Will Hayler, Racing UK columnist and former Racing Writer for The Guardian, offers up some hot tips for travellers planning a day at the races in Ireland – whether you’re headed to the Irish Champions Weekend, Galway Races or the summer festivals at Killarney and Listowel.
It’s almost guaranteed that when in Ireland, you’re never far away from a lover of horse racing. On my first trip to the races there some 20 years ago, the taxi driver from Dublin airport spent the entire journey entertaining me with tales from the turf. And after dropping me off, he parked up and spent the afternoon there with old friends before returning me back to the city a few hours later.
Incredibly, more than 1 in 200 of the country’s entire population work in the sport, and the influence of Ireland’s horse racing heritage is felt right around the world. The third-largest country in the world in terms of the production of thoroughbred racehorses, Ireland has up to 10 times more horses per head of population than other countries such as the UK and France where racing is as widely followed.Compare car hire across Ireland
Rather than being centred around one city or county, trainers, breeders, owners and horses alike are spread across the country, as are Ireland’s 26 racecourses, which range from stylish sporting destinations to rural outposts where the crowd is dominated by local farmers – many of whom have an interest in breeding their own horses that goes back through the generations.
Being at the races is always a fun way to spend a day in Ireland, so here’s a guide to some of the best spots to enjoy the Sport of Kings.
Quality racing action close to Dublin
A two-day flat racing fixture – the Irish Champions Weekend – takes place each year in September at two racecourses within easy reach of Dublin. It features a number of elite Group One contests, races which are effectively the premier league of the sport.
First staged in 2016, the opening day of action is held at Leopardstown and features the QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes, one of Europe’s premier middle-distance contests, along with the Coolmore Fastnet Rock Matron Stakes, ranked as the world’s leading race for fillies and mares in 2017.
Then on day two, the action moves a few miles west to The Curragh, the official home of horse racing in Ireland and the historic venue for Classic contests such as the Irish Derby. One of those Classics, the Comer Group Irish St Leger, is the main event on the card.
The Curragh is nearing the end of an ambitious racecourse redevelopment, costing in excess of €70 million, which has seen facilities at the track for racegoers and horses alike transformed and has produced a modern, purpose-built sporting facility with a capacity of 30,000.
High-quality racing takes place throughout the year at a number of tracks within easy access of Dublin Airport, with Leopardstown also offering jumps racing, including the Irish Champion Hurdle, and Fairyhouse playing host to the Irish Grand National each year in March/April.
Another highly recommended jumps racing event is the six-day Punchestown Festival in County Kildare, the grand finale of the National Hunt season in April with races contested by the very best performers from both sides of the Irish Sea.
How to get there
Leopardstown is the nearest racecourse to Dublin itself, with a nearby LUAS tram stop at Sandyford and a regular service from the city centre. The racecourse is approximately 40 minutes’ drive from Dublin Airport, while it is roughly one hour to The Curragh, Fairyhouse and Punchestown. On major race days, there are numerous other options for public transport to the track, including special bus services from the centre of Dublin. But the easiest way to get around is by hiring a car.Find cheap car hire in Dublin Search flights to Dublin
Where to stay
Hotel packages in which Irish Champions Weekend tickets are included at discount prices are available through the website, while there are numerous other accommodation options in and around Dublin. A number of hotels close to racecourses are notably popular with horse racing fans, and special deals may be available, often including transport to and from the track. These include Killashee Hotel in Kildare, handily located for The Curragh and Punchestown, and if you’re splashing out, try the world-famous K Club.Find hotels in Dublin
No guide to racing in Ireland could fail to mention this extravaganza of horse racing and hedonism, a seven-day meeting taking place each summer (usually starting in the last week of July). The iconic Galway Plate and Galway Hurdle races both attract large fields of runners from the big stables, and the action is a mixture of flat and jumps, as well as a number of other types of race, including charity contests.
Over 140,000 people attended the meeting in 2018. Many come not just for the racing, but for the other entertainment, fashion and food and drink on offer – and a large number continue the party afterwards in the village of Ballybrit and the city of Galway itself.
As the longest of all of the Festival meetings, managing all seven days at Galway requires stamina and big pockets, but even attending for one day will give you a true taste of racing in Ireland. Many simply couldn’t dream of missing this annual pilgrimage, and Irish literary great WB Yeats even honoured the meeting with the poem ‘At Galway Races’.
As well as the Festival, Galway also stages racing on other dates in the summer and autumn.
How to get there
Since the closure of Galway’s own airport, the nearest airports are Shannon (40 minutes’ drive) and Ireland West (one hour). Additional bus services run from Galway City, or you can hire a car from Shannon Airport.
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Where to stay
As a popular area for holidays, there are various cheap, self-catering options in the locality, as well as a large number of hotels in the city. One of the nearest to the racecourse is the Connacht Hotel. Other good options include the Clayton and the Galway Bay.Hotels in Shannon Find cheap flights to Shannon
A little more off the beaten track: Killarney and Listowel
Kerry Airport in West Ireland is particularly well located for Killarney racecourse, being just a few miles from the town. Racing has been taking place at Killarney – the town itself being regarded as being one of Ireland’s premier tourist destinations – for almost 200 years. Its fixtures, both flat and over jumps, are divided into three summer festival meetings taking place between May and August each year.
Much of the racing takes place in the evening, allowing for some sightseeing opportunities in the local area in the daytime. Set against the Kerry Hills in a national park area, it is one of the most spectacular sporting arenas you will ever witness.
A half-hour drive’s north from Kerry airport (a journey that can also be completed by bus via the historic town of Tralee) is Listowel racecourse, located next to the River Feale. Two of the three main entrances to the course require crossing the river, giving the racecourse its nickname of ‘The Island’.
Held every September, the origins of the Listowel ‘Harvest’ Festival date back to when local farmers would come to invest the money made from the harvest. But although the crowd may now be slightly different in its make-up, the enthusiasm remains unchanged at a meeting that brands itself as ‘serious racing, serious fun’.
How to get there
Served by twice-daily flights from Dublin as well as regular services from London and further afield, Kerry Airport is situated in one of the most picturesque regions of Ireland. Although public transport is less widespread than in the big cities, it is possible to travel around by bus and train, while car hire services and taxis are widely available.
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Where to stay
Ten minutes’ walk from Killarney town, the four-star Cahernane House Hotel is set amid beautiful parkland and boasts elegant rooms studded with antique furniture. No hotel is closer to Listowel racecourse than the boutique-style Listowel Arms, adjacent to Listowel castle and overlooking the track itself.Find cheap flights to Kerry
There are free attractions in almost every town and village, and some of the best places to visit in Ireland are free of charge. Check out our top 10 free things to do in Ireland right here!
*Updated January 2019. Information correct at the time of publication but subject to change and/or availability.