Situated around 7km southwest of the small town of Lisburn, and 16km to the south of the capital city of Belfast, Down Royal is one of only two racecourses to be found in Northern Ireland. Providing locals with equine entertainment at its current Maze location for centuries now, the dual-purpose venue of Down Royal mixes history and heritage with thoroughly modern facilities. Home to both the nation’s richest flat contest and the opening Grade 1 of the Irish jumps season, it remains a hugely popular destination with punters from all over the Emerald Isle and from further afield.
Racegoers making the trip to Down Royal may well wish to extend their visit with an overnight stay in what is a beautiful part of County Down, particularly as the two major events of the season are multi-day affairs. And with numerous accommodation options, both close to the track and a little further afield, those looking to linger a little longer should find something to fit the bill.
Closest to the Course
Whilst there are no hotels actually at the track itself, there are several smaller B&B type options just a close distance away. Around five miles to the north of the course, the charming town of Lisburn offers a cluster of options, including the Haslem Hotel and some smaller self-catering options. Boasting a number of points of historical interest, in addition to a decent array of pubs, including the excellent Hagues Bar and thematically named The Favourite Bar and The Down Royal, many visitors opt to stay in the town closest to the track.
The Haslem Hotel is located in the centre of Lisburn and has a fitness centre, restaurant and bar. It is a 14-minute drive to Down Royal Racecourse or you can get there on a bus with some walking on either end in just over 30 minutes.
Bunk in Belfast
Charming as Lisburn is, no doubt some racegoers will be looking for something a little livelier for their post-race entertainment. For anyone seeking to combine their racing trip with a city break, the most obvious option is to stay in the capital city of Belfast. With the beautiful scenery of Cave Hill, historical sites, including the Crumlin Road Gaol, and the thriving pub scene of the Cathedral Quarter, there’s something for everyone at this popular tourist destination. Of course, as a capital city, there are a whole host of accommodation options available with many major chains being represented to more independent options.
The Titanic Hotel Belfast is located opposite the Titanic Belfast, which is a popular attraction for those hoping to learn more about the RMS Titanic, which was built in Belfast. The hotel has an art deco theme and has a bar and restaurant.
The Hilton Belfast over looks the River Lagan and has a modern bar, Irish restaurant, and fitness centre. The hotel is just under half an hour from Down Royal Racecourse via car and is located in central Belfast. The hotel offers a full Irish breakfast option each morning.
Situated in the picturesque Lagan Valley Regional Park just on the outskirts of Belfast, the Crowne Plaza is a 25-minute car journey to Down Royal Racecourse. There is a swimming pool and gym in the hotel with an all-day restaurant and guests have the option to have a full Irish breakfast in the morning.
Escape to the Country
On the other side of the coin, perhaps even Lisburn is a little too lively for some tastes. For those seeking a more tranquil counterbalance to a rowdy day at the races, there are several areas of natural beauty within easy reach, including Colin Glen Mountain and Divis and the Black Mountain. A number of hotels and guesthouses lie within easy reach of both the track and the rugged Irish countryside..
The Ballymac Hotel is located in Divis and the Black Mountain, offering countryside views. The hotel has a restaurant and bar with both local and international cuisine offered. The hotel is only 17 minutes from the Down Royal Racecourse in a little village called Stonyford.
The Standing Stones Lodge is located in Divis and the Black Mountain, a National Trust site, filled with picturesque walking trails on the outskirts of Belfast. The hotel is about 23 minutes driving from Down Royal Racecourse with lodge style accommodation and a small hotel bar.
About the Racecourse
A dual-purpose venue, Down Royal operates right throughout the year, staging National Hunt action over the winter before the flat takes over in the warmer months of the year. Laying on around 14 fixtures over the course of the season, both the flat and jumps have their seasonal highlights in the shape of multi-day meetings, with the regular Friday evening fixtures also proving particularly popular with punters.
