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HQ – Newmarket, Suffolk, UK

This is a practical guide to horse racing tracks visited, reviewed from a practical and social viewpoint. It is not intended to be a technical guide to the characteristics of a given track. If you wish to learn about the nitty-gritty of individual track trends etc. you will find other sites more relevant to that objective.

It aims to advise on the optimum logistics of travelling to a new racecourse, where to eat, stay and other guidance on what to expect.

This blog will be a moving feast, with updates as new tracks visited and revisted.

If you wish to share any of your experiences and feedback, please leave a comment or email: amanda@short-call.com

Ballinrobe

Ballinrobe can be found in the beautiful North West corner of Ireland, in the diverse county of Mayo, which has an abundance of attractions and would make for an exceptional family holiday or short-break for anyone.

Entrance to Ballinrobe racecourse

The course itself hosts a number of summer/autumn meetings, fixture details for 2021 can be found here: http://www.irishracing.com/Ballinrobe-Racecourse

This guide is unusual, in that although I visited the course, I did so during the closed Covid period in the summer of 2020, when I was so desperate to set foot on a racecourse! Therefore, it forms more of a tribute to the local area and county and hopefully will be helpful, for when the joy of actual race meeting attendance, is again a reality.

As pleasures are few and far between at the moment (!), it was slightly comical to discover that when Ballinrobe was relaunched in 2010, (with upgraded facilities) – the board of management had the gift of premonition, to bestow the name of the MASK PAVILION on one of the enclosures! However, the naming of, is more a nod to the local Lough Mask! Anyway -it brought a smile to my face on that Sunday in late September.

Getting there

Shannon airport is about 1.5 hours drive away, with Knock airport about 45 minutes drive. Dublin airport is about 2hrs. 45 mins. Conversely if you were arriving into Dublin port via car, it would be about 3 hours drive.

Accommodation

The town of Ballinrobe is less than 5 minutes drive (if you were wondering about taxis). There is a B&B opposite the course called the Woodview – call: +353 (0)87 419 2469 Ballinrobe itself is a small town, well-served with bars and lodging can probably be found in public house establishments, as well as a small hotel that may or may not be open.

However, if you are making a wider holiday of it, you can easily stay in Westport – 30 minutes drive, or Cong which is about 10 minutes drive.

Westport is a lively coastal town, ideally suited to visiting the wider attractions of Croagh Patrick, Louisburgh, Achill Island and more. I stayed in the Wyatt Hotel which is situated right in the centre of town. It is in front of Westport House and Gardens – which are well worth a stroll through. You can walk to the harbour, or just visit the historic house (€13.50 for adults) – the grounds are free, The Wyatt Hotel has two eating facilities and a popular bar. There are plenty of other options for accommodation – hostels to hotels. The town itself is immaculate, litter free and decked with flowers and foilage according to the season. The locals should be very proud of themselves.

Westport
View from Westport House

Cong is the town where the 1952 Hollywood film ‘The Quiet Man’ was made. It’s a picturesque small town, which benefits from a host of smaller hotels, as well as home to the 5* Ashford Castle, which has just been voted the top resort in UK and Ireland (as of September 2020). If you like fishing and walking, Cong could be a great choice for you to stay.

The bar where all the action was in ‘The Quiet Man’

John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara depicted in a statue in Cong
Entrance to Ashford Castle, Cong

Racecourse

Hand sanitisers aplenty at the course, as well as the aforementioned Mask Pavilion (!), so we’re Covid secure!

Seriously – Ballinrobe has to be a contender for the best-kept racecourse in Ireland. There’s no evidence of tired, worn facilities and it’s very easy on the eye.

I look forward to going to an actual meeting in 2021, once we’re back up and running. I can’t comment first-hand on the atmosphere, but am reliably informed that the meetings are all well-attended by both locals and visitors alike.

In the meantime, if you’ve never visited Co. Mayo, I can highly recommend it. if you want more information on the course facilities, please visit: https://ballinroberacecourse.ie/

Other places worthy of visiting are Castlebar, the county town of Mayo. Castlebar is a traditional town and is also home to the Country Life Museum, which showcases social history in Ireland through the centuries. It’s a very impressive new-build, within fabulous parkland, with trails etc. There is a cafe that serves great coffee attached to the museum, with an external courtyard, for those that are hyper-sensitive in these Covid times. It’s situated 8km Northeast of Castlebar town and entrance is free. You could spend a good few hours here, as there is a lot to absorb.

