Well known as just about the most racing mad nation on the planet, Ireland’s tally of 26 racecourses gives it more tracks per head than any other country on the planet. Of those 26 tracks though, just the two are to be found in Northern Ireland; the oldest of which lies only around a mile outside the County Down town of Downpatrick. Situated 24 miles due south of Belfast, this idyllic rural track is the easternmost course on the Emerald Isle and offers an excellent countryside day out for local racing fans and those from further afield.
Situated so close to the charming town of Downpatrick, and within easy reach of Northern Ireland’s most bustling urban hub and a clutch of national parks, many visitors to Downpatrick may wish to stay a little longer in order to take in all that the area has to offer. And, luckily for anyone seeking to add an overnight stay to their racing trip, numerous accommodation options are available.
Head Down in Downpatrick
With a population of over 10,000, the town from which the track takes its name is the largest in the Lecale region of Northern Ireland and provides plenty to keep punters entertained. With evidence of settlements in the area dating back to the bronze ages, Downpatrick is one of Ireland’s oldest towns and is consequently a hot spot for history buffs, with a number of abbeys, castles and cathedrals in the area. And, if a post-race tipple is more your thing, there are a number of intriguing Irish pubs to sample, including the highly-rated Savages Bar, the Round House Bar and the Arkle Bar for those looking to carry on the racing theme.
Racegoers looking to set up camp in Downpatrick Town will find that the Denvir’s Hotel is the one and only option in terms of traditional hotel offerings, although a quick search online will also bring up a number of B&B establishments in the area. Alternatively, the very highly rated Ballydugan House and The Mill at Ballydugan lie just to the east of the track and within walking distance – or a short drive – of the course and the town centre.
Only a forty-minute drive to the north, the capital city of Belfast is the obvious choice for anyone looking to combine their racing trip with a city break. And unsurprisingly for a capital city, there’s no shortage of things to see and do. Having been crowned the World’s Leading Tourist Attraction in 2016, The Titanic Experience is well worth a look, as is the stunning scenery of Cave Hill. And don’t forget the bustling Cathedral Quarter with its range of pubs and bars, including The Spaniard, The Cloth Ear and The Dirty Onion and Yardbird.
It is a city that is well worth a visit whilst you have the chance and one which offers well over 100 accommodation options. From the excellent value Citi North, to major chains including Travelodge, Ramada and Holiday Inn, and all the way up to the spectacular The Merchant Hotel, whatever your tastes and budget, you should find something to fit the bill.
Lay Down in Lisburn
But what if Belfast is too big and Downpatrick is too small? Then perhaps the middle ground of Lisburn may fit the bill. Lying on the outskirts of Belfast on the banks of the River Lagan, the city lies almost on the doorstep of fellow Northern Irish track Down Royal, but nevertheless serves as a convenient base for those heading a little further south to Downpatrick.
Boasting a cathedral, Sculpture Park and Castle Gardens, in addition to a solid selection of pubs including the Favourite Bar, the Three Crowns and the Linfield Bar, Lisburn rates a popular choice with many. Haslem House and Avoca Lodge are the two main hotel offerings in the city centre, with a range of B&B’s also available in and around the area.
About the Racecourse
Whilst officially being based in the UK, Irish racetracks operate on an “All-Ireland” basis, meaning the track falls under the auspices of Horse Racing Ireland rather than the British Horse Racing Authority. Hosting National Hunt events only, Downpatrick lays on a total of 10 meetings per year, all of which take place between the months of March and October – and so only really taking in the tail end of one National Hunt season and the beginning of the next. One benefit of that scheduling is the fact that many of the meetings take place within the warmer months of the year – which never hurts attendance.
For punters heading to the course from the UK, the ferry crossing from Cairnryan in the west of Scotland docks closest to the course – ending its journey at Larne just to the north of Belfast. Alternatively, anyone travelling from the south of Britain or the midlands may prefer to take the Holyhead to Dublin crossing and travel north to the track from there. And for those looking to travel by air, the closest airport to the track is that of Belfast International
If looking to complete the journey from Belfast by car, motorists should first follow the M1 travelling south, before taking the turn towards Ballynahinch from Junction 6, moving onto the A24 and then the A25 to the track. From Dublin the quickest route is to head north on the M1, before taking the A285 towards Newry and the A25 onwards to the track. For those using satnav, the postcode of the venue is BT30 6TE. Once at the course, patrons will find free parking available on all race days.
In terms of public transport, there are no operating railway stations in the immediate vicinity of the track, so the best option is to take the train to Belfast. Regular bus services to Downpatrick are then available from the capital, including the 215 and 515. Once in Downpatrick, the track is but a short walk, or even shorter taxi journey, away, or alternatively the number 17 bus will take you to the racecourse entrance. Bus Eireann also operate a service from Dublin to Downpatrick for those travelling from south of the border.
Somewhere between an oval and a pear in shape, Downpatrick’s narrow, right-handed track boasts a circumference of close to 1m3f and features pronounced undulations throughout. With steep uphill climbs and a section just after the winning post which has been likened to stepping off the edge of a cliff, the track has earned the reputation of providing a rollercoaster experience for horse and jockey.
Utilising the outer portion of the track, the chase course features six fences per circuit. With the obstacles themselves viewed as being amongst the easiest in Irish racing, the main jumping challenge comes from the fact that most races are run at a strong pace, placing an emphasis on an ability to jump accurately and at speed. If there is an error to be made it is most likely to come at the final flight, which comes up very quickly after the second last, before the runners make the turn into an uphill home straight of just over a furlong in length.
Containing five flights per circuit, the hurdles course lies to the inside of the chase track and is therefore that bit tighter. Whilst there is nothing particularly noteworthy in the physical make-up of the smaller obstacles, many are approached at an angle, rather than head on, increasing the level of difficulty.
