As one of the most racing-mad nations on the planet, it will be no surprise to learn that Ireland is home to a number of top-class racecourses – one of the very best of which lies around 23km to the north of Dublin.
Situated just outside the town of Ratoath in County Meath, Fairyhouse racecourse has been laying on equine entertainment ever since staging its first meeting way back in 1848. Home to one of the nation’s most famous races in the shape of the Irish Grand National, this dual-purpose venue features on the bucket list of many a racing fan, and is a track well worth a visit.
As excellent as the racing action is at Fairyhouse, it’s far from being the only attraction in this corner of the Emerald Isle. Lying right on the doorstep of the stunningly scenic Boyne Valley region, and only a relative stone’s throw from the capital city of Dublin, those making the trip might well wish to extend their visit with an overnight stay. Anyone wishing to linger a little longer will find they aren’t short of options.
A Short Drive
Being almost alone in its chosen spot in the midst of the Irish countryside, there are no hotels in close walking proximity to the track. There are, however, a number of excellent options within five miles of the course. Ashbourne Court Hotel, Ashbourne House Hotel and the highly rated Pillo Hotel are all under four miles away, whilst at 4.5 miles the tranquil Dunboyne Castle Hotel & Spa lies amongst 21 acres of picturesque lawns and woodland walks, and within walking distance of the historical town of Dunboyne.
Slightly Further Afield
Moving a little further out from the epicentre of the course, the Station House Hotel, around a 25-minute drive away in the heart of the beautiful Boyne Valley, rates a popular choice and is tough to beat for scenery. For those seeking a true taste of luxury, how about the Carton House Hotel? Featuring not one, but two, championship calibre golf courses, a fully decked out leisure centre, and nestled in 1,100 acres of tranquil private park land, it’s pricier than other options, but is only 7.4 miles from the course and offers a spectacular stay.
The Delights of Dublin
Lying so close to the course and boasting strong transport links, for many the obvious place to stay is within the capital city of Dublin itself – particularly for British racegoers who will most likely need to travel to the track via Dublin anyway. Famed for its legendary “craic”, flowing Guinness and party atmosphere, a good time is all but guaranteed in Ireland’s most famous destination. There are of course also alternatives to a knees up in Dublin’s many bars, with the city boasting a number of beautiful parks and sites of historical interest for the more culturally inclined.
With so much to offer, it is really no wonder that Dublin is one of Europe’s most visited cities. Visitors of course require places to stay, and Ireland’s capital is well placed to cope with such demand, boasting the diversity and quantity of accommodation you would expect of any major city. Beginning with a number of budget hostel options, moving up to major chains including Jury’s Inn, Travelodge and Holiday Inn, and on to swanky offerings such as The Marker Hotel on the banks of the Liffey, or the centrally located Fitzwilliam Hotel, there really is something to suit all tastes and budgets.
About the Racecourse
Being a dual-purpose venue, Fairyhouse stages racing action almost throughout the year, with August traditionally being the only blank month. All told, the track lays on around 20 fixtures per year, the bulk of which take place during the National Hunt season which begins in October and runs through until April, before a handful of flat fixtures keep things ticking over during the warmer months. The track does boast one Group class flat contest in the shape of July’s Brownstown Stakes, but it is over the jumps where the major highlights are to be found, including the cracking Easter Festival headlined by one of Ireland’s most famous races – the Irish Grand National.
Situated so close to the capital, Fairyhouse is relatively easy to reach despite its beautiful countryside location. It is nevertheless still on the other side of the Irish Sea, which does provide an additional hurdle for racing fans based on the British mainland. It isn’t much of an obstacle though, with regular flights to Dublin from many of the UK’s major cities, including London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol, Glasgow and Newcastle. If flying’s not for you, the ferry is a popular option, particularly for those travelling by car. Direct crossings to Dublin are available from Holyhead in North Wales, whilst travellers from the North may be best served by taking the crossing from Cairnryan in the east of Scotland to Larne in Northern Ireland, before then travelling down to Dublin.
