Travel: Baywatch on the hoof

No matter what the weather, the going at one Irish racing festival is always good. By Eddie Wiley. Photographs by Caroline Norris
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SUN, SEA, sand and a six-race card make for a great day at the annual beach race at Laytown, Co Meath, on the east coast of Ireland. Even being compelled to substitute stormy skies, intermittent rain and a breeze that the locals described as "fresh", but had everyone else swaying at 45 degree angles, didn't dampen the enthusiasm.

Eccentricity is a hallmark of many Irish festivals - this week sees the start of the International Bachelor Festival in Ballybunion, Co Kerry, and in September the hugely popular Match-making Festival takes place in Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare - but the Laytown Race Festival is unique.

The annual race meeting was started by the local parish priest in 1868. Being frowned upon by his bishop, the priest conveniently assuaged his conscience by running the festival every second year. Since 1901, the races have been held annually with the support of the Delaney family who donate the use of the land and have continued to play a part in the festivities.

Beach racing also has its place in literary history. In the otherwise risible stage-Oirish production, Old Malone recognises his eponymous son, The Playboy of the Western World, as the winning jockey. In fairness to the author, J M Synge, even his demi-heroine widow Quinn would have found the going heavy to get a bet on around the packed betting ring. The real- life punters had to wait until the fourth race for a winning favourite to gallop down the ocean course. Theatrical certainly but definitely not a Baywatch production. Laytown's equivalent of David Hasslehof and his lithe Californians were the tweed-wrapped stewards clinging ruddy-faced to a life guard podium that could well have been deployed at the first meeting 130 years ago.

With an eye to increase safety following the death of a number of horses in 1995, the course has been changed from an oval to a straight 10 furlongs, with well-established running rails, head-on cameras and all the accoutrements of a very professionally-run race meeting. Set against the backdrop of billowing marquees, street entertainers and traditional musicians, it's as if Newmarket's Rowley Mile meets JP Barnum. And with races like the Guinness Perfect Pint Handicap, it's little wonder that the hospitality tents resembled a sack full of rabbits as they bulged with the throng of obviously-parched race goers.

This year a line in the sand had to be drawn with the contribution of the Beaufort Dyke. The Sapphically-named deep sea trench, running between Northern Ireland and Scotland, was the dumping ground for millions of tonnes of Second World War ordinance. A recent cable-laying operation has resulted in the some of the nasty items, mostly incendiary bombs, washing ashore on the east coast. But with the beach closed to the public on race day, and a full-scale safety operation involving the army and civil defence forces, the area was declared safe for racing.

Even the appearance of the "This one's for you Adolf" surprises didn't perturb Brendan Sheridan, the retired National Hunt jockey and now clerk of the course: "No matter what the weather or the sea turn up, the going at Laytown is always good." And who would doubt it?