Given all those ups, downs, and tight turns, the track is ill-suited to the long-striding, galloping type of performer, with nippy, more agile sorts holding a definite advantage. Overall, frontrunners and prominent racers perform better here than at almost any other Irish track, particularly over hurdles. This edge towards prominent racers is however very well known, and on occasion a battle for the lead can result in front runners setting too strong a pace, making life very tough coming up that final hill. With that in mind, it can often pay to side with a jockey who has previously shown an ability to get the fractions right around this very tricky track.
There is no official dress code at Downpatrick, with the track having only very general guidelines in place. Casualwear is fine in the main enclosure, but smart casual is advised in the hospitality, corporate and members areas. Do note, however, that much of the crowd opt to make an extra effort on the track’s signature race days, particularly on Ladies Day in which glamorous dresses, hats and fascinators are the norm for the ladies, and many gents can be seen sporting a suit. With prizes on offer for the best-dressed male and female, donning your finest clobber may well be rewarded.
In terms of fancy dress, the usual stipulations apply, i.e. remaining on the right side of decency and avoiding anything likely to prove offensive in nature. Whatever you choose to wear, remember to consult the weather forecast in what can be a wet and windy part of the world.
Downpatrick features just the one main enclosure, with tickets available for £10 at a standard meeting, rising to £16 to £18 for the larger meetings of the year including the Ulster National and Ladies Day. Discounts of around £5 per ticket are available for Students and OAP’s whilst Under 18’s go free with a paying adult. In addition to a standard ticket, a punters package is also available – providing entry, race card, £7.50 food voucher, free pint and a £5 matched bet voucher. Priced at between £27 and £33 depending on the meeting, this is a popular option with many punters.
In addition, the track provides a range of hospitality options ranging from the Byerley Turk Suite which caters to a maximum of 12, up to the 100 max Brownlow Suite, and on to the Dunleath Suite which can accommodate 350+. Offering private balcony views, waiter service and more, the best advice here is to contact the track in order to discuss pricing and your individual requirements.
With just the 10 meetings on offer, Downpatrick may not be the busiest track around, but it can’t be faulted in terms of providing an excellent race day experience. Offering a number of themed race days, including a hugely popular family fun day in July, and dishing out around £10,000 worth of style award prizes over the course of the season, the County Down venue is well worth a visit. There’s never a bad time to take in a meeting here, but in terms of attendance, the following three fixtures are invariably the biggest of the year.
Ulster National Day
Whilst at some courses the season slowly builds to a crescendo, there is no such hanging around at Downpatrick, with the track’s single biggest contest lighting up the opening race day of the season. Taking place on a Sunday in late March, Ulster National Day is one of the most anticipated fixtures of the year in Northern Ireland, and a regular target for the top owners and trainers in the sport. Headlined by the titular staying chase, supported by a further six competitive contests, and featuring live music both before and after racing, be sure to book early if planning to attend what is the track’s signature race-day.
Whilst the majority of meetings at Downpatrick are single-day affairs, the track does play host to one multi-day event in the shape of this Saturday/Sunday Festival in mid-June. Officially titled Style Saturday and Style Sunday, there are no prizes for guessing that the fixture places a firm focus upon fashion. There are however prizes on offer for the best-dressed lady, the best-dressed male, the most stylish hat and accessories and the best upstyle hairdo (ladies only). Throw in live music, free kids entertainment and a fair chance of the sun shining, and it’s no wonder this fixture regularly sees the stands packed to the rafters.
Moving on to Bank Holiday Monday in late August we come to the track’s flagship “Ladies Day”. A big deal at just about every track in the UK and Ireland, Downpatrick’s version of the fixture manages to stand out from the crowd thanks to the fabulous style awards. Prizes in the past have included a seven-night stay in Thailand and a seven-day European cruise, whilst even the best upstyle hairdo would have been good for a three-night stay in Nice in 2018. For those who like to really get dressed up and make a day of it, this late summer meeting may well be the pick of the bunch.
With the first reported meeting in the Downpatrick region taking place way back in 1685, they have been holding equine events in this corner of County Down for over 330 years –longevity which many believe makes this the oldest racing location in the whole of Ireland.
A good example of just how rich the racing heritage in the area really is comes in the shape of a horse by the name of the Byerley Turk. Now famed as one of only three stallions upon whom the modern thoroughbred breed is built, the Byerley Turk had a racing career of his own and strutted his stuff around the original Downpatrick track in 1690. The horse himself was no doubt glad of the light relief provided by being a mere horse race that day, as he spent much of his time being ridden into actual battles by his owner Colonel Robert Byerley.
Location Moved 200 Years Ago
So old a track, it is no surprise that a number of things have changed over the years, including the exact location of the course. Based only a couple of miles from the original site, the current venue at Ballydugan Road is a relative spring chicken having opened “only” 200 years ago.
Famous horses to have taken in a race at Downpatrick include Caughoo and Rhyme ‘n’ Reason – both of whom went on to land the Grand National at Aintree. The most famous human visitor to the track meanwhile came in 1962, with the racing-loving Queen Mother making the trip over to cheer her horse, Laffy, to victory in the Ulster National.
The establishment of a supporters fund in the 1970s proved hugely successful in raising much-needed funds for the course, leading to the building of a new 1500-capacity grandstand and significant upgrades to the facilities.
2009: Changed from Flat to Jumps
The most notable change on the racing front then came relatively recently in 2009, when the decision was made to scrap flat racing at the venue. These days the course is free to focus on the jumping arm of the sport, and it does an excellent job of it too, with the track’s friendly welcome and countryside charm continuing to draw in the crowds.