For almost forty years, the lynchpin that kept everything in motion at Naas Racecourse was its superb manager, Margaret McGuinness. Born and raised in Newbridge, from where her father operated as a truck driver, she learned shorthand, typing and bookkeeping at the town’s Technical School. At the age of sixteen, she found work in Mrs Watson’s drapery, selling ladies’ wear and children’s clothes. A year later, Margaret Wright, as she was then, became assistant secretary to Carmel Keatley, who was herself secretary to Curragh Racecourse manager Paddy Connolly. 
‘I had no background in racing,’ says Margaret. ‘It was just a job and my love of racing has come with the job.’  As a child, she had walked up to the Curragh and looked through the railing at the racecourse but that was the closest she had ever been to a horse. To this day, she has never ridden one.
She spent the next three and a half years cycling from Newbridge to the Curragh and back. As the Curragh races were managed directly by the Turf Club, her role was primarily to organise gallops for the trainers. She also attended to the wages and bookkeeping. She was at the track to see both Bing Crosby and Jackie Onassis Kennedy in the crowd.
With the vacancy created at Naas by the sad passing of Miss Butterfield in November 1969, Paddy Connolly encouraged Margaret to apply for the role of secretary of the Naas Race Company.  On 6 December, 20-year-old Miss Wright was formally appointed and given charge of the ten meetings on the 1970 calendar.
Margaret’s experience were still somewhat limited so the logistics of organising an actual race day were, she readily admits, ‘terrifying.’ Her nerves were not steadied when a sudden and heavy fall of snow obliged her to cancel her first meeting in January 1970 just before the first race.
Fortunately, she was blessed with some excellent mentors in the form of Paddy Connolly (her old boss) as well as the Punchestown duo of Peter Martin and Elizabeth Jolley, who was to become a dear friend.
‘Racing was very male-dominated at that time but I never found it off-putting. The fact that I was a woman was never an issue. As long as you get the job done in this industry nobody minds what gender you are.’
In 1971, Miss Wright became Mrs McGuinness when she married Gerry. At Naas itself, she worked closely with the board of directors, under the successive chairmanships of Paddy Cox, Billy Brophy and Dermot Cantillon.  Her position was also officially changed from secretary to manager.
By 1987, she was one of three female racecourse managers in Ireland, the others being Joan Moore (mother of Arthur, widow of Dan) at Punchestown, and Colette Henchy at Limerick. The numbers have gradually increased and, as of 2023, six of Ireland’s 27 racecourses have female managers.
She was a hands-on manager, forever monitoring the track, supervising staff, ensuring everything ticked over. Ever modest and discreet, she is adamant that everything was a team effort. In the officer, her team included Eileen Kelly in accounts, as well as Helen O’Maitiu, Sinéad Cassidy and Edel McCabe who looked after marketing and public relations. On the track, she worked closely with the foremen Kit Keogh and, later, Paddy Timmons.
Her mantra was to get everything prepared the day before race day so that she had time to deal with the last minute problems that would inevitably arise. The most frequently accessed drawer in her desk at this time contained a hammer, nails, an extension lead and rubber gloves.
One of Margaret’s happiest days was 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.
From 1990 until 2002, she served as committee member of the Association of Irish Racecourses (AIR). Between 1994 and 2001, she was also the AIR’s representative on the board of the Irish Horseracing Authority (IHA). She was initially appointed by Joe Walsh, Minister for Agriculture and Food. She learned much from her fellow board members, many of whom were well known figures in the racing industry.
Under her stewardship, Naas continued to evolve as one of the most progressive and best maintained racecourses in Ireland. On the day the new Opera Hat Bar opened in October 2006, betting turnover was over €700,000, an unthinkable figure when she first joined the course in 1969.
When Margaret stepped down at the end of that year, the Leinster Leader hailed her as ‘a true pace-setter in the world of racing,’ She remained on hand to help her successor, Tom Ryan, settle in before retiring to focus on her family and the joys of gardening. In 2007, she received the “Contribution to Sport” Award at a star-studded awards ceremony in the Osprey Hotel, Naas. In April 2007, she was made an Honorary Life Member of the Association of Irish Racecourses in recognition of her outstanding contribution. As Cahir O’Sullivan, chief executive of the Turf Club, out it: ‘When the history of Naas Racecourse comes to be written, Margaret McGuinness’s name will appear in lights … and very properly so.’ 
