The nation of Ireland boasts a wide variety of racecourses, with both the flat and jumps racing venues coming in all manner of shapes and sizes. Despite that variety though, the track found on the outskirts of the town of Dundalk still manages to be unique in two ways – being both Ireland’s only all-weather venue, and also its only floodlit track.
Situated almost at the midpoint between Dublin and Belfast, the course benefits from being one of the Emerald Isle’s most easily accessible courses – which certainly helps to attract the crowds. Also featuring a greyhound circuit in the centre of the track, it is no surprise that Dundalk is a hugely popular destination for fans of racing and betting action.
Given its positioning on the east coast, and proximity to two of Ireland’s most visited cities, Dundalk is a big draw, both to local racing fans and those from further afield. And whilst a day trip will likely suffice for those living in the area, those making a longer journey may well wish to extend their visit with an overnight stay, particularly as so many of the fixtures at the track are evening meetings. And, thankfully, numerous accommodation options are available, both close to the course and in the capital cities to the north and to the south.
Closest to the Course
Whilst there are no hotels in the immediate vicinity of the track, Dundalk town centre lies only around 4km from the course and offers a number of options. These range from the reasonably priced Krakow B&B and Lisburn House to the slightly pricier but highly rated Crown Plaza and Imperial Hotel.
In terms of attractions in the local area, 3000-year-old monuments, such as Proleek Dolmen and the Giant’s Grave, should keep history buffs entertained, whilst the rugged scenery of the Irish coast is also only a short distance away. Anyone in search of a post-race tipple will find a range of excellent pubs on offer including McKeown’s Bar & Lounge, the Stags Head and Punters Bar.
Delights of Dublin
As accommodating as Dundalk is, some racegoers may be seeking something a little livelier to pair with their racing trip. And for anyone hoping to add a city break to their jaunt, the capital city of Dublin is an obvious choice, and an ideal base for UK racegoers making the Holyhead to Dublin crossing as part of their journey, or arriving via one of the many low-cost flights to the craic of the capital.
Cultural hotspots in Ireland’s number one tourist destination include the eery Kilmainham Gaol Museum, Irish Whiskey Museum and the National Museum of Ireland, whilst the city also boasts more pubs that you can shake a shillelagh at. The Celt, Murray’s and Kelhoes are amongst the highly rated offerings, whilst should the evening get a little out of control, a final pint in The Confession Box on Marlborough Street may be in order.
Of course, as a major international destination, accommodation options certainly aren’t in short supply. Maldron, Radisson Blu, Travelodge and Hilton are amongst an array of major brands represented, but really there is something to suit all tastes here, from bargain basement hostel options and all the way up to the luxurious Kinlay House and Riu Plaza.
Around an hour’s drive to the north of the track and, in common with Dublin, offering regular train services to Dundalk, the Northern Irish capital of Belfast is another perfectly viable option. Another beacon of Irish culture, attractions on the banks of the River Lagan include Belfast Zoo, the Ulster Museum and Crumlin Road Gaol, whilst the always bustling Cathedral Quarter offers a range of excellent bars, including the swankier than it sounds, the Cloth Ear, timber-framed Dirty Onion and Yardbird, and chilled out Thirsty Goat.
Major hotel chains in the city include the Premier Inn in the heart of the aforementioned Cathedral Quarter, Holiday Inn and Jury’s Inn, whilst for those on a higher budget, the Merchant Hotel is pricey, but offers a truly spectacular stay.
About the Racecourse
As a floodlit, all-weather track, Dundalk has the advantage of scheduling fixtures right throughout the year. All told the venue stages 43 fixtures per season, 35 of which are held between the months of November and March. All 43 of these meetings take place on a weekday, with the 28 Friday evening fixtures topping the pile in terms of average attendance.
Racegoers travelling from the UK mainland have the choice of two ferry crossings: from Cairnryan in the west of Scotland to Larne just north of Belfast, and the Holyhead to Dublin route. Alternatively, the closest airport to the track is Dublin Airport, which enjoys strong links to a number of major UK cities.
Upon arrival in Ireland the course is around an hour’s drive from Belfast and close to a 45-minute journey from Dublin. From Belfast motorists should take the M1, A1 and N1 to Louth, before turning onto the N52 which leads to the track. And from Dublin the simplest route is to stick to the M1, travelling around Dundalk town before again turning onto the N52 to the track. For satnav users the track’s postcode is A91 FFP3. Free parking is available at the course on all race days, with the option to leave your car overnight should you wish.
For those arriving by rail, the closest station to the track is that within Dundalk town centre. Lying on the Dundalk to Belfast line, the station is easily reached from both capital cities via the high-speed Intercity service. Despite being only around 4km from the course, there are surprisingly no real public transport options to ferry you from the station to the track. A leisurely stroll is an option, or alternatively a taxi will have you trackside in around nine minutes.
Around 1m2f in circumference, Dundalk’s floodlit Polytrack circuit employs the type of layout seen so often in US racing, featuring two relatively long straight sections and a pair of long sweeping bends. In addition to the main oval, the track also features two chutes. The first and longest of these runs directly into the home bend and contains the 5f start, with a much shorter spur leading into the back straight and containing the 1m starting point.
In common with the fellow Polytrack courses of Lingfield and Chelmsford in Britain, Dundalk tends to ride pretty quickly and as such may not be suited to those runners who enjoy a slower surface. Other than that, the track is generally considered to be one of the fairest around, with the addition of a cutaway rail in the home straight in 2013 allowing runners to really fan out in the closing streth and greatly decreasing the number of hard luck stories. In the early years of the course, a high level of kickback had frequently caused problems for those runners looking to come from behind, however, extensive refurbishment works undertaken in 2015 have all but eradicated this issue.
