Westmeath"s greatest sporting successes come on the racing field

Story by Tom Kelly

Tuesday, 5th August, 2008 12:00pm

Whether it is the rich texture of the soil or the strong imposing character of the Westmeath racing fraternity, the county has a tradition of breeding great horses and great racing men.

This year alone, Mullingar man Martin Dibbs bred the Aintree Grand National winner Comply or Die trained by David Pipe; Ann & Peter Downes, Russelstown Stud, bred Fivefortree winner of the Ballymore Properties Novice Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival and as we shall this family traces back to L"Escargot (dual Gold Cup winner & Grand National winner) and Mr What winner of the Aintree Grand National 50 years ago; and Oliver & Salome Brennan, Mullingar who bred Royal & Sun Alliance Chase winner Albertas Run to win at Cheltenham for trainer John Joe O"Neill.

Michael O"Leary may fly high with Ryanair to provide cheap flights for the general public but some people also appreciate the success of his Gigginstown House Stud and this year he won the Irish Grand National with his horse Hear The Echo (33/1) trained by Mouse Morris to follow up his success a few years ago with War of Attrition in the Cheltenham Gold Cup. No other sport in Westmeath can compete with this kind of international success, which solidifies a great tradition going back hundreds of years. This article is just to touch on some aspects of that tradition.

The very successful Kilbeggan meeting is the only racecourse still operating in Westmeath under the rules of racing and has been taken place there since 1840. However horse racing on the flat and over fences has taken place in many areas in Westmeath since C18. Dr Tony Sweeney in his book ' The Sweeney Guide to the Turf 1501-2001' includes many of the Westmeath meeting which were recorded in the Irish Racing Calendar as follows: Athlone (including courses Garrycastle, Bushfield etc) 1761/62, 1775/78,1790/92, 1807, 1811, 1843, 1858/68, 1893/96, 1898/1904, 1906, 1913/16, 1919/20 and 1922/23; Ballymore, Castlepollard (Associated Hunt Beggars Benison) 1801,1803, 1845; Castletown Delvin 1842, 1844; Coole 1874; Finea, Killucan 1881/84; Kinnegad 1765, 1767, 1802, 1878; Ledestown (confined to polo ponies) 1884, 1895/1902, 1904; Loughegar (Associated Westmeath Hunt) 1861/62, 1867/68, 1870/71,& 1873/79; Moate (Aughafin-Associated Hunt South Westmeath) 1891/96; Mullingar (Newbrook, Associated Hunts -Westmeath, Multyfarnhan Harriers, Newbrook Harriers etc) 1754/56, 1768/70, 1776/78, 1783, 1785, 1787/93, 1803, 1820/21, 1843/46, 1848/50, 1852/57, 1859/60, 1863/66, 1869, 1872/74, 1877/84, 1886, 1890/1942, & 1946/67; Multyfarnham 1765, Slanemore 1872, and Ballinacaragy 1846.

These are only recorded meetings in The Racing Calendar but in reality there were many other local meetings or point to points during this time e.g. Athlone races is recorded as first taking place in August 1731 at Monksland. This particular meeting took place over 4 days including victories for Mr Edgeworths Poleboy and Colonel Trench"s horse Thursday. One of the novelty events was a 10-mile race for "running footmen" with a silver watch for the winner. Generally, meetings were organised by the gentry for the gentry as part of a social lifestyle but in C19 Ireland agrarian agitation and faction fighting meant that policing was a big issue at any public event, which included large numbers of the lower classes. There was a close connection between horse racing and hunting with meetings organised by clubs like the South Westmeath Hunt Club, Westmeath Hunt Club etc Many of the leading owners and organisers were part of hunting fraternity. This would gradually change in the late C19 and early C20, as farmers & business people became much more involved in horse racing. The meetings were more similar to point to points nowadays with temporary tapes, stands etc erected for the specific event. This had it"s own dangers. The Moate Races in April 1889 at Aughafin was attended by an "immense concourse of people" and the local Stewards included Messrs Luke J.Egan, Patrick Duffy, J.J.Hurley, E.Kelly, John Lowe, George Woodburne, John Murtagh, James Gaynor, L.D. Byrne, P.Fallon, S.Boland, John Egan, Peter Marshe and Dr Moorehead. A stand was erected in a commanding position but during the 4th race the greater part of it came crashing down and many had to be extricated from beneath broken planks.

