Tide runs in bookies' favour at race meet: Ian MacKinnon joins punters on a beach for an unusual day's sport

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IT MUST be one of the few horse race meetings in the world run according to the state of the tide.

Even in Ireland, the annual Laytown meet 20 miles north of Dublin, is unique, with seven races along the glorious strand once the sea has ebbed. Just a few hours before the start of yesterday's races the one-and-a-half mile course was well and truly submerged. However, as the tide went out the finishing post, final straight and furlong markers, were all sunk into the soggy sand.

But the water lying on the course proved to be a problem in the very first race when one of the horses stumbled in a large puddle, bringing down three others. In the end, three horses had to be put down as a result of that accident. After that, the course had to be altered, but there was plenty of space to play with - until the tide came in, at least.

A vast array of bookies' stalls, burger stands, hoopla and shooting galleries also sprang up alongside the Co Meath course, with its stunning backdrop of the Mourne mountains.

Most of 10,000 people who came for the one-day event were families holidaying near by. 'They come up from Butlin's Mosney holiday camp, or the mobile homes at Bettystown down the road,' said one of the tote staff. 'On every other course in the country they would have to pay to get in, but they can go down on to the strand and watch the races for free.'

On the strand the bookies invariably benefited handsomely from the punters' lack of experience. 'They tend to back every horse in every race, or just put money on a horse because they like the name. It usually works out very well for us,' said Ian Brophy, one of the bookies.

Sure enough, when the withdrawal of Quasimodo, not a hot favourite, from the second race was announced, a collective groan went up from the crowd.

Back at the hoopla stands, one of the stallholders was wearing a T-shirt bearing the legend 'I'm too sexy for my shirt', and giving as prizes those electronic watches which used to be sold more than 20 years ago.

Off the beach, in the Guinness enclosure overlooking the finishing line, the punters were altogether different, and the bets accepted 'in punts or sterling' were rather larger.

The bookies were invariably young men with sharp haircuts, sharper navy suits, and Raybans. Several sported earpieces linked to a radio conveying the odds being given by their rivals.

No less serious was the trainers' outlook on the meeting, which has been run since 1876 when a local priest began the tradition in the hope of raising funds for his church.

Gerry Stack, trainer of Glowing Account, said: 'In many ways this meeting is completely different from any other. It's my first time and I've never seen anything like it. But we still take it very seriously because there's good money at stake. The course is no more difficult than any other just because it's on sand and there's little rivers running across it.'

(Photograph omitted)