If anyone were to compile an international league table of the world’s most racing mad nations, it’s a pretty safe bet that Ireland would feature very close to the top of the pile. Home to many a superstar, both on the flat and over jumps, the nation also boasts more racecourses per head than any other.
And of the 26 tracks contained within Ireland’s borders, one of the most iconic is to be found in the west coast village of Ballybrit. Situated around 6km to the north of Galway City and 217km from the capital of Dublin, the course, known as Ballybrit to some but Galway to most, is easily one of Ireland’s most famous racing destinations. Home to the biggest mixed meeting on the planet in the shape of the seven-day jamboree of the Summer Festival, the track draws in racing fans from far and wide.
With so much to see and do in and around the beautiful harbour city of Galway, many racegoers making the trip to the west coast may well wish to extend their stay a little longer – particularly as most of the meetings are multi-day affairs. Thankfully, for those seeking to stick around for a day or two, accommodation options are in plentiful supply.
Closest to the Course
Whilst there are no hotels actually at the track, there is a number only a short distance away. At just over half a mile away, the proximity of the Clayton Hotel makes it a popular choice, so be sure to book early if hoping for a room at this comfortable and decent value option. Tara Lodge, Flannery’s Hotel and the well-regarded Connacht Hotel meanwhile all lie within two miles of Ballybrit – well within walking distance, or only a short drive to the course.
In the City
Whilst the hotels are in pretty short supply in the small village of Ballybrit, the City of Galway provides a wide range of options. Only 6km from the course, and jam-packed with sites of interest, and of course several cracking Irish pubs, including the Crane Bar, Taaffe’s Bar and the Quay, it’s no surprise that many racegoers opt for the city as their base of operations.
Whatever your taste and price range, you should find something to suit; from budget hostel options, excellent value B&B’s, major chains, including Jurys Inn and Maldon, and all the way up to the high-end Peg House and Corrib House.
Escape to the Country
With Galway Races being famous around the world for the spectacular atmosphere and social element, many racegoers may seek a little tranquillity to balance out their day at the track. And what better way to take your foot off the gas than by immersing yourself in the wonderful Irish countryside.
Situated a little over an hour’s drive to the north of the track, County Galway’s Connemara National Park provides as good an example as any of Ireland’s natural charm. Set in over 2,000 hectares of mountains, forests and grasslands, and home to a diverse range of wildlife and the beautiful Kylemore Abbey and Walled Garden’s, the park is well worth a visit. And for those looking to stay in the area, the spectacular Ballynahinch Castle Hotel and Dan O’Hara Farmhouse are amongst a host of options lying to the south of the park, and so within easiest reach of the racetrack.
About the Racecourse
Galway’s dual-purpose track may be one of Ireland’s most famous racecourses, but it is also one of its least frequently used, with only 13 race days over the course of its season – all of which fall between late July and October. Bar one single day meeting in early October, each of those race days forms part of multi-day meetings, headlined of course by the track’s signature seven-day Summer Festival.
For UK racing fans planning a trip to Galway, a key decision is how to cross the Irish Sea. At around an hour’s drive, Shannon Airport in Clare is the closest commercial airport to the track and welcomes regular flights from London Heathrow, whilst ferry crossings travel from Cairnryan in the East of Scotland over to Larne just to the North of Belfast, and from Holyhead to Dublin.
Those arriving in Dublin are faced with a relatively straightforward cross-country drive, sticking to the M4 and then M6 which leads to Galway City, before then taking the N6 to the track. From Belfast, the simplest route is to take the A1 and then the N1 to Dublin before then proceeding as above. Upon arrival at the track, racegoers will find ample free parking available, all of which is clearly signposted. For those using SatNav, the track’s Postcode is H91 V654.
For those travelling by rail, Galway Station is the closest to the track and enjoys regular cross-country services from Dublin. Only around a 15-minute drive to the course, a taxi from the station should fall within the €12 to €15 price range. Alternatively, return shuttle bus services operate from the Skeff Bar in Eyre Square in Galway Town centre, priced at €6 for a single and €10 for a return.