- Breda Reid, ‘A Real Winner Alright,’ Kildare Nationalist, 13 August 2004.
- Sylvia Pownall, ‘Margaret – A True Pace-Setter in the World of racing’ (June 2005).
- ‘Putting a Face on Naas’, The Irish Field, Saturday 14 October 2006.
 Margaret’s father was a trucker driver with local authority but she did not have horses in her blood. At the age of sixteen, Margaret started working behind the counter in a Newbridge dressmaker’s shop for the formidable Mrs Watson, draper. There was very little activity and she was bored; there was no disposable income. She went to the Tech in Newbridge and learned shorthand, typing, bookkeeping, cooking and sewing and things. She continued at the drapery for a few months until neighbours – the Lindeys, whose father was foreman on the Curragh – advised her that there was an admin job going at the Curragh, as assistant secretary to Carmel Keatley, with her overall boss being Paddy Connolly. So she got the position. She’d cycle over there from Newbridge for 3.5 years when Bing Cosby and Jackie O came. In those days, the racing at the Curragh was managed by the Turf Club, who came down on race days to run it all, taking over Carmel and Margaret’s offices. Margaret’s role had been focused on the training ground, the staff and organising gallops for the trainers, while Carmel organised all the garda and staff. On Derby Day, Carmel also borrowed all the delft and cutlery from their friendly army neighbours in the Curragh Camp.
 Margaret will be missed around Naas racecourse
BY NIALL CRONIN
NAAS held its first meeting of 2007 last Sunday but for the first time in 38 years responsibility of what was going on at the Woodlands Park track did not lie with Margaret McGuinness.
After nearly four decades in the job Margaret handed over the reins to Tom Ryan just before Christmas to look forward to a well deserved retirement.
Originally from Newbridge, McGuinness began her racecourse administration at flat racings HQ. Admittedly she also started out with no real history in horse racing. “I had no background in racing it was just a job and my love of racing has come with
the job. I was in the Curragh first of all and the position became vacant in Naas in 1969 following the untimely passing of Mrs Butterfield. There was only two of us in the office at the Curragh at that time and I didn’t see much room for advancement so I made the move.”
The facilities are obvious to see now and the race course offers a wide range of services including catering for weddings, 21st’s, christenings etc… but again its come along way since the late 60’s. In the early years there was only 10 meetings at track each year and it was as high as 20 in some years, and the days of having 20 meetings might not be to far away due to numerous developments.
“There was a few lean years when our facilities here were not up to scratch but in the mid 90’s the Irish Horse Racing Authorities came up with a proposal for us to develop our racecourses. They said they would match our money pound for pound to
develop the facilities. So the board here made a very wise decision to sell a small pocket of land and use that money to build the new stand.”
Local race-goers will be able to look forward to additional meetings in the coming years but the plans of putting an all-weather track in the county town track were shelved by McGuinness who is one Irelands longest serving racecourse managers.
“A lot of people thought that this would be the place to have but you just couldn’t make money with an all weather track,” said McGuinness decisively. “A few of us did go over to Wolverhampton and have a look at their set up and you just wouldn’t get the numbers to attend and make it viable. We are confident there was no money to be made in the all-weather. People don’t understand that it is very hard to make money as it is without the all weather track at all. So that is why we went with extending the track and get more racing that way. We should be up around the 20 meeting a year mark again.”
More race meetings will keep everyone busy and as the outgoing manager states its not just on the day of the races on which they’d be busy. “To be well prepared should mean that you have no work to do on the morning of a race day. You would look to getting everything prepared before the day comes and that can lead to a long week. If you were racing on a Sunday or a Bank Holiday Monday, it could turn into a seven or eight day week. At least if your prepared before a race day if gives you time to fix any problems that might arise on the day and you can fix it without anybody knowing about it.”
