On the 9th of March 1840 a group of gentlemen organised a race in Kilbeggan for a Challenge Cup valued at 40 guineas with 10 pounds added by the Stewards. Between 1840 and 1855 racing was held in several locations around the town including the present site. It was revived in 1879 when the first official meeting was held at Ballard on 17th April in a field provided by the Locke family, owners of the distillery which is still in operation in Kilbeggan, and racing continued there until 1885. In 1901 the races were revived again at the present location in Loughnagore and have been held every year since except for the period 1941-45.
The voluntary committee survived serious difficulties in the 1950’s and 60’s when the Racing Board withdrew financial assistance. Two things happened in the 1970’s, which helped seal, the future success of Kilbeggan. The major change was the switch to all National Hunt Racing in 1971 and in 1973 the first ever sponsored races were held in Kilbeggan. The progress from that time culminated in the opening of the New Complex in 1990 together with the purchase of the racecourse lands plus wining the Racecourse of the Year Award the same year.
In recent years improvements have been included not just the new complex (with restaurants, bars, sponsors room, and offices) but surfacing of the concourse area, extending the enclosure and developing a new site for tented village, developing and widening the race track to cater for larger fields and additional race meetings and opening the pavilion at a cost of 1 million pounds in May 1999. The capital cost of over 1.7 million on developing new facilities now bring the standard of facilities at Kilbeggan on a par with the best available in Ireland.
Since 1992 the number of race meetings has increased from three to six each year and attendance’s have doubled from 24,000 in 1995 to 50,000 in 2000. The races experienced explosive growth in sponsorship with the business community contributing 130,000 in 2000. The most significant sponsorship to date is the Elan Midlands National that commenced in July 1997 and has added a sense of occasions to the six meetings. In the true Hollywood style Christy’s Picnic who included director Neil Jordan and actor Stephen Rea amongst his owners won the race.
Many strange stories cover the span of Kilbeggan’s racing history over the past 160 years from the local horse who won the 1916 Irish Grand National and had to walk home because of the Easter Rising; the horse that drowned during a race; the telegram from the House of Commons that saved the races in 1917; the victory of Prince Aly Khan on the unpronounceable Ynys in 1953 and many more. However the strangest story of all is how the Kilbeggan has gone from the crisis of the 1960’s to being the most successful one-day meeting in Ireland outside the festival races. The Kilbeggan formula mixes the spectacle of races over jumps with the relaxed laid back charm of genuine rural meeting where fun, friendship, and atmosphere are main components. One reporter wrote in 1840 “On every side was to be seen happy hearts, smiling countenances, and sparkling eyes” In that sense very little has changed in 160 years.