Artefacts from the ‘good’ old days at Country Life Museum

If you’re into stained glass windows and are familiar with the work of the esteemed artist – Harry Clarke, then you could pay a quick visit to the Church in Newport, on your way around the coast to Mulranny or Achill Island. Well worth a break, to see further examples of his dazzling work.

Irish Racecourses

There are 26 racecourses in Ireland and for the purposes of racing, include the 2 courses in Northern Ireland as they are all controlled by the industry governing body of Horse Racing Ireland.  See: www.hri.ie

Ireland has a well-developed betting shop network for off-course betting, as well as pool betting through on-course Tote facilities (for French readers – the equivalent of the PMU) and traditional bookmakers will be found on-course at all venues.

The courses range from the charming National Hunt only venues, such as Kilbeggan to the colossuses of Galway and Punchestown, which host the major festivals.

Attending these major festivals is not so prohibitive, as it is to attend some of the key meetings in the UK.  For example – the reserved enclosure at Punchestown in 2020 (had it gone ahead) – was €40.00.  An average gate entrance fee for a normal non-festival meeting would be €15.00-20.00.

The food on offer tends to be of good quality, although of course there are exceptions.

If coming to Ireland for one of the major festivals, do try and coordinate it with a visit to some other horse related attractions such as the National Stud, which is situated just outside of Kildare town, Co. Kildare (convenient for visits to Punchestown, Naas & the Curragh): https://irishnationalstud.ie/  or the Fethard Horse Experience, just outside of Coolmore, in Co. Tipperary: http://fhcexperience.ie/  Convenient for trips to Gowran Park, Clonmel, Tipperary, Thurles, Tramore, Wexford and even Cork.

Skeleton of Arkle – The Irish National Stud, Co. Kildare

Within the individual articles on the various courses on the drop-down menu, you will find suggestions for accommodation and dining out etc.

UK racecourses

As of May 2020, there are 59 courses operating in the United Kingdom.

17 of those are dual-purpose – Flat and National Hunt.

Racing can be accessible to all, however for some of the flagship meetings, you are looking at fairly entrance fees. For the Cheltenham Festival, for the cheapest enclosure – £35.00-40.00 up to £85.00-100.00 per day. The Epsom Derby is even more expensive.

Like anything the standard of service and facilities vary greatly, like the standard of horses racing.

Generally speaking the peak of the flat season in Great Britain is between May and September. For National Hunt it is November to March.

Horse racing in the UK is governed by the British Horseracing Authority: https://www.britishhorseracing.com/

Newbury, UK

Getting there

Newbury is in the Royal County of Berkshire, about 1 hour’s drive from London Heathrow airport. Very accessible and a short distance to the course once you turn off the M4.

Newbury racecourse is also served by the main line train, from London Paddington, please visit: https://www.thetrainline.com/ for details.

It is of course adjacent to the major training centre of Lambourn.

Accommodation/Eating & drinking

Down the years, Newbury racecourse has enjoyed significant investment and there is now a hotel on the racecourse lands: https://www.thelodgenewbury.co.uk/ However early booking recommended, it only has 36 bedrooms.

Newbury the town is a very appealing one, set on the banks of the River Kennett, it is also on the edge of the Berkshire Downs, classified as an area of natural beauty. There is a mix of 17th & 18th listed buildings which appeal to the eye.

Newbury itself is well-served by hotels. I cannot recommend one in Newbury personally, as the last time I was there, I stayed in the historic Bear at Hungerford: https://www.greenekinginns.co.uk/hotels/bear-hotel-hungerford/ Excellent food including a great breakfast.

There are a couple of great bars for eating and drinking in Eat & West Isley, on the outskirts of Newbury, if you want a leisurely, comfortable haunt after racing.

Newbury town offers a wide choice of dining options too.

Racecourse

Highly accessible (as above). Newbury is a premier track, offering flat and National Hunt. The feature flat races each season include: the Greenham (April), the Lockinge (mid-May) and Geoffrey Freer in August, as well as the Super Sprint in July.

Of course the highlight of their National Hunt Calendar, is the Hennessy Gold Cup at the end of November.