For UK racing fans planning a trip to Down Royal, the first hurdle to overcome is, of course, that represented by the Irish Sea. A flight to Belfast Airport is the quickest option, with regular services from major cities including London, Birmingham, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle. Alternatively, the ferry can be taken from Cairnryan in the East of Scotland across to Larne to the north of Belfast, whilst those travelling from Southern England may opt for the Holyhead to Dublin crossing before proceeding on the A1 from Dublin towards Belfast.
From Belfast, the track can be reached in around half an hour by car, with the quickest route being to take the A1 to Hillsborough roundabout from where the track is clearly signposted. If driving from Dublin, the directions are essentially the same, i.e. follow the A1 to the Hillsborough roundabout and proceed from there, albeit with a longer journey time of around 1h40mins. For satnav users, the postcode for the track is BT27 5RW. Once at the track, free parking is available to racegoers, with all parking sites located within a five-minute walk of the track.
For those travelling by rail, the closest station to the track lies within the town of Lisburn, only around 7km to the north of the course, with a taxi being the best option to complete the last stage of the journey. Alternatively, the track offers a free shuttle bus from Belfast Central Station on all race days. A similar pre-bookable service is also provided by the Belfast Bus Company – departing from Donegall Square 1h30mins before the first race, and leaving the track an hour after the last – with return tickets available for £12. A taxi from Belfast meanwhile comes in at around £25, which compares well with the bus price for small groups splitting the cost.
Close to a square in terms of its configuration, and around 1m7f in circumference, Down Royal’s right-handed track features long straight sections, tight turns and undulations almost throughout. The flat course utilises the outer portion of the circuit, and in addition to the main round course, also features a spur of around a furlong in length which leads into the home straight and contains the five furlong starting point.
Lying to the inside of the track the chase course is wider than its hurdle counterpart and features 10 fences per circuit, the final three of which come in the home straight with a run-in of around a furlong after the last. A stiff but fair jumping challenge, if there is a mistake to be made it is most likely to come at the second last which, being preceded by a downhill section, does tend to be approached at speed. The narrow outer hurdles course contains eight flights, with a slightly longer run in of one and a half furlongs after the last.
In terms of the type of runner favoured, the track is generally considered a fair one, but those who like to race prominently do enjoy a slight advantage, both on the flat and over jumps. When looking at the draw, low numbers have the edge over both five furlongs and seven furlongs, particularly those able to break quickly and maintain an ideal position close to the lead and near the inside rail. Jockeys with a solid record at the track are also worth following, as an ability to judge the pace correctly around the undulations and an awareness that the better ground lies to the outside in soft conditions can prove crucial to success.
They keep things very simple in terms of the dress code at Down Royal. Other than remaining on the right side of decency, the only stipulations in place are that no sportswear is allowed anywhere on the course, and branded clothing is forbidden in the hospitality areas. Most racegoers do opt for smart casual attire in hospitality, with ladies regularly sporting a hat or fascinator, but this is by no means essential.
Inoffensive fancy dress is permitted in general admission areas, but not in hospitality. Should you be unsure about the suitability of your proposed costume, the best advice is to enquire with the track staff in advance to avoid disappointment on the day.
The most popular choice for racegoers at Down Royal is that of a general admission ticket. Priced as low as £10 for some fixtures, rising to £20 for the bigger meetings, this option provides punters with entry and a race card, and grants access to the main public bar in the grandstand, the Dark Horse Wine bar and the food outlet of Silks@downroyal.
Next up the ticketing ladder is the general admission upgrade of the Punters Pack. Priced between £18 and £25 for most fixtures, this option allows entry to the same areas as general admission and includes an alcoholic beverage and a £5 matched bet voucher.
Only slightly more expensive at around £30 on a major race day is the Premium entry ticket which grants access to The Shortcross Gin Suite with its own bar, tote betting, balcony views and toilet facilities. Under 14’s go free with a paying adult in all of the above areas, whilst discounts are regularly available for students and seniors. In addition to the more standard options, a range of hospitality packages in the swanky Moscow Flyer Racing Lounge and private boxes are available, with prices starting at around £50 per person.
