The Curragh: The bright future of a racecourse with a legendary past

Story highlights

  • Course to be transformed in $72.9m plan
  • New grandstand and parade ring to be built
  • Work set to be completed by 2018 Irish Derby

(CNN)It's the legendary racecourse with a colorful past that has become known as the spiritual home of Irish racing -- and now the Curragh is looking to a bright new future.

The course -- which, along with Leopardstown, plays host to the Longines Irish Champions Weekend this Saturday and Sunday -- stands in County Kildare's 4,870-acre Curragh Plains, one of Europe's oldest natural grasslands.
    It will be transformed into a state-of-the-art venue in a $73 million redevelopment that officials say will ensure it can hold its own among the best racecourses in the world.

    Long-awaited plan

    The Curragh revitalization brings belated realization of a redevelopment that was planned years ago but scuppered by the economic downturn of 2008.
    It has been made possible by a consortium involving the Irish Turf Club, Horse Racing Ireland and private investors.
    A new company has been set up to redevelop and run the course, which will be provided with a sparkling new grandstand with its old, tired stands being swept away. A landscaped parade ring will be constructed behind the stand, and there will be a brand new weighing room.
    A museum of Irish racing is included in the development, while the extensive training grounds will get a facelift in a move aimed at attracting more racehorse owners from around the world.

    Derby debut

    If all goes according to plan, the new era for a course whose first recorded race was noted in Cherney's racing calendar back in 1727 will begin in high-profile style when it hosts the 2018 Irish Derby.
    Simon Coveney, the Irish Minister for Agriculture, told Horse Racing Ireland the work will mean the Curragh -- a name that translates as "place of the running horse" -- is assured of its status as "the heart of Kildare" and "the keeper of Ireland's racing traditions."
    The redevelopment is scheduled to start once the current racing season has come to an end, but the intention is for racing to continue as construction work progresses.
    Brian Kavanagh, the chief executive of Horse Racing Ireland, told reporters he believed it would be "a wonderful boost to the Curragh and to racing in general," while former champion jockey Mick Kinane said it would "get more people coming back to watch this fantastic sport."

    3rd century roots

    So that's the future -- but what about that colorful Curragh past?
    Historians say the site hosted chariot racing in the third century while other horse connections go back to Irish myth and legend, with stories Fionn mac Cumhaill and his Fianna warriors galloping over the grasslands.
    Men and horses trained at the Curragh were sent to fight in the Crimean and Boer wars and in World War One, while the Duke of Wellington passed through on his way to the peninsular war of 1808.
    But by then the military use of horses wasn't the only side to what was happening.
    A pattern of leisure pursuits had also been established, with the well-to-do of Dublin using the Curragh for hunting and racing. Lodges were established, starting a tradition of training and a reputation for thoroughbred horses that continues to this day.
    A century and a half ago, the first ever Irish derby was run at the Curragh a year after a Parliamentary Act had decreed the continuation of racing and training in the area.
    It was the first classic Curragh race, to be followed by the Oaks and the St Leger -- and by the time its 2018 installment has been run, the course will be ready to create more history in the decades ahead.