Despite acting as home to a number of training and breeding establishments, the southern Irish county of Kilkenny boasts just the one racecourse. Lying 13km to the east of Kilkenny City and only 1km to the south of the town of Gowran from which it takes its name, the beautifully scenic venue of Gowran Park has been providing racegoers with both flat and National Hunt action for over 100 years now, and remains one of the Emerald Isle’s top dual-purpose venues. Fancy a visit? Read on for the lowdown on the course and where to stay should you fancy making it part of a longer stay in in the area.
With a high concentration of National Parks in the area, in addition to a number of towns and cities guaranteed to provide a sample of that famed Irish craic, many racegoers making the trip to Gowran Park do indeed wish to extend their visit with an overnight stay. Whilst hotels are a little scarce in the track’s immediate surroundings, there are couple of bustling hubs within easy reach.
Closest to the Course
Located in a distinctly rural part of the country, racegoers aren’t exactly spoilt for choice when it comes to accommodation options in close proximity to the track. There is in fact just the one within five miles of the course, but it is at least a good one, with the B&B-style Kilbawn Country House regularly scoring top marks with visitors. Only two miles from the course, it’s ideally located for racegoers, but be sure to book early. And, we do mean early.
Kip in Kilkenny
Only around a 15-minute drive from the course, Kilkenny is regularly listed as one of Ireland’s most cosmopolitan cities. Bordered by both the River Suir and River Barrow, this picturesque location boasts a spectacular 12th century castle amongst a host of other historical attractions. For those seeking a post-race tipple, the city is home to enough traditional Irish drinking establishments to withstand even the most adventurous of pub crawls, with highlights including Kytelers Inn, Syd Harkins Pub and the Cat and the Fiddle.
Being a popular tourist spot, Kilkenny is unsurprisingly also home to a range of accommodation options. Cradog Farmhouse B&B lies just outside the city centre and offers good value for those on a budget, with the centrally located Fanad House, Springhill Court & Leisure Club and JB’s Bar & Guest Accommodation all rated highly by guests.
Around 25 minutes’ drive to the north of the track, Carlow is only a little further afield than Kilkenny, and well worth considering. So ancient a settlement that it actually pre-dates written Irish history, it will come as no surprise that Carlow’s county town has plenty on offer for history buffs; including a seventh century monastery, 13th Century Castle and a megalithic portal tomb dating from around 4000BC! Throw in a selection of wonderful pubs including Corcoran’s Bar, Tully’s Bar and The Irishman’s Bar, and this vibrant town starts to become all the more attractive.
For those tempted by Carlow’s charm, numerous accommodation options are available. Ewings Bar & Accommodation and the Red Setter Townhouse Bed & Breakfast offer a traditional setting, whilst for those seeking something a little more modern, the Clink Boutique Hotel is well worth a look.
About the Racecourse
Gowran Park’s dual-purpose track lays on 18 meetings per season, made up of 12 flat fixtures and six jumps cards. And with at least one meeting in every month bar December, the track keeps punters entertained almost all year round. Always popular with local racegoers, the track’s five evening meetings and six Saturday fixtures are particularly well attended; and whilst the bulk of the action comes on the level, it is classy and competitive jumps action for which the track is most well-known.
UK racegoers making the trip to Gowran Park must first successfully negotiate the Irish Sea. Two ferry crossings are available; leaving from Cairnryan in the west of Scotland over to Larne to the North of Belfast, and from Holyhead to Dublin. Dublin airport is the closest to the track, at around a 90-minute drive, and welcomes regular flights from a number of UK airports, including London, Manchester, Birmingham, Bristol and Glasgow.
From Dublin, motorists should take the M9, heading south to Junction 7 before taking the exit to Paulstown. From there follow the signs to Gowran and take the R448 to the track. Anyone arriving in Belfast should first follow the A1 and N1 down to Dublin before proceeding as above. Ample free parking is available at the track, all of which is clearly signposted.
For those travelling by rail, the closest station to the course is to be found in Kilkenny. Enjoying strong links with Dublin, the station is around a 15-minute taxi journey from the course. Alternatively, Gowran Park lays on a free shuttle bus service on all race days, leaving from Kilkenny Castle Gate, only a short walk from the station; buses depart one hour before the first race, and leave the track around half an hour after the last for those making the return journey. One further public transport option for those arriving in the capital is the Expressway 4 bus service which operates between Dublin and Gowran.
