Punchestown Racecourse Guide
The horse racing-mad nation of Ireland boasts one of the highest concentrations of racecourses in relation to its land area of any country in the world. All told, the Emerald Isle is home to 26 officially recognised courses, and of those 26 one of the very best lies 22km to the south of Dublin at Punchestown.
Indeed, for National Hunt fans this venue is just about the pick of the bunch. Operating from October through to early May, the flow of top-class action is almost relentless at the County Kildare track. There are nevertheless still those events which stand out from the crowd, including one of the biggest jumps racing jamborees on either side of the Irish Sea.
National Hunt racing may be known as the winter arm of the sport, but there is no doubt that spring is the most anticipated season for fans of the jumping game. Hot on the heels of the magnificent Cheltenham Festival in March comes the Irish version of the event, as Punchestown plays host to its standout meeting of the season.
Much like the Cheltenham Festival, Punchestown’s offering features an overload of Grade 1 action and regularly attracts many of the same runners as the Prestbury Park showpiece. For Irish fans and lovers of jumps racing in general this is a meeting simply not to be missed.
- The Punchestown Festival is held towards the tail end of the National Hunt season, taking place over five days towards the end of April each year, running from Tuesday through to Saturday.
- A bumper total of 39 contests are on offer over the five days, including no fewer than 12 Grade 1 events.
- The two-mile chasers take centre stage in the Champion Chase on the opening Tuesday, with the Grade 1 duo of the Champion Novice Hurdle and Champion Novice Chase heading up the undercard.
- Wednesday sees two further top-tier affairs, with the prestigious Punchestown Gold Cup being the main attraction.
- Another Group 1 double on Thursday’s card in the shape of the Barberstown Castle Novice Chase and Champion Stayers Hurdle.
- Friday then sees one of the most anticipated contests of the meeting as the speedy hurdlers line up in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle.
- There’s no dip in quality on the closing Saturday, with the Grade 1 events of the Champion Four Year Old Hurdle and Mares Champion Hurdle topping the bill.
- It is the jewel in Ireland’s National Hunt crown and has prize money to match, with €3.2 million on offer over the course of the meeting.
- Hugely popular with racegoers, the meeting regularly attracts over 130,000 punters, with 35,000+ in attendance on the closing Saturday.
Visiting Punchestown Races
With a jam-packed schedule of quality racing action – and not just at the big April event – Punchestown is understandably one of Ireland’s most popular and well-attended tracks. For those looking to join in the fun, the following information may be of use.
- Location – The course is located in the parish of Eadestown, County Kildare, around an hour’s drive from Dublin.
- Address – Punchestown Racecourse, Naas, County Kildare, Ireland
- Contact details – Telephone: +353 (0)45 897 704, Twitter: @punchestownrace, or via the tracks online contact form.
- Tickets – At the majority of meetings Punchestown operates as a single enclosure, however the Punchestown Festival sees the track split into General Enclosure and Reserved enclosure areas. For up-to-date prices see the ticketing section of the official website.
- Dress code – Whilst there is no official dress code in place, smart attire is the norm at the bigger meetings and in hospitality areas.
- Transport – Racegoers travelling over from the British mainland have the option of a flight to Dublin International Airport or the Holyhead to Dublin ferry crossing. The N7 motorway then leads almost directly from Dublin to the track. The closest train station to the course is that of Sallins and Naas, just outside Naas, with a free shuttle bus service operating on all race days.
- Accommodation – A distinctly rural venue, only a handful of accommodation options lie within a couple of miles of the course. A greater concentration lies in the town of Naas around 3km to the north of the track, whilst the capital city of Dublin offers a huge selection.
- Hospitality – From fine-dining experiences to the trackside pavilion and a selection of private suites, Punchestown isn’t short on excellent hospitality options. See the hospitality section of the track’s website for all the details.
- Food and Drink – As you would expect of a major track, Punchestown features a wide variety of food and drink options in both enclosures. With on-site restaurants and bars, in addition to a range of mobile vendors – you will never be far away from refreshment.
County Kildare has long been recognised as one of Ireland’s racing heartlands, with tales of events in the Punchestown locale dating back to 1824. In growing from a few horses running around a muddy field, to becoming one of the most respected National Hunt venues in the world, the track is undoubtedly one of Irish Racing’s real success stories
Those earliest meetings in the first half of the 19th century are best described as low-key and erratic. It wasn’t until 1850 that a more professional approach began to emerge with the local Kildare Hunt Club acting as the race organisers.
Whilst the on-track action received an upgrade in quality thanks to the efforts of the Kildare Hunt, the off-track facilities left a lot to be desired. Attendees at that inaugural 1850 meeting complained of a lack of facilities and very poor viewing – which is not too surprising considering there was no stand of any description in place at that time.
Recognising the needs of the crowd, by 1854 a sturdy wooden stand was in situ, swiftly followed by the 1861 establishment of the Kildare National Hunt Steeplechase organisation to take over the full-time running of the track. The improvements in the race day experience certainly had the desired effect, with several notables listed amongst the late 19th century crowds, including renowned racing fan the Prince of Wales.
Disruption and Post-War Boom
The early 20th century was a fractious time for Irish politics and Punchestown Racecourse wasn’t immune from the effects – repeatedly suspending operations due to the activities of the Sinn Fein party.
