Curragh – Covid times

Sunday 21st March – I found myself legitimately in the close proximity of the Curragh on the opening day of the flat season 2021. Having not heard the sound of horse’s hooves since the Cheltenham festival 2020, the lure of the Curragh Plains was irresistible – I could smell the hoof oil and other horse fragrances in the air!

Having grabbed a coffee from Lucy’s cafe in the Tri Equestrian shop, I headed out the road with the Curragh stand on my left, to the grass near the 2f pole. I was surprised to see quite a few other like-minded individuals already in-situ – families, older people, young people, even a small bubble of three people with a windbreaker and some light refreshments.

The field for the Irish Lincolnshire, 2021 – The Curragh

Everyone kept to their own bubbles and there was plenty of room on the rails to spread out. You would really want to bring binoculars if you want to view the race from the start.

Irish Lincolnshire 2021 , Curragh

I’m aware that during the 2020 season, there were small congregations of punters at a lot of the meetings, particularly at the classics. It seems to work well if you’re living within whatever are the Government guidelines of the given day!

Irish Lincolnshire 2021, Curragh

Of course, you could position yourself at any one of many vantage points around the perimeter, taking into account safety of course.

Personally, I cannot see a return to the course until the Autumn, but I’ve trained myself to have low expectations after a year of this – at least that way I won’t be disappointed!

Curragh – Covid times

Sunday 21st March – I found myself legitimately in the close proximity of the Curragh on the opening day of the flat season 2021. Having not heard the sound of horse’s hooves since the Cheltenham festival 2020, the lure of the Curragh Plains was irresistible – I could smell the hoof oil and other horse fragrances in the air!

Having grabbed a coffee from Lucy’s cafe in the Tri Equestrian shop, I headed out the road with the Curragh stand on my left, to the grass near the 2f pole. I was surprised to see quite a few other like-minded individuals already in-situ – families, older people, young people, even a small bubble of three people with a windbreaker and some light refreshments.

The field for the Irish Lincolnshire, 2021 – The Curragh

Everyone kept to their own bubbles and there was plenty of room on the rails to spread out. You would really want to bring binoculars if you want to view the race from the start.

Irish Lincolnshire 2021 , Curragh

I’m aware that during the 2020 season, there were small congregations of punters at a lot of the meetings, particularly at the classics. It seems to work well if you’re living within whatever are the Government guidelines of the given day!

Irish Lincolnshire 2021, Curragh

Of course, you could position yourself at any one of many vantage points around the perimeter, taking into account safety of course.

Personally, I cannot see a return to the course until the Autumn, but I’ve trained myself to have low expectations after a year of this – at least that way I won’t be disappointed!

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.

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.

Navan, Ireland

A fantastic dual-purpose track in Co. Meath. Has been much improved down the years and offers some great racing particularly over the jumps in the months leading up to Cheltenham.

Getting there

Navan is about 45 minutes from Dublin airport and can be reached by car and buses from Dublin City Centre on specific racedays.

Racecourse

Like the majority of racecourses in Ireland, well-managed and welcoming.

Ample bars and a separate coffee shop with slouchy sofas , there is also a cafeteria which serves up carvery dinner and sausage & chip type meals.

Navan stages an enviable programme of races including the Troytown & Fortria Chases, the Boyne Hurdle and on the flat the Group 3 Vintage Crop Styakes.

It’s always well-supported by locals and visitors from the North as well as the rest of Ireland.

It’s viewed as a good testing track for those heading to Cheltenham.

Tiger Roll on his comeback race, Boyne Hurdle – February 2020. He later went onto the Cross Country at Cheltenham and ran a valiant 2nd

Summary

You’ll have a great day out at Navan regardless of the calibre of racing. You’ll be well-looked after, in a relaxing laid-back environment.

Galway, Ireland

Ah, the fabled Galway Races in the West of Ireland. The wonderful seven days of racing at the end of July, concluding the Sunday before the August bank holiday in Ireland. A mix of flat and national hunt, sometimes on the same card.

