Society event Waregem Koerse is celebrating its 175th anniversary


The Tuesday after the last Sunday in August, racehorses from home and abroad gather at Waregem Koerse in front of a 40,000-strong audience, including business executives, politicians and women in astonishing headgear.

In the mid-19th century, the region around the West Flemish town of Waregem was still predominantly an agricultural area. One Felix De Ruyck, a well-to-do local businessman, and his brother-in-law and city councilman Jules Storme thought the annual fair could use a little extra 'spice'. On Wednesday 25 August 1847, they allowed local farmers to trot their best workhorses in and around Statiestraat, where the cobblestones had been removed for the occasion. Waregem Koerse was born.

From fairground race to meeting point of the elite

Waregem Koerse was mainly frequented by peasants for the first decades but, by the late 1850s, the aristocracy had become more involved in the one-day event. Countess Vilain XIIII moved it to her estate on Gaverbeek and even allowed a huge hippodrome to be built. The nobility also jumped into the saddle themselves, including the three brothers du Roy de Blicquy. Although none of them were much good. French and British crowned heads also sent their top horses, several of whom returned home with prizes. The commoners had to follow the race from the pelouse, the grassy field; the elite could afford a more expensive spot at the pesage, or weighing-in area. In the 1990s, Waregem Koerse was pretty much on the back-burner until flamboyant West Flanders industrialist Willy Naessens saw his chance. Even as a seven-year-old boy, he had gone to watch the horse race with his uncle in 1946. Naessens turned it into a major networking event, complete with VIP party tent where, over a plate of oysters and a bottle of champagne for charity, he arranged to sell corporate housing, a swimming pool or a precast concrete structure to clients who booked a box or package. In 2002, he introduced the Willy Naessens Hat Trophy, which is not unlike Britain's swankiest racetrack Ascot. One in five of the women attends in a highly extravagant and creative headdress, each one more striking than the other, in all kinds of materials, shapes, sizes and colours. Nothing is too crazy: feathers, chicken wire, animals, vegetables, fruits, meats ... everything on top is artistically woven together.

Waregem Koerse, where popular entertainment, entrepreneurship and a playful hat contest combine to create a society event every August.