Naas would be widely regarded within Irish racing circles as one of the best maintained racecourses in the country and this is down to the hard work and
graft put in by Margaret and her team over the course of her term and now the challenge is for new racecourse manager Tom Ryan to keep up the high standards. The 27-year-old from Tipperary was helped settle in by the outgoing manager and he is looking forward to the challenge of running the busy track.
The second phase of the development was recently completed and the final phase for new stables will seek planning permission shortly. Hopefully that will be in full flow in the coming months however while the Newbridge native was an integral part of the
building to date she insists the only development that is of interest to her is in her garden.
“Well I look forward to being able to do a bit of work in my garden now,” smiled McGuinness as she sat in her office in her final week. “I will take up a few hobbies and I would love to do some travelling. There is places around Europe that I would like to see. But I look forward to living a stress-free life and spending more time with my family. I am looking forward to it.”
Travel as she may Margaret McGuinness has brought Naas racecourse a long distance in her time as racing manager and along with the all the racing community in Kildare and beyond I am sure the sentiments of wishing her a happy retirement would be echoed throughout the community.’
 Paddy Conolly told Margaret “your very good but there isn’t much room for moving up” because Carmel Keatley wasn’t moving. So the 20-year-old was transferred to Naas to become Secretary (effectively manager, as emphasised when her job title was literally changed to manager a few years later). She arrived in Naas just after man landed on the moon in December 1969
 ‘I knew a little about the Flat but it is so different to the National Hunt with the starting stalls and the ground and so on. With the National Hunt, there are fences and hurdles and you need extra staff for that.”
 Carol, their daughter, works with the Dublin travel agency Tour America.
 Margaret applauds the directors for their interest and passion. When she started, Paddy Cox was chairman when she arrived with Harry Farrell, Billy Brophy, Redmond Murphy [Dublin, sold shares a few years ago] and Joe Osborne (Paddy’s brother). When Joe died, his brother Paddy came on board. When Paddy Cox died, Helen took his seat and became the first woman director.
 At the time, there was a lot of talk about finding the right man for Naas when Theresa O’Connor, who was in the office, says “what about a woman!” A
Kevin Frost, a pal of Paddy Cox and chairman of Limerick Racecourse, proposed Colette Henchy for Limerick. She was registered as Secretary on 3 Feb 1986. Prior to her, Limerick was run by Commander Phil Swart from 1981-1986. An American who lived at gallows Hill, Cratloe, County Kildare, the commander didn’t claim to know a great deal about the sport itself but he understood modern-day business. Prior to the commander, the course was run by Henry Harty from 1954 to 1981.
Mrs Moore started at Punchestown in October 1987. She was recommended by her brother-in-law, Andrew Moore.
Later female managers were Brenda Daly (Listowel), Margaret Fogarty, Jane Williamson and Caroline Gray. Then came Jane Davis (Tipperary) and Nessa Joyce (also Tipperary). In 1999, Sue Phelan took the helm at Tramore, where she remained until 2018. As of 2023, the female managers are Aine O’Donohoe (Killarney), Kate Molony (Thurles), Kathryn Foley (Sligo), Jessica Cahalan (Laytown), Emma Meehan (Down Royal) and Brenda Daly (Listowel).
 There were 5 permanent staff when she started and nine when she left.
 ‘To be well prepared should mean that you have no work to do on the morning of a race day,’ counsels Margaret. ‘You try to get everything prepared before the day comes and that can lead to a long week. If you were racing on a Sunday or a Bank Holiday Monday, it could turn into a seven or eight day week.’
‘There are always bits of repairs to be done around the place.’ Deep chats about the latest market research results. Instructing contract cleaners how to cleanse the premises in preparation for the next meeting. Compiling and printing race cards ahead of each meeting.
 Margaret also loved the glory days of the betting ring when ‘people would be nearly knocked down trying to get the best price!’ She says the decline of the turnstiles is because there was too much choice – there were now 5 race meetings at each weekend. She noticed the decline came in tandem with TV coverage of the races, with excellent racing every Saturday from courses around the world, so people tended to stay at home and watch them rather than visit tracks like Naas.
