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Ballinrobe Racecourse still a work in progress

A work in progress

John Staunton on his family’s link with Ballinrobe Racecourse

Mike Finnerty

NEXT Monday evening a crowd of around 3,000 people is expected to arrive at Ballinrobe Racecourse for the meeting that marks the 90th anniversary of racing at the popular South Mayo track.
It will be both a momentous and emotional occasion for all those who have played their part over the years, through thick and thin. Some will remember the time when the course was saved from extinction, and others will recall the days when famous horses and infamous jockeys helped turn the spotlight on to Mayo’s only racecourse.
All of them will agree that it couldn’t have been done without a phenomenal collective effort over the last 90 years; from the men in the committee room, to the people who did the heavy lifting around the track, to those who make sure that everything runs like clockwork from the moment the gates are opened on race day.
One name, in particular, has been as synonymous as it has been constant with the fluctuating fortunes of Ballinrobe Racecourse since 1921.
That name is ‘Staunton’.
JB Staunton was one of the founding members of the course and his son, John, has been a committee member since the mid 1970s. He became Chairman of the Racecourse Committee back in 1990.
In his own unassuming way, John Staunton has helped to guide Ballinrobe to its current position where it is now held up as an example to others by Horse Racing Ireland.
The man himself is at pains to point out that it always was, and remains, a team effort. But the fact remains that without the input of the Staunton family, things might have worked out very differently for Ballinrobe Racecourse.

MF: What are your earliest memories of racing in Ballinrobe?
JS: Going down there with my Dad when there were only one or two meetings in the whole year. In some ways they were a bigger occasion than they are now because there were so few of them. Now we have nine meetings every year.
That time most of the crowd would be locals or from Galway. I remember my Dad telling me that he thought nothing of cycling from Ballinrobe to the Galway races.
I think his interest in racing came from being in business in the town, and he was interested in doing anything that would develop the town.
The one founding member that probably had the most interest in racing was Paddy Daly. His son, John Daly, is now a committee member. I think it might have been Paddy’s interest in racing that got the ball rolling.

MF: It must have been a huge undertaking at the time?
JS: Poverty was rife that time and there was very little money around. It was a fantastic achievement to get it up and running, and they have survived down the years through thick and thin. Courses like Tuam and Mullingar closed down but they fought on.
I think their motivation was to have something that the town would be proud of. They knew people would be interested in it. Getting it started, and up and running, was the hard part.
It was a huge day out for people from Ballinrobe and people from the hinterland.
MF: What was the race day experience like when you started going first?
JS: One of the oldest things [I remember] was that there was always a three-card trick guy or a fella with a roulette wheel. All kinds of ‘hurdy gurdys’ were around.
That time there were always two dances on in town; the Town Hall and the Maple Ballroom. They were huge, both would be jammed. People would be going from one to the other.
It was a huge benefit to the town at the time whereas now people come and go in cars. Now it hasn’t the same impact on business in the town.

MF: How do you feel when you walk through the gates now?
JS: I’d be very proud of the developments in the last 15 years. The place has been transformed. We had an old grandstand there there that was basically a glorified hayshed.
Wintertime would come and some of the galvanise would be blown away, and we’d be looking for funds to repair it. Often we wouldn’t be able to get funds from the Racing Board but still it would be patched up and things would be kept going.
Eventually, we got the grant aid to build a new stand in 1998 and that was the start of the modern Ballinrobe Racecourse.
It’s a totally different place now, and that’s what so many people have said to us over the last few years. That makes you very proud as a Ballinrobe person. To see what the committee has achieved down through the years.
We were very fortunate that the committee was progressive and that they took the chance to develop when the funds were available. It has proved to be a very wise decision.

MF: What has the support been like from the local community down through the years?
JS: The new developments have made a huge difference in that regard. I can remember, prior to those developments taking place, discussions about the poor local support for the races.
I think they just weren’t interested in racing, but now that has turned around. We get great support from local businesses in terms of sponsorship and that has a great knock-on effect.

MF: The closure of the course was a real threat at times in the past?
JS:  It happened to some of the courses that didn’t avail of the funding and others are suffering now because of it too.
A huge percentage of racegoers are going now for the racing and the social outing. You have to have good facilities, restaurants, bars, music.
The way the course and track is presented is a credit to all involved. There’s a tradition there for a lot of the people who work on the track and who work on race days. It’s a great community thing.
We’re highly thought of by the racing authorities and they have given us funds because they had confidence in our ability to get the work done.

MF: Who are the people that you will be thinking about on this 90th anniversary?
JS: All the people who helped me along the way, especially Jimmy Tierney (RIP), Norman Molloy, Tony Mulloy, all very dedicated people who were working in the interest of the community.
I’d also like to thank the new committee members who came on board and have done sterling work in terms of sponsorship, fund-raising, and developing racing in general.
John Flannelly has also done a great job since he was appointed as Racecourse Manager back in 1999. He has worked tirelessly to make sure that all the racing professionals, on and off the track, have what they need at all times.
Lester Piggott’s visit back in 1991 generated great publicity, both nationally and internationally, and Peter Costello deserves great credit for getting Lester to Ballinrobe in the first place.
I’d always think of the racecourse vets and doctors down through the years too that made such a huge contribution, voluntarily, for their local racecourse. People like Pat Daly who was Veterinary Surgeon for 50 years at the course, and Dr Cummins (RIP) and Dr McDarby (RIP).
And going back to the founders, what a wonderful vision and endurance they had. They always had the best interests of the racecourse and the town at heart. They all worked tirelessly, and voluntarily, for the cause.
When they were going by train to Dublin to meetings to make their case they were probably looked on as ‘culchies’. But they succeeded.

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