Getting there

These days with newer roads, Galway can be reached from Dublin in about 2.5 hours. The nearest international airport is Shannon, in Co. Limerick, with Knock airport in Co. Mayo, also offering flights to and from several destinations.

The bus and train stations are very centrally located off Eyre Square, which is the landmark spot of Galway, so no need for a taxi if staying in central Galway City.

Once in Galway City, there are continuous buses from Eyre Square to and from the racecourse. Ballybrit – the actual name for the racecourse is situated about 15 minutes’ drive from Galway centre.

Accommodation & general entertainment

Such is the enduing popularity of the festival, accommodation will be booked year in, year out, so you need to plan your trip well in advance. There is everything from 5* luxury hotels, to guesthouse and hostel type accommodation.

The Hardiman Hotel on Eyre Square – formerly known as the Meyrick, is a very popular pre and post racing meeting point: https://www.thehardiman.ie/ Other popular haunts are the 5* g Hotel: https://www.theghotel.ie/ and the 5* Galmont (formerly the Radisson Blu): https://www.thegalmont.com/

The Hardiman on Eyre Square, formerly known as the Meyrick

I plan to stay in Westport, Co. Mayo for this year’s festival – should it go ahead, which is just under an hour’s drive.

In terms of great bars, Galway is blessed with them and you won’t have too look far for entertainment. It also has a very sophisticated dining scene, with Michelin star establishments included: https://www.aniarrestaurant.ie/ You will struggle to have an inferior meal in Galway, unless you end up at Supermacs! – Nothing wrong with Supermacs at all though. Supermacs started in Galway and has since become a huge Irish fast-food success story. Excellent fodder after a day’s drinking. Galway has it all.

An Pucan off Eyre Square is a good all-purpose bar, it does food all-day including breakfast and has a large internal capacity. It’s a sports bar, so as well as the racing, it will have screens showing different sports: https://anpucan.ie/

Racecourse

In keeping with a lot of Irish racecourses, Galway has benefited from significant investment in recent years, and as a result has large capacity stands & extensive hospitality options.

The main days of the festival week are the Wednesday – Galway Plate day and the Thursday – Galway hurdle. If you like a crushing atmosphere with no-holds barred then these days are for you – particularly the Thursday. However there are some great lesser profile evening meetings, during the week, which are just as good to get a real taste of Ballybrit. The Thursday – there is usually a large contingent of local students out for the day, so it can be mayhem from early on, especially if it’s raining and everyone pours inside the stand.

Of course, fashion and style is very much a cornerstone of the whole Galway festival. A lot of ladies plan their outfits months in advance and the competitions are highly competitive, but not confined to ladies only – there are best-dressed comps. for men too, with very lucrative rewards for winners.

There is usually a flat entry fee of about €30 for flagship days such as Plate & Hurdle day, where you can avail of a seat for an additional €20 – recommended. Galway enjoys huge crowds, so you will struggle for comfort if not in a hospitality area. Please see: https://www.galwayraces.com/ for further information.

Loads of food and drink options, with a lot of the main fast food chains in Ireland having outlets too – Abrakebabra, Eddie Rockets for example, as well as offerings for the more discerning palate. Galway and the West of Ireland in general is renowned for it’s seafood, so expect to enjoy plenty of this, if that’s your preference.

Summary

Galway probably has more festivals than any other county in Ireland, including the racing one. As such the whole city has hospitality off to a fine art. The Ballybrit experience is ebullient, exhilerating and not for the faint hearted. It will not suit those that do not like crowds and raucous carrying-on! It attracts punters from all backgrounds – rural and city dwellers alike, as well as international visitors.

If you want a more comfortable West of Ireland racing experience, then I am reliably informed that the summer meetings at picturesque Ballinrobe, in Co. Mayo would be a good bet.