Enjoying a relatively smooth time of things from 1921, Punchestown was then forced to pull up stumps between 1941 and 1943 thanks to the onset of the Second World War. That however proved to be the last major period of turbulence for the course. Upon reopening in 1944 it quickly became apparent that the Irish appetite for racing had remained undimmed, with the fans consistently turning out in their droves.
Those fans were rewarded with an ever-increasing quantity of top-tier events from the 1950s onwards, illustrated by the expansion of the track’s signature meeting, growing from an initial two days to become the five-day feast of the modern-day.
Top Racing, Top Facilities, Top Track
Far from resting on its laurels, Punchestown continues to grow and develop, with the owners pumping €6.2m into improving the site between 2015 and 2018. With upgrades to the main grandstand and parade ring, and the addition of further bars and restaurants, the track – which has been designated the National Centre for Equestrian and Field Sports of Ireland – remains one of the Emerald Isle’s number one racing destinations.
Other Meetings & Races at Punchestown
Exceptional as the five-day April meeting may be, it is far from the only show in Punchestown. Laying on a total of 17 meetings over the course of the season, there are many other highlights on the racing calendar, with the following three fixtures, in particular, being well worth a look.
The standout event of the early season comes at this two-day meeting towards the middle of November. Benefitting from a punter-friendly Saturday/Sunday slot, the Punchestown Winter Festival presents fans with an early opportunity to see a selection of the more talented Irish performers in the flesh. Consisting of 15 contests in all, highlights include the Florida Pearl Novice Chase and Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle which serves as Sunday’s main event.
John Durkan Chase Day
Of the Grade 1 contests held at the track, all bar one fall within the confines of the two main festivals. The outlier is the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase which headlines this single-day fixture in December. Taking place on a Sunday afternoon, this is another meeting which never fails to draw in the crowds. A Listed class hurdle for the mares provides the main support to a feature event which regularly falls to a Cheltenham Gold Cup-calibre performer.
Tied Cottage Chase Day
Rarely a month goes by without a quality meeting at this track, and Punchestown kicks off the New Year in style with another of its Sunday afternoon highlights. Named in honour of a previous winner of the race, the headline contest sees a talented field of performers do battle over the two-mile trip. Whilst “only” a Grade 2, the Tied Cottage Chase is no stranger to a genuine superstar, with Moscow Flyer, Sizing Europe and Douvan amongst the names lighting up the roll of honour. With eight contests on offer in all, including the Grade 3 Kildare Novice Chase, this is one of the first dates pencilled into the diaries of local racing fans.
Biggest Races at Punchestown
Despite only staging around 17 meetings per season, Punchestown still manages to cram in a total 21 contests rated at Grade 3 or above, including the following 14 top-tier events.
- Growise Champion Novice Chase, Punchestown Festival – Grade 1, 3m1f
- Punchestown Champion Chase, Punchestown Champion Chase – Grade 1, 2m
- Champion Novice Hurdle, Punchestown Festival – Grade 1, 2m
- Punchestown Gold Cup, Punchestown Festival – Grade 1, 3m1f
- Champion INH Flat Race, Punchestown Festival – Grade 1, 2m
- Irish Daily Mirror Novice Hurdle, Punchestown Festival – Grade 1, 3m
- Champion Stayers Hurdle, Punchestown Festival – Grade 1, 3m
- Ryanair Novice Chase, Punchestown Festival – Grade 1, 2m
- Punchestown Champion Hurdle, Punchestown Festival – Grade 1, 2m
- Alanna Homes Champion Novice Hurdle, Punchestown Festival – Grade 1, 2m4f
- Champion Four Year Old Hurdle, Punchestown Champion Chase – Grade 1, 2m
- Mares Champion Hurdle, Punchestown Festival – Grade 1, 2m2f
- Morgiana Hurdle, Winter Festival – Grade 1, 2m
- John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase, John Durkan Chase Day – Grade 1, 2m4f
Punchestown’s two-mile right-handed circuit is very close to rectangular in conformation, featuring two long straight sections and four bends which are not far off 90 degrees. Whilst those turns do test the balance of the contenders, this is essentially a galloping track. Generally, flat throughout, things begin to change around five furlongs from home, at which point the terrain begins to climb, and continues to climb up the finishing straight to the line. Whatever the distance, an ability to truly see out the trip is an absolute must around here.
Turning to the fences, each circuit features a total of 11 obstacles; four on the section of track following the winning post and leading away from the stands, three in the backstretch, two on the run back towards home, and a final two in the home straight before a run-in of close to a furlong. Whilst not unduly demanding, the location of the fences can cause problems for suspect jumpers, most notably the three in the short straight following the winning post, and the final flight which looms up very quickly after the second last.
Lying directly inside the chase course, the hurdles track conforms to that same rectangular shape, but is necessarily shorter at around 1m6f per circuit and features even sharper turns. A much quicker track than its chase counterpart, well-balanced prominent racers tend to go well here, whilst an ability to jump accurately at speed is also essential in order to safely negotiate the eight flights of hurdles per circuit. On occasion the hurdles track may use an alternative home straight, creating an even tighter circuit which strongly favours agile front runners.
In addition to the chase and hurdles courses, Punchestown is also home to the only cross-country banks course in the whole of Irish racing. Vastly different from the main course, this meandering track requires runners to turn in both directions and jump a range of weird and wonderful obstacles including walls, bushes, birch fences and banks.