Offering flat and jumps action, and racing both during the depths of winter and the height of summer, Down Royal certainly crams plenty of variety across its dozen or so fixtures per year. A variety that extends to the class of the fare on offer. Always big on atmosphere, even at the more run of the mill events, things understandably move up a gear at the season’s major meetings, of which the following three are the biggest.
Northern Ireland Festival of Racing
Also regularly referred to as the November meeting, this two-day extravaganza takes place in late October/early November each year and is the fixture that really sees Down Royal take centre stage on the Irish racing scene. The Grade 3 Down Royal Mares Hurdle and Grade 2 WKD Hurdle light up what is an excellent card on the opening Friday, before things move up a level on the Saturday.
Acting as the first Grade 1 of the season on either side of the Irish Sea, the feature event of the Ladbrokes Champion Chase regularly attracts the top staying chasers in the game, with the likes of Kauto Star, Florida Pearl and Looks Like Trouble all coming home in front over the years. With the Grade 2 Skymas Chase topping a quality undercard, Day 2 builds on the opening day’s action to create the biggest meeting of the season at the track, bar none.
Ulster Derby Meeting
The track’s star attraction may come over jumps, but the flat season at Down Royal also has its highlights with none bigger than this early summer fixture. In common with its illustrious Epsom namesake, the Ulster Derby takes place in June each year, providing the highlight of a three-day summer fixture that also features the Ulster Oaks. With the weather regularly set fair, and a host of additional entertainments and attractions on offer, this is comfortably the standout meeting of the flat campaign.
Always one of the biggest days of the year for the sport of horse racing, Boxing Day sees a deluge of fixtures in both Britain and Ireland. Joining in with this racing bonanza, Down Royal does its bit for local fans by laying on this midwinter celebration of equine entertainment. An informative Hunter Chase is the highlight of a card dominated by maiden and handicapping action, but in terms of the atmosphere in the stands, this fixture is tough to beat as the Irish crowd keep the festivities rolling in style.
The history of horseracing in this region of Northern Ireland dates all the way back to 1685, the year in which King James II founded the Down Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders in order to encourage the breeding of thoroughbreds in the area.
The earliest actual races, however, were held at nearby Downpatrick, being organised and run by the military in the area. A move of the military base in the early eighteenth century saw the initiating of events at the current venue at Maze near Lisburn, with the patch of land being donated by Arthur Hill, the 1st Marquess of Downshire.
1750: The King’s Plate
Royal backing of Northern Irish racing continued in 1750 with the establishment of the King’s Plate; King William III donated £100 to be used as prize money – the equivalent of around £25,000 in today’s money. Continuing to take place to this day, the race now goes under the name of Her Majesty’s Plate, with the prize pot still funded by the Privy Purse.
1936: Ulster Derby Debut
Growing slowly but steadily over the years, 1936 then saw the track’s major flat contest of the Ulster Derby make its debut. A relatively low-key affair on the international scale throughout its lifetime, the contest has nevertheless thrown up the odd star performer. The brightest of which undoubtedly being 2000 winner Media Puzzle who went on to record a famous success in the 2002 Melbourne Cup.
The Ulster Derby remained the biggest event of the season at the track until as recently as 1999; the year in which both the Champion Chase and Skymas Chase made their debut, swiftly followed by the WKD Hurdle in 2001 and the Down Royal Mares Novices’ Hurdle in 2002.
1993: New Grandstand
Not only has the quality of the racing increased over the years, so too have the facilities on offer to racegoers. 1993 saw the unveiling of a brand-new grandstand containing corporate boxes, a new bar and a viewing area, with the Governors Stand then following in 1998 and the classy Hospitality Pavilion in 2009.
2018: New Operators
Having enjoyed a relatively smooth time of things throughout its lifetime, perhaps the biggest moment of drama came in 2018, following a dispute between owners, the Merrion Property Group, and operators, the Down Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders. Thankfully, fears of closure proved to be unfounded, with operations simply passing to the Merrion Property Group, leaving the track free to continue providing an excellent day out for racing fans throughout the year.