One of the quirkiest tracks in the country, runners find themselves on the turn for a significant portion of Galway’s 1m3f right-handed circuit. Broadly oval in configuration, the track sees the field veer right-handed upon leaving the home straight, and continue to do so until turning sharply into a straight section that leads back towards the stands.
In contrast to the gentle bend leading out of the home straight, the turn back into it is close to right angular, challenging the balance of competitors. Undulating as well as turning, the ground descends sharply on the straight section headed back towards the stands, before then inclining just as steeply up what is a notoriously stiff home straight of around a furlong.
Those tackling the chase track are faced with seven fences per circuit which, whilst not overly stiff, do provide a thorough jumping challenge, particularly as the majority of races tend to be run at a strong pace. Easily the trickiest of the obstacles are the two nestled in the dip on the run back towards the stands. Already tough by virtue of lying closer to one another than any two fences in the whole of world racing, this difficulty is accentuated by the steep downhill approach. That said, should a runner meet the first on a good stride they tend to also negotiate the second without issue. Lying to the inside of the chase course, the hurdles track is the tighter of the two National Hunt layouts and features six flights per circuit, the last of which lies in the home straight.
In terms of the type of runner favoured, well-balanced, prominent racers tend to be at an advantage, both on the flat and over jumps. Despite the turning nature of the course, stamina is also a key factor to success, as it takes some getting up that steep run to the line, no matter what the trip. Be wary of hold-up performers, particularly in the larger field events, as a combination of front runners weakening back through the field, and a tendency to congregate towards the inside rail, can leave those looking to come from behind with a very difficult task.
A low draw is a definite advantage over trips of seven furlongs and a mile, whilst given the track’s distinctive character any runner to have previously performed well at the course is well worth consideration. That latter comment also applies to the jockeys, with good judgement of positioning and pace being so crucial at what is one of Irish racing’s trickiest tracks.
Relaxed and comfortable is the order of the day at Galway with no official dress code in place at any of the track’s meetings. Other than remaining on the right side of decency, and steering clear of anything likely to cause offence, racegoers are free to dress as they please. Do note however that many patrons do lean towards the smarter end of the spectrum, particularly on the biggest race-days – and with best dressed prizes on offer at a number of fixtures, it may be worth going that extra mile in the sartorial stakes.
Whatever you choose to wear at Galway, don’t forget to factor in the weather. Large parts of the site are exposed to the elements, and the west coast of Ireland does tend to experience more than its fair share of wind and rain.
The most popular ticketing option at Galway is that of a general admission ticket. Priced at €15 for the smaller meetings and rising to €25 to €30 for the big summer festival, this ticket grants access to the wide range of bars and eateries offered by both the Killanin and Millennium Stands, including the Carvery Restaurant and popular Hop House Bar.
Racegoers seeking to upgrade their general admission ticket may wish to add a reserved seat in the Millennium Stand at a cost of around €25 for most meetings. Boasting easy access to a selection of bars, a panoramic restaurant, and balcony seating affording outstanding views of the action, this section of the course rarely fails to sell out.
In addition to the standard single ticket options, a number of package deals are also available for groups of 10 or more. The Festival Package grants access, a race card, €5 betting voucher and €6 drinks voucher for €30 to €40 depending on the day, whilst the €55 to €60 Premium Package provides all of the above in addition to a reserved seat in the Millennium Stand. Brave souls looking to take in all seven days of the main Summer Festival may purchase a ticket for the full week at a good value price of €170.
All students and OAP’s receive a €5 discount on tickets purchased at the gate, whilst children under the age of 12 go free with a paying adult.
Staging both flat and National Hunt events – regularly on the same day – Galway scores top marks for the variety of the action on offer. And whilst much of the fare is only of average quality, it is hard to beat in terms of competitiveness, with big fields the norm around here. Hugely popular with racing fans, expect packed stands whenever you choose to make a visit to the venue, be that on the sole single-day October fixture, or one of the following three major festivals.
