Dog track is betting on success - Friday 1st of August 2008

GREYHOUND racing has become a commercial success in the Republic, with racecourses a venue of choice for anything from corporate events to stag and hen parties.

And now one Co Antrim man is leading the way in bringing a revival of the sport to Northern Ireland.

Businessman John McCollum, along with partners Tommy Anderson and Michael McAdam, opened a new Ł3 million dog racing track on the outskirts of Belfast last night.

With Drumbo Park, situated just past the Malone Golf Club, the trio are aiming to change the image of dog racing from an old mans sport, into an experience which everyone can enjoy.

While greyhound racing tracks in Northern Ireland have been steadily closing over recent years, in the Republic it has become big business, with 13 stadiums across the country and four major developments currently being planned.

In comparison the closures of Dunmore Park, Dungannon and Ballyskeagh, left the Brandywell stadium in Londonderry as the only greyhound stadium in Northern Ireland.

But with the opening of Drumbo Park the three entrepreneurs are hoping to mimic the success of places like Shelbourne Park and Harolds Cross in Dublin, where a night at the dogs has become a night of entertainment, complete with bars and restaurants.

Mr McCollum, who also owns McDonalds in Sprucefield, freely admits Drumbo is "basically modelled on the likes of Shelbourne Park and Harolds Cross".

"I looked at these (venues] five years ago in Dublin, and I said, I could bring this to Belfast and it would work," he said of the idea to open a race track in Northern Ireland when others were closing.

Describing the venue as "fantastic" and "better than most hotels", Mr McCollum is enthusiastic about the venture and keen to reiterate their slogan of Northern Irelands new night out.

Speaking to the News Letter ahead of the big opening night, he said everything was "a bit hectic", but was confident they would succeed in changing the stereotypical image of greyhound racing.

"The perception of greyhound racing is your father with a grey cap on, that was a dog man and thats a very important person – hes the life blood of the sport, hes got the breeding and the training and all that stuff – but in the mid 90s tracks in Ireland got funding from the government and they started to improve the facilities and move very much to a corporate image where you can go with your company, a group of girls, a group of fellas, hen parties, stag parties, office parties, bring the family, fundraising – the whole thing."

But while Mr McCollum insists they will cater for all, from the traditional dog racing crowd to the new young party crowd, it is undeniable they have gone for a more glamorous image.

The stadium at Drumbo Park, which was previously known as Ballyskeagh, has had a complete revamp. There is a restaurant headed by John McNally, owner of the Stone Bridge restaurant in Richhill, two bars and a fast food chain and coffee shop.

There are panoramic views of the track as well as 100 plasma TV screens embedded in the walnut walls, three tote booths and 10 terminals, and if you don’t fancy leaving your dinner or getting up off your seat to place a bet, there will be 15 table tote girls walking around so you can have a flutter without using too much energy.

“Our vision is to create Northern Ireland’s new night out,” said Mr McCollum. “It’s something different.

“I had grannies here last night roaring and shouting watching the dogs, and when I said to them, ‘I bet you didn’t think it would be this much fun’, they said ‘no’, and that’s what it’s about.

“The hospitality industry is changing dramatically, Belfast and Northern Ireland are changing dramatically.

“People are looking for something new to do, looking for something new to entertain guests and customers, looking for something new to entertain themselves. And with the greatest respect to all the great restaurants and bars we have here, it’s the same old same old. What we have got is Northern Ireland’s new night out – great food, great bars, great craic – and it’s all 10 minutes from Belfast city centre.”

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