 In 1998, for instance, she was at Cheltenham to present a trophy sponsored by the Association of Irish Racecourses (AIR) to Jamie Osborne.
 ‘Opera Hat Bar Opens at racecourse’, Leinster Leader, 19 October 2006.
 In Feb 2007, Margaret received the “Contribution to Sport” Award at the 3rd Annual LIFE: health+leisure Sports Awards, in a star-studded black tie gala held at the Osprey hotel in Naas. She was presented with the award by Kevin Cumiskey.
- L. Desmond, Chief Executive Secretary of Powerstown Park, expressed the opinion of many when he applauded her for all the work she had done ‘not just for Naas Race Course but for racing in general,’ where she had ‘contributed very largely to the strengthening of the race courses’ and provided ‘very solid advice.’
From: Powerstown Park, Clonmel Races, 9 November, 2006.
Mrs. Margaret McGuinness, General Manager, Naas Race Course, Naas, Co. Kildare.
Many thanks for your very king invitation to your retirement lunch on Saturday next. As I explained to you, I will be in Cheltenham and will be unable to attend.
I wish to take this opportunity to wish you well in your retirement and my appreciation for all you have done, not just for Naas Race Course but for racing in general. Your period as a member of the Board of HRI was a particularly challenging period in the history of racing but you contributed very largely to the strengthening of the race courses position in that structure.
I also want to thank you for your support to me in my capacity as Chairman of the Association of Irish Racecourses and for the very solid advice that you have always given me in my capacity as a member of HRI.
No doubt we will arrange an opportunity to have a little farewell party of our own.
In the mean time, I wish you a very enjoyable lunch and I would like if you would pass on my regards to Gerry also.
J. L. Desmond
Chief Executive Secretary
 In November 2006, Cahir O’Sullivan, chief executive of the Turf Club, wrote:
‘When the history of Naas Racecourse comes to be written your name will appear in lights because as long as I have been involved in racing the name of Margaret McGuinness has been synonymous with Naas and very properly so. You were undoubtedly a pioneer for female racecourse managers and proved beyond any doubt that ladies could manage the myriad tasks involved in managing a busy and high profile racecourse. While working in the Turf Club, it was always a pleasure to deal with you and similarly while stewarding at Naas; pleasant, courteous, highly efficient and above all loyal to Naas.’
‘You have been a wonderful manager of Naas Racecourse and as far as I am concerned you could not have been easier to work with – I don’t believe in the thirty or more years we ever had a cross word!’ Jim Kelly, St Jude’s, Sallins Road.
As Eamon McEvoy says, “Margaret is an encyclopaedia regarding Naas.”
 Breda Reid, ‘A Real Winner Alright,’ Kildare Nationalist, 13 August 2004
TAKING the Sport of Kings and coupling it with the Meeting place of Kings must have seemed an auspicious plan [for] Charles Farrell, Edward Brophy; Edward Dowling and Patrick Berney when in 1922 they founded Naas Racecourse. Their first race meeting took place on Thursday 19th June 1924 and included flat, hurdle and steeplechase races.
Now fast-forward 80 years; Kildare has been crowned with the title Thoroughbred County and boasts three world-class racecourses within its borders. On June 16 last,
in order to celebrate the 80th anniversary of that first ever race meeting, another first
was achieved in Naas, its first Group race, the Irish Stallion Farms European Breeders Fund Noblesse Stakes, worth €90,000, was run. It signified another phase in the ongoing progress of the racecourse.
Margaret Magennis, manager of Naas racecourse, took over the secretary’s job in
December 1969. Over the past 35 years she has played an integral part in the evolution and development of the racecourse overseeing its progress into the ultra-modern facility we see today. For many years Margaret was a one-woman operation managing the upkeep and running of the entire course. The position as secretary gradually evolved into the post of manager.
“I grew with the job and the job grew with me,” she admits. Her job as manager oversees all aspects of the course foreman, Paddy Timmons and his workforce.
Gradually over the years extra administrative were employed. Eileen Kelly joined her in accounts and PR executive Sinéad Cassidy now looks after marketing and public relations.