MULLINGAR RACES

Racing in the Mullingar area probably took place in C17 but there is no record of them. Edmund Dease in his 'History of the Westmeath Hunt' mentions a meeting, taking place in 1742. In a book on 'Hallmarks on Gold & Silver Plate ' by William Chaffers there is an entry ' Plate won by Cheshire Tom Mullingar Races in 1737- Sir C.Domville'. Faulkners Dublin Journal in June 1737 also refers to a play being put off in Dublin 'as the actors are at Mullingar Races'. The Racing Calendar in 1777 records one of the early official meeting and shows four flat races competed for at Mullingar and won by Mr T. Nugent"s Dangler, Darcy French"s Patience, Mr O"Donnell"s Noble and D.B.Daly"s Flora. During the C19 racing took place in Hopestown, Gainstown, Slanemore, Cullion until the famous Lynn course came into use in 1838. Races were run in heats, which meant that horses had to compete 2 or 3 times the same day. The main trophy was The Westmeath Cup valued at 60 guineas. Racing at Newtown coincided with the opening of the railway line from Dublin to Mullingar in 1848 before the opening of the Newbrook course in 1852 by Patrick Costello. He built a stand, ladies enclosure, and a road from the railway station to the course. It was subsequently bought by Percy Nugent, Soho House, Multyfarnhan before being taken over by the Mullingar Racecourse Co Ltd under Lord Greville with the backing of Robert Downes, J.P.Dowdall, Patrick Cleary, etc. Newbrook became one of the best racecourses in Ireland throughout the C20 and in 1939 it received a grant of £10,000, as one of the top second tier tracks under the management of Fred Myerscough. When it closed down in 1967 it was receiving considerable sponsorship with the Phoenix Beer Chase one of the most valuable ever held there. The closure of Mullingar racecourse was one of the great losses to social life in the midlands but it was also one of the main reasons why Kilbeggan races survived and ultimately thrived.

PERSONALITIES

Many members of the Westmeath Hunt were great contributors to racing in the county including H.C.Ballesty, H.E.Large, Sir Richard Levinge, Bart, Locke"s of Kilbeggan, Sir Walter Nugent, J.H.Taylor, Knockdrin. Anyone who is interested in Westmeath sport and horse racing should read Tom Hunts book 'Sport & Society in Victorian Ireland the case of Westmeath'. Great landowners like John Longworth responsible for the Garrycastle races, John Malone, Lord De Freyne, Frenchpark Roscommon, in Athlone area, Boyd Rochforts, Middleton Park, G.V.Reid, James Cheshire, Castletown-Geoghegan jockey & trainer, A. J.Pilkington, Tyrrellspass, W.T Brabazon, James Brabazon, Rathconrath, T.M.Reddy,Culleen, Cornelius Hannan,Killucan, E.A Shaw, P,W.Shaw, Michael Cleary vet, Frank Mitchell, James Yourrell, Ballinacaragy, James & Chris Cole, Christopher Taaffee, Frank Barbour etc. Throughout the C20 family names associated with Westmeath racing & breeding include Clearys, Leavys, Kiernans, Kirwans,McKennas, Downes , Dibbs, Fethersonhaugh, Ross, Ronaldson, Tormeys, O"Roarkes, Hopes etc.