Newbury has always been a fabulous facility, plenty of bars and choice of food/snacks. Please see here for details of hospitality: https://newburyracecourse.co.uk/

The Premier enclosure requires a certain standard of dress, a collar is required for Gentlemen, although a tie is no longer required. For the Grandstand enclosure, there is a lot more flexibility, even fancy dress for those so inclined.

General vibe

In the Premier enclosure, it is fair to say that everyone makes an effort and presents their best self, so as dressy as you like.

For the November Hennessy meeting, it still attracts a contingent of the highly affluent upper-class/titled types. A feature of the Winter social calendar if you like!

Summary

I don’t think you would ever have a bad day at Newbury, such is the high standard it operates at. Great racing guaranteed. There is also a series of evening concerts after racing during the summer months, everything from Boyzone in years past, to the Pussycat Dolls scheduled for August 2020.

Racecourses in France

French racecourses in France are controlled by the industry body – France Galop.

There are a cluster of racecourses in and around the French capital of Paris – Longchamp, Auteuil, Maison-Laffittes and Saint Cloud.

Other racecourses of note are Pau – in the South West, Deauville in Normandy, Chantilly in Hauts de France and Cagnes-sur-Mer on the Côte d’Azur.

At the last count, there are over 250 hippodromes offering traditional horse racing and trotting races (le Trot)

There are no on-course bookmakers in France, and no betting shops. Pool betting is state controlled and is facilitated in PMU (Pari Mutuel Urbain) shops that you will find in every French town and City, which also act as bars and sell other gaming products such as lotto. The PMU also is the conduit for betting on-course – similar to the Tote offering in Ireland & the UK.

Naas, Ireland

Disclosure – Naas is my favourite racecourse in Ireland, so I will try to be as objective as I can. It is a dual purpose track, which throws up some great maidens and ones to watch for the future on the flat, as well as giving good pointers for potential Cheltenham destined horses.

Getting there

Naas is situated in Co. Kildare, easy access from Dublin airport – about 30 minutes. There is no train station in Naas, the nearest is in neighbouring Sallins. On racedays, Naas racecourse usually offers a free courtesy bus from the station to the course.

Local area

Naas town has plenty of options for overnight stays – Lawlors Hotel, who sponsor the Grade One at Naas in January, Naas Court, the Osprey….it goes on.

Racecourse

Naas (Woodlands Park) caters for both National Hunt and Flat. It has recently undergone an extensive rebuilding and renovation project, with the centrepiece being the Circle Bar, overlooking the winning post and parade ring.

Part of the Under Starters Orders collection of sculpted horses exhibited and sold at auction in 2019. Behind to the right is the entrance to the Circle bar and the side view of the entrance to the main stand at Naas.

The main stand hosts hospitality and the members lounge on the 1st floor, with the ground floor being a betting hall with the usual refreshments. The seated restaurant on the 1st floor appears to offer a very good standard of food.

Members Lounge

There is a self service restaurant behind the parade ring.

General vibe

A laid back, exceptionally friendly track. Dress code, anything goes really. They do have a couple of best-dressed competitions each year, but generally speaking it isn’t a tie and suit affair, moreover the opposite.

Summary

Well-managed, ambitious track. Staff are very helpful. If you want a relaxed, no-hassle day at an Irish racecourse, then Naas would be a good starting point.

Fairyhouse, Ireland

Home of the Irish Grand National, Fairyhouse is situated in Co. Meath. Accessible by road and on major racedays by bus.

Local area

Ratoath is the closet village and has a couple of good bars there, if you want to pre or post racing drinking, or both. A bit further afield Ashbourne and Dunshaughlin both have bars aplenty, with Ashbourne having a couple of hotels, if you’re planning a bit of a trip.

Racecourse

Facilitates both flat and jump racing. The feature meeting of course being the Irish Grand National meeting at Easter and also the Grade One Royal Bond meeting end November/early December.

For those of a claustrophobic nature, the Grand National day is probably not the greatest idea. Fairyhouse is fairly light on facilities for a day like this. I would strongly advise booking hospitality well in advance for such an event.

Davy Russell accepting a reward in recognition of winning the British Grand National the previous day on Tiger Roll (2019)

If you’re local and wish to support both Fairyhouse and Navan, there is a combined annual membership, which gives you access to the members lounge, which should be a far more enjoyable experience, particularly at Fairyhouse.