On race days the numbers working at the racecourse swell to 50 or 60. A hands-on administrator, Margaret’s knowledge of the job is now all encompassing. On the day I visited, she was overseeing the work of contract cleaners employed to cleanse the interior and exterior in preparation for the next race meeting in October and liaising with Sinead regarding their latest market research results.
When speaking to course managers her advice is ‘go around and know your place of work, know where every key, every door, every chair or individual is placed’
Her relationship with the Board of Directors has always been excellent. When she first arrived in Naas, Paddy Cox was chairman of the Board of Directors. Today the position is held by Billy Brophy.
Margaret was a member of the Irish Horseracing Authority, then under the chairmanship of Denis Brosnan, from 1994 to 2001. The Horseracing Authority, a
statutory government body, who oversaw and administered the sport in Ireland was preceded by the Irish Racing Board and in turn succeeded by Horse Racing Ireland (HRI) in 2001.
It was during her time on Horseracing Authority that major upgrading became option for Naas.
The authority opted to match, pound for pound, any funds the owner could accumulate for this purpose. The board of Naas Racecourse decided to sell land for finance and in 1997 work began rebuilding the grandstand. The finished structure
includes a panoramic restaurant, bars, indoor Tote betting hall and superb corporate
suites. Phase two of the development completed this year includes a new public bar and snack area, an owners, members and trainers bar, a new press room, a new first aid room and new grooms facilities.
“Last year was a nightmare,” Margaret admits. The entire project, which cost in the region of €2.2 million, was completed last October. The current project is the
widening of the track to 100m all around. This will allow the racecourse to attract more races.
In the past few years, the corporate entertainment side of the business has snowballed. By maintaining good customer service and offering value for money in comfortable surroundings they feel they can attract and retain customers in the future. A quarterly newsletter keeps members abreast of all that is happening in Naas racing. A Beginners Day for new race goers was organised in Naas on July 21 last, including the Dublication of an entertaining Beginners Guide to Racing.
There are 27 racecourses in the country and only two of them have female managers Naas and Tramore.
But Margaret refuses to make an issue of this, saying the question of gender “never arises”. It’s clear that Margaret McGuinness enjoys her job. She and her staff are now preparing for the October meeting and the National Hunt season.
We walked around the refurbished buildings, looking out across the track to the rolling countryside beyond. “It is a great industry to work in” she says, taking in the view.
 ‘Margaret a True Pace-Setter in the World of racing’, Sylvia Pownall, June 2005
‘YOU only have to look back at the historic Guineas win for Saoire at the Curragh less than a fortnight ago to realise that women are making their presence felt in the Sport of Kings more than ever before.
The victory represented the first Irish Classic win by a horse trained by Frances Crowley – and the culmination of years of hard work.
But one Kildare woman has been quietly flying the female flag at Naas Racecourse for more than three decades, though she hates to draw attention to the fact.
Margaret McGuinness began her career at the Woodlands track as secretary in 1969. Soon afterwards she was appointed manager, and she has held the reins there ever since, overseeing an ambitious refurbishment and expansion programme into the bargain.
“There are three female racecourse managers in Ireland now,” said Margaret. “I was the first. It was mainly male dominated at that time but I never found it off-putting and the fact that I was a woman was never an issue.”
“I’ve always found that as long as you get the job done in this industry nobody minds what gender you are. I always found everyone very fair and pleasant to deal with.”
Margaret has noticed “a lot more women coming up the ranks now” and feels it’s good for the sport. She is now busy putting the final preparations in place for the family race day on bank holiday Monday 6 June.
The card features the highly anticipated Swordlestown Stud Sprint – the richest two-year-old fillies listed race in Europe – which is expected to attract some top class competition.
Margaret relies heavily on her team of staff which includes track foreman Paddy Timmins, Declan Harrington, John O’Connor and Tom Keane (who are “out every
night even in the depths of winter to keep the track in superb condition”). Edel McCabe looks after marketing while Eileen Kelly keeps things ticking over in the office.
But in the days before a race meeting, the staff swells to more than 50 people as last minute preparations are put in place to ensure racegoers enjoy the entertainment both on and off the track.