AINTREE AND IRISH GRAND NATIONAL

Westmeath has had varied connections with Aintree Grand National winners. In 1862 Thomas Naghten, Thomastown, Athlone ran his horse Thomastown (refused at 2nd fence) in the big race against Lord De Freynes O"Connell which was brought down and jockey Joseph Wynne was injured and subsequently died to become the only jockey killed in the race. His father Denis rode the winner in 1847.One of great winners was Cloister (first horse to carry 12st 7lbs) who won in 1893.. The dam was Grace II who may have been owned by Willian Kelly, Mullingar. This horse ran in Kilbeggan & other local meetings. Drumcree won in 1903 and he was by Ascetic out of Witching Hour bred by C.Hope of Mabestown, Delvin. Lady Nelson (Margaret Hope, Gartlandstown) wife of Sir Willian Nelson became the first woman to own a Grand National winner when Aly Sloper won in 1915. Shaun Spadah was the only horse to get around in 1921 and he was bred by Patrick McKenna, Kilgarvan House, Streamstown. Other significant winners include Quare Times bought by Robert Smyth, Gaybrook for 300guineas and owned by Mrs W.H. Wellman (formerly Mrs Smyth). The horse trained by Vincent O"Brien was paraded through Mullingar on 5th April 1955 flanked by the Westmeath Hunt and music by Mullingar Brass & Reed band. In 1958 Mrs Barbara O"Neill of Rathganny bred Mr What to win the big race and strangely the next Irish winner was L"Escargot in 1975 also bred by Mrs O"Neill. What A Daisy dam of L"Escargot was a 3 parts sister to Mr What. L"Escargot also won the Cheltenhan Gold Cup in 1970 and 1971.

Many horses with Westmeath connections won the Irish Grand National including The Admiral 1894 trained by Frank Mitchell, Tubberquill House; Mavis of Meath 1900 ridden by James Kelly, Mullingar; M.J.Cleary"s Patlander 1902 ridden & trained by James Cheshire; Frank Barbours Punch,1915; J.Kiernan"s All Sorts 1916 trained by Dick Cleary ( the horse had to walk home to Streamstown after the race because of the Easter Rising) ; Halston, Poolgowna, Golden View, Shagreen (ridden by Eddie Newman, Carrick), King Spruce 1982 (ridden by Eddie Newman"s son Gerry ) etc.

ARKLE

The most famous horse of all time made his debut on 9th December 1961 in the Lough Ennell Plate in Mullingar, ridden by Mark Hely Hutchinson (the only jockey not to win on him) and he finished third to local horse Lady Flame ridden by Cecil Ronaldson. He went on to win three Gold Cups (27 races out of 35), never fell, and never beaten over fences in Ireland. He was voted the greatest sports personality of the 1960"s in Britain ahead of Mohammad Ali, Bobby Moore etc. The connection with Westmeath also included Paddy Murray from Moate who was head lad in Tom Dreapers stable. Pat Taaffe the jockey was married to Molly Lyons, sister of Jock Lyons, Kilbeggan vet and member of the Race Committee. Pat Taaffe was due to ride Arkle over hurdles at Mullingar in March 1962 but unfortunately the meeting was transferred to Naas due to the state of the ground.

FLAT RACING

Shortage of space does not allow for an account of the Westmeath connection with many of the great flat horses. The most successful was Major Lionel Holliday who established the Cleaboy Stud in 1914 and many good horses like Prix De L"Arc winner Vaguely Noble (1968) and St Ledger winner Hethersett were bred in Westmeath. Colonel Harold Boyd-Rochfort, Middleton Park Stud, bred Airborne Epsom Derby winner in 1946. Other important winners were Ho Goes bred by Harry Whitworth Master of Westmeath Hunt; Beaudelaire won the St Ledger in 1931 for Count John McCormack, Edward Hope"s, Gartlandstown Stud bred Oaks winner Lovely Rosa in 1936, P.W.Shaw"s Belsize was best 2 year old in 1920 & favourite for the Irish Derby in 1921; and J.J.Dolan, Kilbeggan owned & bred Fair Astronomer who was first ever two year old to win in France, England & Ireland in 1962. Westmeath racing had connections with many well known personalities from Barney Curley, Rex Beaumont, Belvedere, Christy Maye (Cloughtaney), Beenie McDonnell (with his prolific winner Pidgeon"s Nest) and number one vote catcher in Westmeath Willie Penrose T.D. whose horse Ballintue Road won recently.

This short account has many omissions but I would like to follow on by gathering information on Westmeath racing including old race meetings, breeding, famous horses, jockeys (like Paddy Broderick, Mullingar who rode Night Nurse to win two Champion Hurdle), personalities etc with a view to writing a detailed article or in time a book about Westmeath racing (which might raise some money for the Jockey"s Fund etc). I would like to talk to or meet people or if anyone has any information contact me at 057 9332683 or at the attached address.

Stan McCormack

4 Tullamore Rd,

Kilbeggan.

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