Down Royal, Northern Ireland

Down Royal is a dual purpose track in Co. Down, in the North of Ireland. It’s situated a short distance from the border and is South of Belfast. It’s feature races are the Grade one chase in November, of which Road to Respect won the 2019 renewal. The most valuable flat race ran is the Ulster Derby, which is run in June.

It is one of 2 tracks in the North of Ireland – the other being Downpatrick.

Getting there

Down Royal is about 25 minutes from Belfast by car. A taxi will cost about £25 each way. There is also a bus which goes from Donegal Square West which can be booked via here: https://downroyal.com/ From Dublin, it is about 1 hour and 35 minutes by car. The nearest town to the course is Lisburn.

If flying in, the nearest airport (17 miles) – is George Best Belfast City airport.

Accommodation

Depending on what you’re looking for – you can stay in the seaside resort of Bangor. Co. Down or you can stay in Belfast, as we did. There are all manner of choices. Northern Ireland has really taken off as a tourist destination in recent years, especially since the Game of Thrones (which was largely filmed there) – so I would advise booking reasonably well in advance for the choice of accommodation.

We stayed at the Hotel Europa: https://www.hastingshotels.com/europa-belfast/ whose notoriety is that of being the most-bombed hotel in Europe, during the troubles in Northern Ireland! It’s a great central location, close to all the shops and the highly sophisticated dining scene in Belfast, which includes the Michelin starred Deanes: https://www.michaeldeane.co.uk/ Highly recommended.

Racecourse

Rural setting adjacent to the old Maze prison which was consistently in the news during the Troubles, because it housed the hunger strikers and other freedom and loyalist paramilitaries.

It’s fairly compact, there is an independent bar on the outskirts of the course, which is handy for a pre or post raceday drink.

There is not that much seating room, so on the bigger days, be prepared to have to stand. Plenty of food and drink options on offer.

General vibe

Very friendly, informal venue. Very well-supported by the local population. It’s invariably a fun day out.

Summary

Guaranteed a good day out with generally competitive racing, with families well catered for too. Combine it with a look at what else Northern Ireland has to offer – Belfast, or the Causeway Coast, or the Glens of Antrim, or even Derry (Londonderry). So much to offer. It was further boosted last year by the staging of the British Open Golf major tournament, at Royal Portrush.

Gowran Park, Ireland

Gowran Park racecourse is situated in Co. Kilkenny. Set in a beautiful rural setting, it stages a couple of fairly high-profile and valuable national hunt races – notably the Thyestes Chase and the Red Mills Chase.

Getting there

Gowran Park is a 90 minute drive from Dublin airport. Situated off the M9. The nearest train stations are Kilkenny and Thomastown, where you can get a taxi for onward travel to the course.

If staying in Kilkenny, there is a complimentary bus service from the gates of Kilkenny Castle.

Accommodation & Food and drink

Loads of options in Kilkenny, from the 5* Lyrath Estate: https://www.lyrath.com/ to very lively popular options such as the River Court Hotel: https://www.rivercourthotel.com/ where we stayed. A large hotel by the river, in the centre of Kilkenny, adjacent to the shops and bars.

Kilkenny has an abundance of good bars and boutiques too.

It’s well-served on the eating front, including the Michelin starred Campagne where we dined: https://www.campagne.ie/

Racecourse

A really well-kept course, which makes an instant positive first impression. There are ample bars and hospitality options overlooking the course. For non-hospitality punters, everything from soup and sandwiches, to hot roast beef rolls and carvery lunches. Please see here for more information: https://www.gowranpark.ie/

The parade ring is at the farthest end from the entrance. It’s not overly big, so for the big races, get your position early.

There is very limited seating within the stand on the big days, so be prepared to stand. Also, on days like the Red Mills Chase day, there inevitably will be queues for everything. These days attract practically everyone in Carlow and Kilkenny and beyond! Serious crowds.

On the bigger days, Red Mills who are key sponsors of the racing, have a pop-up shop on course, selling brands such as Fairfax & Favor, Welligogs, Dubarry and other similar country attire.

General vibe

Country Fair type atmosphere, all types of punters, generally from the local area and adjoining counties. There is a best-dressed competition on Red Mills and Thyestes days.

Summary

A great day out in gorgeous countryside. Has a character all of its own.

Paris-Longchamp, France

Beautiful Longchamp in the Bois de Boulogne. I was a frequent visitor to the old Longchamp and in the interests of transparency, have only visited the new Paris-Longchamp, once – and in the year it re-opened in 2018.