Margaret favours the hands-on approach, and never likes to leave to others what she can do herself. Her advice is to “know your place of work, every door, every key” and she leaves no stone unturned when it comes to laying the ground work for a day’s racing.
“It’s very important to make sure everything is done and nothing, is left to the last minute,” said Margaret. “The latest project was doing up the self-service area, putting in new windows, a new heating system, and painting it.”
“In the run up to the Swordlestown Stud race meeting I write to all the Irish and English trainers to try and entice them over.
“Another job is to arrange for stewards on the day. And there are always bits of repairs to be done around the place. You have to monitor the track, supervise staff, just make sure everything is ticking over.”
Making sure things are ‘ticking over’ is Margaret’s speciality. The track and facilities are pristine and the racecourse has expanded its amenity infrastructure considerably in recent years. Marking its 80th anniversary last year was a milestone and Margaret and her team are justifiably proud of the racecourse.
It was during Margaret’s time on the Horseracing Authority (succeeded by Horse Racing Ireland) that à major upgrade was first mooted for the Naas track. The authority agreed to match any funds invested by the racecourse owners – as opportunity too good to pass on.
The Naas Racecourse decided to sell some land to finance the expansion and in 1997 work began on rebuilding the grandstand. The impressive structure now boasts the kind of facilities you would expect at any upmarket track including a panoramic restaurant, bars, indoor Tote betting hall and corporate suites.
Phase two of the development was completed last year, just in time for the 80th celebrations and includes a new public bar and snack area, an owners’, members’
and trainers, bar, a press room, a new first aid room and new grooms’ facilities.
But it doesn’t end there.
“This year we widened the track to cater for extra fixtures,” revealed Margaret. “It’s now one hundred metres wide all the way round which is significant.”
“We have been upgrading both our National Hunt and flat races and we had our first Grade 3 race here last year. We’re all the time trying to get races upgraded by trying attract top class horses into the competition here.”
There is even more to be done at Woodlands. Phase three of the redevelopment
includes a block of new stables which are badly needed. But this cannot go ahead until the exact route of Naas’ Southern Relief Road (linking the Dublin Road with the Tipper Road, and in all likelihood cutting through the racecourse’s car park) is finalised.
Things have changed greatly for Margaret in her 36 years at Naas Racecourse.
She started as secretary, having first worked at the Curragh Racecourse, but was in effect running the place as a one-woman operation for a number of years.
“We have fifteen race meeting here every year now, compared with 12 up to a couple of years ago,” said Margaret. “It’s only really in the last ten years or so that horse racing has changed dramatically.”
“It was only when we started marketing more that things changed. I suppose there’s more competition for people’s leisure time now so you have to work at getting the punters in.”
“With the Celtic Tiger marketing really became a key part of the administration for a racecourse in attracting new clients. Most of these new clients are mainly coming from the corporate end of things.
*Corporate is a huge part of the industry now and that has really grown substantially.
We’re better able to cater for customers now and give them the comfort they deserve in the new stand. Now we have very big membership and good local support as well.”
Corporate clients have been known to entertainment top celebrities and over the past couple of years impromptu visits from the likes of Robert De Niro, Bono and Chris De Burgh have turned plenty of heads.
But for Margaret it’s all in a day’s work.
She has embraced the notion of themed race days and two of the biggest success stories last year, which were again included in the 2005 programme, are the
race day in Barretstown (held in February) and the Racing for Beginners evening meeting on 20 July.
This is a fun event with TG4’s wacky presenter Hector providing some hilarious commentary for betting novices.
“We have a booklet here which we distribute on the evening for beginners,” explained Margaret. “It’s very useful if people want to learn about the jargon. It’s a good idea because a lot of people don’t actually know too much about how to study form that end of it.”
The booklet, Beginners’ Guide to Horse Racing, is packed with information and
advice for those less familiar with the lingo on the track. It explains the different types of (maiden, handicap, novice, bumper etc) and provides a simple explanation for
terms like ‘on the bridle’ and “odds on.” A fascinating and entertaining read, it also explains how to read a race card, and how to decipher the form guide,
Thanks to the beginners evening and other themed evenings, Naas has earned a reputation for offering punters something a bit different, in very comfortable surroundings.