Once in Ireland, the track is well served by major road routes from all parts of the country. Those travelling from Dublin should take the N3 towards Navan and follow the route to the R155 on which the track lies. The R155 can also be reached via the N2 from the North, whilst those travelling from the south or west should head to the M50 and then on to the N3.
Upon arriving at the track, drivers will find ample free parking available – although the course does recommend drivers arrive early to avoid congestion and delays. For those planning to leave the car in Dublin, there are 24-hour options available at the airport, Q-Park Grand Central Square and Park Rite on Drury Street.
There are currently no train stations in the immediate vicinity of Fairyhouse, but it is possible to arrive at the track via bus from the capital. The 105 Bus Eirann service stops just outside the entrance, whilst the course itself also lays on a complementary shuttle bus from Dublin’s Connolly rail station on all race days. For the major Easter and Winter Festival, public transport options are bolstered further by the Marathon Coaches service which also operates from the capital.
Both National Hunt and flat contests take place on the same right-handed track at Fairyhouse. 1m6f in circumference and close to square-shaped in terms of its configuration, the track features only mild undulations – the most notable of which comes in the 2.5 furlong home straight which rises gently, but steadily to the line. Generally viewed as being a fair, galloping track, Fairyhouse is not particularly testing even when taking the uphill finish into consideration, although softer ground does of course bring stamina more firmly into play.
The hurdles at the track are fairly standard affairs and don’t tend to claim too many casualties. The fences, however, are amongst the stiffest in the whole of Irish racing, with those in the back straight in particular causing problems for inexperienced or error prone jumpers.
Whilst all types of runners have their chance around here, front runners who are able to get into a good rhythm do tend to fare particularly well, with the short run in from the last leaving those in behind with little time to make up ground. In events over 6f and 7f, a low draw is an advantage, but only for those who are able to break well from the stalls. Start slowly from a low stall around here, and runners may well find themselves trapped behind a wall of horses with nowhere to go.
Things are nice and simple at Fairyhouse, with no strict dress code enforced at any of the fixtures – including the season’s major festivals. The track does state a preference that those attending the Bobbyjo Bistro or Private Suites come dressed in smart casual attire, but other than that you can expect to see the full range of fashion on show; from relaxed jeans or chinos, to all-out suited and booted for the gents and glamorous dresses for the ladies. Do bear in mind though that it can become very wet and cold during the winter months, so come prepared for whatever the weather gods may throw at the County Meath track.
The course features two main stands in the shape of the Jameson Stand and Powers Gold Label Stand, both of which are excellently furbished. A General Enclosure ticket grants access to the entire racecourse enclosure, including the two main stands, and a host of facilities including the Tote Sports Lounge and Bar, the Bewleys Coffee Dock and the Self Service Restaurant.
Prices begin at €12 in advance and €15 on the gate for the smaller meetings, with concessions available for students and OAPs, whilst those under the age of 16 go free with a paying adult. For the year’s major meetings, including the Winter and Easter Festivals, adult ticket prices rise to around €28-€40 in advance, with an additional premium again applying to those purchased on the day.
In addition to the standard General Enclosure tickets, a number of hospitality and bundle packages are also available. The popular Bumper Bundle begins at €30 for the smaller meetings and includes entry, race card, €5 tote bet and a food and drinks voucher, whilst restaurant and Private Suite packages tend to come in at €60-€85 at a regular fixture, rising to €75 and upwards for the seasonal highlights.
Fairyhouse may only lay on 20 race days per year – not a lot for a dual-purpose venue – but it certainly crams a lot of quality into those meetings. The track plays host to no fewer than 16 Graded/Group class contests in total, the bulk of which take place over jumps – including five at the very top Grade 1 level. Throw in the most famous handicap of the Irish racing year, and it’s no surprise that this thoroughly modern track is so well attended, with the following meetings in particular seeing the fans flock to County Meath.