The magnificent Notre Dame de Paris – 2018, before the fire

Getting there

Paris-Longchamp is easily reached by free ‘navettes’ (courtesy shuttle buses) on Arc day, which depart from opposite Porte Maillot. Porte Maillot is a congress centre, as well as being the dropping off/collecting point for Ryanair passengers to get to and from Beauvais – just in case you know that, as a general marker.

After racing on Arc day the navettes will be under pressure and you will probably have to wait a while to get back into central Paris, but no longer than about 20-30 minutes.

On other racedays, the venue can be reached by bus/ metro/on foot/cycling etc.

Original artwork for the Metro system in Paris, captured in the Musee D’Orsay

Convenient districts in which to stay

Paris is divided up into a group of districts – or arrondisments. The 8th, 16th & 17th are the recommended ones, to have closer proximity to Porte Maillot and therefore Paris-Longchamp. The 8th would generally be the more expensive as it includes the Champs Elysees and surrounds.

If you are looking for a good-value, centrally located hotel off the Champs Elysees, I would recommend Hotel Elysees Ceramic: https://ceramic-paris-hotel.com/en/ Step out the door and the Arc de Triomphe monument looms before you.

The actual Arc de Triomphe

Racecourse

The new structure now has 3 enclosures – the cheapest one having no visibility of the finish line, or access to the parade ring. There are a variety of different options and hospitality packages which you can check out here: https://www.parislongchamp.com/en/qatar-prix-de-larc-triomphe

Photo credit: Katherine Grace

In 2018, we paid about €70.00 per ticket, which we did get discounted by 50% – for the equivalent of a members or club type experience. Unfortunately Paris-Longchamp had not accurately assessed how much Irish & British visitors drink and consequently the facilities fell down in every area, from lack of bars, toilets and places to sit. Perhaps there was a higher than usual attendance of this cohort that first year of the new facility, as everyone wanted to see it and perhaps that led to the underplanning. Overall it was a bit of a disaster and we took refuge in one of the restaurant areas in the cheaper enclosure, as that didn’t appear to be as over-subscribed as the rest of the venue.

The tree-laden parade ring. Photo credit: Katherine Grace.

My understanding is that in 2019, significant improvements were made in all the areas above. I look forward to an Arc day there in the future.

One think that has stuck in my head, was the use of wood for the stand – presumably in keeping with the wider wooded Bois de Boulogne area. It was a fairly damp, wet day in 2018 and if you had slightly impractical shoes on, it was very hairy walking up the steps, in terms of the slippage. Ladies beware!

General vibe

Parisians rarely go racing, but Arc day is one of those days that anyone who is anyone, shows up to show off in their finery. The vast majority of attendees will have made an effort, including all the international visitors, which include the Japanese of course. So jeans and casual clothes, won’t really cut it.

With the quotient of British visitors in particular, the atmosphere can get fairly lively, quite early on. There is also a fair degree of flag waving, with British, Irish and Japanese as well as French flags being brandished by certain racegoers.

Pre-race parade. Photo credit: Paul Roberts.

There is genuinely a fantastic atmosphere, greatly enhanced by rousing music when the winner comes back in, which makes for a great experience, and genuinely gets the blood pumping. It is like a diluted version of Cheltenham, from the general anticipation and excitement point of view. With a card overflowing with group ones and arguably the best flat race in the world – you would need a heart of stone, not to be moved by the theatre of the occasion.

Entertainment – photo credit: Katherine Grace

It – like Cheltenham, has to be a must-visit for any racing fan, regardless of whether you like flat racing or not.

Enable going to start – 2018. Photo credit: Paul Roberts

Enable after winning back-to-back Arcs in 2018, 1st one being at Chantilly in 2017. Photo credit: Paul Roberts.
And the vanquished and sadly missed Sea of Class, just pipped – as evidenced on screen behind James Doyle. Photo credit: Paul Roberts

Summary

My understanding is that the other days outside of that 1st Sunday in October, are much more pleasurable affairs, in terms of enjoying the facilities. I believe there has been some progress in enticing the local community into some of the summer series evenings that they run. My plan before COVID-19, was to visit in July to attend the Grand Prix de Paris on Bastille day, however that looks unlikely due to the current guidance of President Macron with regard to outdoor events. I will update this page, once I have more current experience of a day out at the glorious Bois de Boulogne!