Racing towards Listowel this week as harvest festival gets underway

Norma Prendiville

Reporter:

Norma Prendiville

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norma.prendiville@limerickleader.ie

Racing towards Listowel this week as harvest festival gets underway

Announcing the Best Dressed Man competition at Listowel Races are Pat Lyons, Emerald Properties, and judges, the Crimmins triplets Alison, Nicola and Laura, with Joe Dunne, Ballyheigue in the hard hat

FOR a great many people in Limerick, but particularly in West Limerick, the Listowel Races are a key marker in the turning of the year.

For many, summer isn’t over until after  the Listowel Races. And by tradition, it is the last big outing before autumn and winter set in.

The continuing appeal of Listowel is its tradition, according to Brenda Daly, secretary of the Listowel Racecourse Company.  

“It is a very traditional festival,” she said this week as the staff at the racecourse made their final preparations for the festival which kicks off on Sunday and runs until September 16.

“People come in and tell us they have been coming here all their lives and they could be 80,” she continued. “Or if they missed one, that is the one they talk about.”

But Brenda herself is a big part of that tradition. Her late father Brendan (1924-2015) was an iconic figure at the Island racecourse where he served as secretary for over 60 years until Brenda took over in 2012.

Oddly enough, the origin of Listowel races lies outside the town altogether and  goes back to the early 1900s and an annual gathering at Balleigh, Ballybunion, about nine miles away.

 This ‘gathering’ involved horse-racing and various games, ending with a pre-arranged faction fight for the grand finale. But, as a result of the disturbances around these faction fights, Balleigh was suspended and racing was transferred to Listowel, where the first meeting took place in 1858.

Some 159 years later, Listowel Races has grown into a seven-day festival with over €1.2m in prize money, itself a record €60,000 up on last year.

It has also gotten the royal nod through a partnership brokered earlier this year with Royal Ascot, as a result of which Ascot will help promote Listowel and vice versa. In addition, Royal Ascot will facilitate a Listowel winner in the Ascot National Hunt.

But while keeping tradition alive, Listowel Races has kept up with the times, using social media to promote events or even as an event itself. One of the innovations on Ladies Day in Listowel is ‘Best Selfie” and these are featured on a Twitter wall on the big screen.

Last year, Ms Daly pointed out, Ladies Day saw an all-time Listowel record, with over 29,000 people coming through the turnstiles. It also saw the introduction of a new service urging the ladies to  ‘Save your heels’ and use the courtesy buses running every half hour from the Square to the racecourse.

It proved very popular according to Ms Daly and will be back again for Ladies Day on Friday, September 15. The prize for  Best Dressed Lady carries a purse of €3000 and the use of a Honda Jazz for a year, courtesy of sponsors McElligotts. But there are prizes too for Best Dressed Couple, for Iconic Lady, and for Glamorous Young Racer.

In addition, a Best Dressed Man competition runs on the Thursday of the festival while the final day sees a Vintage Fashion competition, sponsored by Listowel Tidy Towns which is also catching on.

The racing at Listowel with its mix of flat racing and national hunt racing is a potent attraction for racing enthusiasts, owners and trainers. The highlights of the week include the Guiness Kerry National Handicap Steeplechase on Wednesday with €175,00 prize money and this year, for the first time since 1975 and L’Escargot, a Cheltenham Gold Cup winner, Coneygree is on the racecard along with 40 others.  Other, high profile races include the Ladbrokes Ireland Handicap Hurdle  on Thursday with a €60,000  purse and the Guinness Handicap on Friday with a prize of €55,000.

The facilities at the racecourse were  improved last year with the opening of a new €1,3m food hall, bar and viewing stand. Opening day this Sunday is a Family Day.