Headlined by the Irish Grand National which traditionally takes place on Easter Monday, this three-day fixture, which begins on Easter Sunday, is undoubtedly the major event of the season at the track. The scene of legendary weight-carrying wins from the likes of legends such as Arkle and Desert Orchid, this is a race eagerly anticipated on both sides of the Irish Sea and one of the sporting highlights of the Easter period.
Spectacular as the main event is, the supporting action over the course of the three days isn’t too bad either. The Sunday card features the Grade 1 double bill of the Underwriting Exchange Gold Cup and Mares Novice Hurdle Championship Final, before a lower key card on the Tuesday, headlined by the Grade 2 Normans Grove Chase, draws the action to a close.
Not too far behind the Easter Festival in the popularity stakes is the second of the track’s multi-day affairs which takes placed in late November/early December each year. A punter friendly Saturday/Sunday meeting the stands are invariably packed to the rafters at this fixture, with a cracking atmosphere guaranteed. And those fans are in for a real racing treat, with superstars of the jumping game invariably out in force in the three Grade 1s of the Royal Bond Novice Hurdle, Drinmore Novice Chase and headlining Hatton’s Grace Hurdle.
Bobbyjo Chase Day
Whilst nothing else on the Fairyhouse calendar can quite match the aforementioned festival spectaculars, there are still a number of cracking fixtures scattered throughout the year. July’s Brownstown Stakes card is the obvious time for fans of the flat to pay a visit to the track, but overall, the best single day meeting is February’s Bobbyjo Chase fixture.
Headlined by the titular contest, named in honour of the 1997 Aintree Grand National champ, the race acts as a key trial for the big one on Merseyside – attracting the very best of the Irish staying handicappers. With an undercard feature a clutch of excellent handicaps, and the chance to spot a future star in the Winning Fair Juvenile Hurdle, this Saturday fixture helps to whet the appetite ahead of the major festivals to come.
It was way back in 1848 that the site played host to its first racing event, with that initial fixture being a point-to-point meeting held by the Ward Union Hunt. Seemingly striking a chord with racing fans in the area, within three years Fairyhouse had been transformed from an open plan track into an enclosed course. So began the journey towards becoming one of Ireland’s Premier racetracks.
Silver Teapot Steeplechase
Early highlights at the course included the Silver Teapot Steeplechase – the prize for which was indeed a much-coveted shiny silver teapot. However, it wasn’t long before the profile of the track began to rise, with 1870 seeing the inaugural edition of the race for which Fairyhouse is now most famous – the Irish Grand National. Won by a horse by the name of Sir Robert Peel that year, the history of the race is littered with memorable moments, with the triumphs of Arkle in 1964 – part of a remarkable seven-year winning streak for trainer Tom Dreaper – and Desert Orchid in 1990 going down in racing legend.
Racing Legends at Fairyhouse
Perhaps the greatest performance of them all though was that of Frank Wise who came home in front aboard Alike in 1929. Injured during the Great War, Frank steered his mount to Grand National glory despite having one wooden leg and only two remaining fingers on his right hand. Also spare a thought for 1916 champ, All Sorts. Thanks to all vehicles at the track being seized due to the Easter Rising, All Sorts was rewarded for his arduous success by having to walk the 60 miles back to his yard, rather than deservedly putting his feet up in his horse box.
20th Century Improvements
Continuing to grow in popularity throughout the 20th century, 1994 then saw the track receive a major boost with the addition of the three Grade 1s of the Winter Festival. That added quality on the track was then matched by improvements to the facilities off it, with 1999 seeing the opening of the Powers Gold Label Stand and a substantial refurbishment of the existing Jameson Stand.
Now recognised as one of the most modern racing facilities in the country, the combination of the high-quality racing and excellent racegoer experience sees Fairyhouse well placed to draw the crowds for many years to come. With plenty of varied racing hotel options for anyone who does visit, why not make a night of it?