Margaret said: “The evening meetings are always very relaxed. There’s a nice mellow atmosphere and we have live music. It’s very enjoyable.”
It was in some ways inevitable that the Meeting Place of Kings (Nás na Ríogh) was destined to become venue for the Sport of Kings.
Naas Racecourse was founded in 1922 by local farmers and businessmen, Thomas Whelan, Charles Farrell, Edward Brophy, Patrick Berney and Edward Dowling. The first meeting was held on Thursday 19 June 1924 and included flat, hurdle and steeplechase races.
Today the board’s chairman Billy Brophy, and Margaret has an excellent working relationship with all the directors.
‘It’s very much a team effort here,” she stressed. “We all work very well together. The redevelopment has been very rewarding. We’re able to provide comfortable indoor surroundings for our loyal customers who come here hail, rain or snow.
“I have great hopes for the future. I’m still enjoying it. If I wasn’t I wouldn’t be here.”
 Putting a Face on Naas – FEATURE – The Irish Field, Saturday 14 October 2006
As Margaret McGuinness looks forward [to her] retirement later this year, Guy Williams recounts the changing times that the Naas supremo has helped shape.
NAAS RACECOURSE has always offered a year-round friendly welcome to the racing public, even if it has long been dubbed the punters’ graveyard. It must also
be a pleasant working habitat. Since this dual-purpose course staged its inaugural meeting in June 1924, Naas has employed just three secretary/managers.
Margaret McGuinness, retiring after 37 years at the helm, is the current incumbent.
Michael Conway MRCVS had been succeeded as secretary/manager at Naas by Carmel Butterfield when Margaret began her working life in The Curragh, one of only two clerical staff assisting the late Paddy Connolly. As Margaret recalls: “‘In those days The Curragh was run from the Turf Club offices in Merrion Square, Dublin. They would come down just on racedays.”
As the junior, Margaret’s prospects of promotion were limited but in 1969 Carmel Butterfield died suddenly. At Paddy Connolly’s urging, Margaret applied successfully to fill that unexpected vacancy. “I knew nothing about National Hunt racing. However, Paddy Cox (chairman 1924-1986), Billy Kelly, Clerk of the Course, Peter Martin and Elisabeth Jolly (Punchestown), together with course foreman Kit Keogh, were all enormously helpful.”
While long service is clearly a feature of Naas personnel, surely, Paddy Cox could not have held the chairman’s office for 62 years? Margaret shakes her head. The old minute books disclose that Paddy Cox was preceded by Edward Brophy of Herbertstown Stud, whose family had been closely involved in racing and breeding for generations. At all events, Paddy was succeeded by Edward Brophy’s son Billy, who in turn handed over the reins to Dermot Cantillon, the present chairman. Dermot’s understanding, that he is the fourth to hold that office, has since been invalidated through the revelation by long-serving Naas director Harry Farrell that his late father Charlie was in fact the first race-course chairman. Thus is history recovered, often in the nick of time.
Miss M. Wright became Margaret McGuinness on marrying Gerry in 1971 (Carol, their daughter, works with Dublin travel agency Tour America). Naas was one of 31 Irish racecourses when Margaret began her long stint in office there. In the intervening decades, Baldoyle, Mullingar, Phoenix Park and Tuam have become history. Naas was then restricted, by agreement with a local landowner, to just 10 days’ racing.
While that situation has been resolved long since, Margaret is emphatic that the necessity to provide good, safe racing terrain on a year-round basis will always determine how many days racing Naas can withstand. Margaret considers 15 the maximum Naas can currently comprise: “To allow the ground time to recover, particularly when National Hunt gives way to flat racing.”
Although ongoing market research confirms the Irish racing public’s preference for mixed cards, Margaret explains: “That can cause problems with watering in summer, when you’re trying to provide suitable ground both for flat and jumping. Naas is fortunate in respect of watering, with a tributary of the River Morrel bisecting the course.”
