of the races produced close finishes. Form goes out of the window atLaytown and I followed, with success, the trusted line of backing Nina Carberry in the amateur races – with the magnificent Nina winning both heats.
As soon as the last race finished the crew was out dismantling the track and within a couple of hours the track was just like any other beach anywhere else in Ireland.
Visiting Laytown achieved a long held ambition and I am glad I went. Would I go again? I’m not sure – if I was in the area when it was taking place then yes I most likely would. I’m not sure if I would make a special effort to travel across again.
At least I can say I have been and I am really glad I did.