Kicking off on the final Monday in July each year, and running right through to the following Sunday, this seven-day beast of a racing festival is one of the biggest sporting events on the Irish sporting calendar. Regular attracting around 150,000 fans over the course of the seven days, and boasting an atmosphere second to none, it’s no wonder that a trip to Galway’s Summer Festival features prominently on the bucket list of many a racing fan.
Ultra-competitive handicaps are the order of the day on the racing front, and plenty of them, with a mammoth 53 contests spread over the course of the week. Highlights include Tuesday’s Galway Mile, Wednesday’s Galway Plate and the Galway Hurdle which takes place on Thursday’s “Ladies Day” – a day that regularly boasts the highest attendance of any Irish racing fixture. With live music and other additional entertainment on offer, you may need more stamina than the horses to see out the seven-day trip, but whether you come for the whole meeting, or just the one day, the Summer Festival will be well worth your time.
October Bank Holiday Festival
Another fixture quick to be pencilled into the diaries of local racing fans is this three-day festival which takes place over the October Bank Holiday Weekend. The action kicks off with a seven-race card on the Saturday, with both the Sunday and Bank Holiday Monday then boasting a bumper eight contests for punters to sink their teeth into. With additional entertainment, a bustling atmosphere and the famous craic all in place, this is another meeting that regularly sells out.
And for those who prefer their racing festivals in slightly smaller chunks, how about the two-day September Festival. Kicking off the Autumn leg of the season at Ballybrit, this National Hunt-only fixture crams 16 races into its two days of action. Traditionally taking place on a Monday and Tuesday, this is the meeting for anyone seeking a slightly more relaxed Galway experience.
Racing at the current site of Ballybrit began back in 1869, and with around 40,000 in attendance for the very first fixture, it’s safe to say the track has been a hit from the off. Of course, many things have changed since that inaugural year, but one thing that has remained a constant throughout the history of the track is the Galway Plate. First run in 1869, the handicap chase event continues to feature as part of the Summer Festival to this day.
Summer Festival Expands Over the Years
Fittingly for a course so associated with its multi-day meetings, that initial August fixture was in fact a two-day affair. With festival fever quickly taking hold, the following decades enabled the track to make significant improvements to facilities, both for the horses and racing personnel, and the racegoers frequenting the track in ever-increasing numbers.
Seemingly of the mindset that you can’t have too much of a good thing, over the years the organisers at Galway have steadily expanded the track’s signature meeting. Whilst it did take until 1959 before a third day was added to the Summer Festival, additional days followed in pretty quick succession, with Day 4 coming in 1971, Day 5 in 1974, Day 6 in 1982 and finally Day 7 in 1999.
1979: Pope John Paul II Visits
Possibly one of the most significant events in the history of the track wasn’t racing-related at all, coming in 1979 when Pope John Paul II celebrated mass at the track, with an astonishing 280,000 worshippers in attendance.
One Cool Poet
Returning to the equine stars though, and our vote for the greatest ever performance goes to the Matthew Smith-trained One Cool Poet. Seventh at the 2014 Summer Festival, and impressively second and third in the space of six days at the 2015 meeting, the gelding returned to the fixture as a seven year old to blow those performances out of the water. Winning on the Tuesday, the late bloomer then followed up with another success on the Wednesday. Still not done, One Cool Poet put his feet up for a couple of days before returning to score for a third time on the closing Sunday. A remarkable feat!
1999 & 2009: New Grandstands
Always one of the most prominent tracks on the Irish racing landscape, Galway was amongst the first tracks to be covered live, both on the radio in 1929 and later on TV during the 1960’s. Benefitting from the opening of the impressive Millennium Stand in 1999, the €22 million Killanin Stand in 2009, and having been granted planning permission for an extension and further refurbishments in 2019, the future certainly looks bright for one of Irish racing’s shining lights.