In terms of the draw, those handed a low berth hold an edge over the shorter trips, particularly at 6f, due to the fact that the first bend comes up very soon after the start. Over 7f and 1m this edge seems to diminish, before re-emerging again over 1m2f, again resulting from the proximity of the first bend to the starting gates. Whilst it is possible to ride a waiting race over the longer distances, front runners and prominent racers can prove tough to reel in over sprint trips at this speed-favouring track.
Smart casual is the order of the day at this relatively relaxed track, with the only items listed as forbidden being tracksuit bottoms, shorts, baseball caps and sportswear. Inoffensive fancy dress is permitted in all areas, with the advice being to contact the track in advance should you be at all unsure about the suitability of your outfit. And finally, don’t forget to factor in the weather, as it can get a little wet and windy on the east coast of Ireland.
Dundalk features just the one main enclosure, priced at a very reasonable €15 for adults and €10 for OAPs and Students, with Under 14s going free with a paying adult at all meetings. Standard admission affords access to the betting ring, parade ring and winner’s enclosure, in addition to a range of bars and food outlets, including the popular Bit and Bite bar.
In addition to standard entry, a couple of upgraded options are available. The €20 Gallops Bar Package grants entry, a race card and a reserved table in the bar, whilst for €29 punters receive all of the above with a finger food buffet on top. And next up the ladder comes the €50 meal package, providing entry, race card and a four-course meal, with table service available for tote bets and drinks. That really is excellent value and well worth considering if you want to do things in a little more style.
The track’s private suites and conference rooms are designed to cater to larger groups, with the best advice being to contact the track in order to discuss the size of your party and requirements for the day.
Competitive handicapping fare makes up the bulk of the season at Dundalk, with much of the action being fairly middle of the road in terms of quality. That said, many of the top Irish yards are frequent visitors to the course, with the maiden events in particular regularly providing an early opportunity to spot a future star or two. With a meeting every Friday evening from mid-September through to April, the track is most well known for its popular “Friday Night Club” fixtures, and it is here where the track’s biggest meetings are to be found.
Diamond Stakes Day
Formerly run as a Listed contest on the turf – first at the now defunct Phoenix Park and then the Curragh – this event over an extended 1m2f made the switch to Dundalk’s synthetic surface in 2008. And having made that move, the contest wasn’t long in entering the record books – becoming Ireland’s first non-turf Group race when elevated to Group 3 status in 2009.
Won by Irish 2,000 Guineas and St. James’s Palace Stakes winner Mastercraftsman in 2009, and Queen Anne Stakes and International Stakes hero Declaration of War in 2013, the contest consistently attracts classy performers from the top Irish and British yards. Taking place in late September/early October, this is the first date in the diary for the racing purists in the area.
Mercury Stakes Day
For fans of speed, this late October meeting may be the time to pay a visit to the County Louth track. A pedal to the metal 5f sprint event, the Mercury Stakes made its debut as a Listed class contest in 2008 – being won by the hugely popular dual Nunthorpe Stakes winner, Borderlescott, in that inaugural year.
Upgraded to Group 3 status in 2018, the contest invariably draws the speediest all-weather performers to the course, with the Highway Rat setting a new record for the race in 2021 – coming home in a sizzling 52.28s. With quality action on the track and a buzzing atmosphere in the stands, this is another fixture high up on the list of local racing fans.
Away from the Friday Night fixtures, our final event in the top three comes on a summer afternoon in the middle of July, with the latest edition of the track’s hugely popular Ladies Day. A competitive seven-race card, featuring a mix of maiden and handicapping action, provides the on-track entertainment, whilst in the stands the fairer sex do battle for the Best Dressed Lady award and the excellent prizes on offer – regularly running into the thousands of euros in terms of value. With the sun regularly showing its face at what is the track’s swishest event, this is the time do drop by for those who like their race day to come with a large helping of glamour.
The modern all-weather track may be a recent addition to the Irish racing landscape, but Dundalk is certainly no stranger to laying on equine entertainment for local racing fans. The previous National Hunt turf course operated between the years of 1889 and 2001, becoming a big part of the community in that time, and therefore an immediate miss upon its closure.
1999: Dundalk Racing Ltd Formed
Thankfully though, that hiatus didn’t last too long, with plans for a new track already well underway even prior to the closure of the original venue. In 1999, the Dundalk Racing Company and Dundealgan Greyhound Racing Company Ltd joined forces to form Dundalk Racing Ltd, and it was at this point that plans were drawn up for a brand new racecourse, with a greyhound facility to be located in the centre of the course.
2003: Greyhound Track Added
The smaller €11million greyhound track was the first to welcome punters when opening for business in 2003, with the €24million racing facility following four years later on the 26th August 2007. As a nod to the history of racing in the area, the old stable from the former track can still be seen by the entrance gates of the new site.
2016: Extensive Renovation Works
Quickly establishing itself as Ireland’s busiest racecourse, the track also continues to grow steadily in stature. With both the Diamond Stakes and Mercury Stakes having been granted Group status in 2009 and 2018, respectively, the course now boasts a pair of nationally significant contests, whilst extensive renovation and improvement works in 2016 have contributed to a marked increase in attendance. A totally unique track on the Irish racing roster, and offering an excellent race day experience, Ireland’s newest track looks set to thrive for some time to come.