As to the relative popularity of Naas fixtures, Margaret says: “Our January meeting, the pre-Cheltenham trials in February, the Swordlestown meeting attracting English runners and of course the Birdcatcher produce the best crowds.”
So, one of those would have constituted Margaret’s most satisfying day in office? “No, my best day here was our 1998 preview night when 400 came to inspect phase one of our reconstruction programme. They could not believe the transformation from the sea of mud they’d endured while it had been going on. The old owners’ and trainers’ bar and the tea rooms? It was wonderful seeing the bulldozer heading towards those old sheds. There had been bushes growing through the windows, if you remember.”
Well, for those of us who do recall, the old galvanised iron bar with its proximity to the weigh room had a warm and convivial charm unique among Irish racecourses. However, Margaret McGuinness is no subscriber to the “good old days” and “what was good enough for our parents.”
Racecourses have to compete for the recreational pound, punt or euro more intensely than ever before. In that regard she views the reconstruction of the Naas
enclosure as incomplete. The old grandstand needs replacement, archaic as it has become in the modern leisure era.
That old stand and the extension of the stabling facility – a perennial cause of grumbling amongst trainers – must await the ultimate determination of the route and scope of the by-pass, currently planned to traverse the racecourse car park area. Unfinished business, to Margaret’s regret; a challenge that instead confronts her youthful successor, 27-year-old Thomas Ryan.
Listening to Margaret McGuinness detail the costs involved in staging a day’s racing is quite salutary; even welcome in the Johnny Scatter-cash era that is modern Ireland. Digest this lot: 55 extra raceday staff on the course and in the enclosure, doctors, veterinary surgeons, ambulances, car park attendants, outside broadcast, plumber, electrician, Blue Cross, security, farrier, starter’s assistant, water rates, ESB, insurance, racecards, tickets, master of ceremonies, advertising and promotion. “So many people take these for granted, but the bottom line is whether or
not we can make our racing viable,” she says.
Margaret’s sense of perspective makes her quite succinct on the issue of all-weather racing. Back in 2003, when Naas completed phase two of its redevelopment, it was touted as one of two principal contenders for Ireland’s first all-weather track and the one most favoured by trainers and professionals alike, not least because of its proximity to the Curragh for horses and the greater Dublin catchment area for attendance.
“We visited Wolverhampton to find out for ourselves. They were getting crowds of 1,500 on a good Saturday night, mainly corporate. Week nights they got 300/400, but they were receiving a Levy Board subvention per race …”.
That pragmatism is not confined to Naas and its specific challenges. Margaret gained far broader experience as a committee member of the Association of Irish Racecourses (AIR) between 1990 and 2002. Furthermore, she represented the AIR on the Irish Horseracing Authority from 1994 to 2001, when the IHA underwent its metamorphosis, becoming Horseracing Ireland (HRI).
Margaret McGuinness has undergone her own metamorphosis from the girl who was parachuted into a milieu of which she knew little in 1969 to the deceptively youthful veteran of almost four decades in the firing line. Has she perhaps evolved her own working maxim? Margaret doesn’t claim to have coined Roy Keane’s mantra, but she comes very close – “fail to prepare, prepare to fail.”
The 2005 Directory of the Turf pays its own stark tribute to Margaret’s stewardship, simply by listing the feature races staged at Naas today: Swordelstown Sprint Stakes, Woodland Park, 100 Popular Square Chase, Derrinstown Stud Birdcatcher Nursery, Ali Tetza & Mamadi Soudavar Garnet race, Anglo Irish Bank Nas Na Riogh Novice Chase, Slaney Hurdle (Grade 2), Paddy and Helen Cox Memorial and the Woodlands Park 100 Brown Lad Hurdle.
Modest by nature, Margaret McGuinness would disclaim any personal credit for her role in the transformation of Naas from a slumbering provincial track to the bright, progressive racecourse that Naas has become under her management. However, an understandable feeling of accomplishment ushers Margaret McGuinness into what all of us would wish to be a long and happy retirement. As she happily notes, racing is one big, wandering family, always ready to welcome back those who have played their part, paid their dues.