For 100 years, Naas Racecourse in Co. Kildare has set the scene for some of the most exciting racing contests in Ireland and the UK and now a new book, The Centenary of Naas Racecourse, written by renowned historian and author, Turtle Bunbury tells this fascinating story. Known as ‘The Nursery of Champions’, the track has been where some of Europe’s most talented horses have honed their skills, going on to take gold and glory at home and abroad. The numbers speak for themselves with champions being made on both the Flat and National Hunt at Naas. To date, the winners of 30 Aintree Grand Nationals, 27 Cheltenham Gold Cups and eight King George VI Chase have either started their careers in Naas or raced on the track. In the past four years alone, horses have gone from Naas to the Cheltenham Festival and won the Gold Cup, the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, the Triumph Hurdle and the Queen Mother Champion Chase twice.
The Flat yields similarly excellent results. Little Big Bear, rated the best European two-year-old in 2022, won his maiden at Naas. So did Auguste Rodin, winner of the 2023 Epsom Derby and the 2023 Irish Derby. Since 2020, the Epsom Oaks, the English 2,000 Guineas, the English 1,000 Guineas, the Melbourne Cup and four Breeders’ Cups have also been won by horses that have pounded around the track at Naas.
This fascinating publication also tells the story of the farmers and sportsmen who founded the racecourse, and touches on some of the politicians, film stars and royals who have rubbed shoulders on the track over the last 100 years. Walt Disney came racing at Naas in the 1950s and there was great excitement and much surprise when a bearded and long-haired Robert De Niro attended, casually walking about with the punters and racegoers. Other famous visitors include Count John McCormack, Brendan Behan, Prince Aly Khan (husband of the actress Rita Hayworth), Adele Astaire (sister of Fred Astaire), Bono, President Hillary and former Taoiseach, Liam Cosgrove.
There has always been a rich history of racing in Kildare and the county is known as the Thoroughbred County for good reason. There are countless stable yards and training operations around Naas, which has been at the epicentre of the equestrian world for at least 260 years. It was not until the 20th century that a formal racecourse was created. In 1922, at the height of the Civil War, a group of eight like-minded farmers and gentlemen joined forces to form the ‘Naas Race Company’. Supported by subscriptions from across the locality, the new company bought just over 100 acres of farmland on the east side of the town and set about creating a proper racecourse with the very first meeting taking place on the 19th of June 1924.
The connection between that formative era and the present day is remarkably close. Richard Brophy, a board member of Naas Race Company, descends from Edward Brophy, one of the founding fathers. Meanwhile, the Osborne’s, another well-known name in racing history, is still going strong at Naas as Robbie Osborne sits on the Board of Directors of the racecourse today.
The influence of women and the role they played in the evolution of Naas Racecourse is an important theme in the book and cannot be understated. In 1974, Rosemary Rooney won at Naas to become the first female jockey to win against male opposition in Ireland or the UK. Eight years earlier, Mrs Anne Biddle made history at Naas when she became Ireland’s first licensed woman trainer to win a race. Another highly regarded woman associated with Naas was Mrs. Lawlor, the celebrated caterer. Her family, who also ran Lawlor’s Hotel in Naas and the iconic Lawlor’s Ballroom, were the biggest caterers in Ireland for many decades and also owned the Naas veteran Mill House, winner of the Cheltenham Gold Cup in 1963.
Arguably the most pivotal woman in the story of Naas Racecourse has been Margaret McGuinness, its manager for almost forty years. When she started in 1969, she was just 20 years old. A formidable force, Margaret more than held her own in a very much male-dominated industry and became the lynchpin that kept everything in motion at Naas Racecourse. Margaret was a hands-on manager, forever monitoring the track, supervising staff and ensuring that everything ticked over. One of her happiest days occurred when over 400 people came to inspect the newly opened Grandstand. ‘They could not believe the transformation from the sea of mud they’d endured while it had been going on,’ she marvels. Under her stewardship, Naas continued to evolve as one of the most progressive and best-maintained racecourses in Ireland.
Like her successors Tom Ryan (2007-2019) and Eamonn McEvoy (2019-present), Margaret worked closely with a forward-thinking board of directors. Since the very beginning, the board’s driving ideology has been to make Naas one of the best racecourses in Ireland. Profits are continually reinvested in improving the facility. Hence, the new grandstand in 1997, the new bar and weigh room in 2003, the widening of the track in 2005, the new stable yard in 2009 and The Circle in 2019.
The Circle, an innovative spectator stand, has introduced a superb contemporary ambience to Naas whilst skilfully tying the pre-existing parts together. This has, in turn, enhanced the overall character of a boutique course that is widely beloved for its intimate, friendly, country atmosphere.
In 2015, Naas was rewarded with its first Grade 1 race, the Lawlor’s of Naas Novice Hurdle. Its steady advance towards hosting a Group 1 race is underscored by its ever-deepening links with Ascot. The course originally hosted seven meetings a year. Today, there are 20, including a weekend festival that commenced in October 2023.
Naas was always a stylish place to be seen and the fashionistas of the last century always put their best and most fashionable foot forward throughout the decades. The book contains pictures of some of the most fashionable and elegant racegoers wearing various styles from the last century including top hats, bustles, long fur coats, mink stoles and incredible hats created by some of the world’s most famous milliners.
Dermot Cantillon, Chairman of Naas Racecourse said, “We are so proud of the history and story of Naas and are delighted that it’s finally been told so eloquently by Turtle Bunbury. It’s remarkable to look back at all the old photographs of both famous people and horses and it gives all of us here at Naas Racecourse an enormous sense of pride to be part of something very special. Our founding members paved the way for us and it’s up to us to keep evolving and to keep adding to our racegoers experience through competitive racing and through the guest experience. Huge thanks to everyone who helped us to bring this book to life, we are delighted with it.”
Turtle Bunbury said, “Naas Racecourse has a tremendous story to tell. The track has played such an important role in the evolution of Irish racing over the last 100 years. It’s been the scene of some incredible sporting and historical moments and racing at Naas continues to be a major part of Irish social life generally. I hope people enjoy reading it as much as I have enjoyed piecing the story together.”
The Centenary of Naas Racecourse is a beautiful, hardback book and will make a fantastic Christmas gift for anyone interested in racing and history. It will be available to purchase from www.naasracecourse.com from November 17th. Price, €50 plus post and packaging.