Gowran Park’s 1m4f right-handed circuit is broadly oval in configuration, featuring long straight sections and gentle turns, barring that which leads out of the home straight which is moderately tight. A galloping track in essence, a degree of balance is also required due to the fairly pronounced undulations throughout. Upon turning into the back straight runners begin to climb steadily, before then descending steeply downhill having made the turn back towards home. Once in the home straight itself, the field are then faced with a punishing 3f uphill climb to the line.
The chase course features seven fences per circuit and, whilst not unduly stiff, their positioning on the track does pose problems for suspect jumpers. Those in the back straight come up very quickly after one another, placing great importance upon meeting the first of them well. The single trickiest obstacle is however the first in the home straight, which lies on ascending ground and looms up very quickly after the bend. Lying to the inside of the chase track, the hurdles course is marginally tighter and features six flights per circuit. Having jumped the last – whether over hurdles or fences – runners are then faced with a short 1f run to the line.
Both on the flat and over jumps the track is one of the best front-running venues in the country, so be sure to pay particular attention to those who like to race prominently, particularly on good to soft or quicker going. In soft conditions proven stamina is the number one requirement, as only those able to thoroughly see out the trip are likely to finish strongly up that gruelling hill. A generally fair course in terms of the draw, the only real bias is to be found over the track’s minimum trip of 7f. Those drawn low hold a slight edge over this trip, provided they are able to break quickly ahead of the first bend which comes up very soon after the start.
In common with many Irish tracks, Gowran Park operates a relatively relaxed dress code. Casual wear is fine in the main enclosure, with racegoers advised to dress comfortably whilst taking account of the weather. As is almost always the case, things are a little stricter in the hospitality and clubhouse areas, where smart casual is the order of the day. All men must wear a collared shirt of some description, and whilst a jacket and tie are not compulsory, many gents do opt to arrive in smart attire.
Ripped jeans, collarless shirts and beachwear are all prohibited in these areas. Ladies generally dress as though for a smart occasion. Moderate, inoffensive fancy dress is permitted at the track. Should you be at all unsure about the suitability of your proposed costume, the best advice is to contact the track in advance in order to avoid disappointment on the day.
Gowran Park offers just the one standard ticketing option, with tickets priced at €15 for adults and €10 for students and OAPs at all meetings barring the Thyestes fixture, with prices increasing to €25 and €20 respectively for this signature event. Standard admission grants access to the Main Stand and its range of facilities including Thyestes Bar, Blinkers bar and food outlets. Those lucky enough to be under 18 go free with a paying adult at all fixtures.
In addition to standard admission, three packages are also available. The €29 Gold package grants entry, a race card, €10 food voucher and a €5 drinks voucher, with the €19 Silver Package affording entry, race card, €5 drinks voucher and a €5 matched bet. At €65 for a standard meeting and €99 for the Thyestes fixture, the top end Platinum Package includes entry, race card, a reserved table in the rooftop restaurant, four course buffet and private bar access.
Officially recognised as a Grade 1 venue due to the excellent prize money and overall standard of racing, Gowran Park stages a total of four Graded races and one Group class event over the course of the season, although it is in fact a handicap event for which the track is most well-known. Generally offering higher than average fare, especially over jumps, there’s never a bad time to visit the County Kilkenny venue, but as with all tracks, Gowran Park does boast its seasonal highlights … and here they are!
Goffs Thyestes Day
Taking place on a Thursday afternoon in late January each year, the track’s flagship meeting is headlined by the titular Thyestes Handicap Chase – named in honour of a horse bred by the McAlmont family who have been closely associated with the track for many years.
A 3m1f event for the stayers, the race regular attracts runners bound for the Grand National, with Numbersixvalverde and Many Clouds both going on to Aintree glory following a win in this race. Despite being held in a midweek slot, this event rarely fails to sell out, with holidays and “sickness” amongst the local working population noted to spike sharply in late January each year.
Red Mills Day
And hot on the heels of the track’s most famous race day, comes this hugely popular meeting in the middle of February. Sponsored by a locally based horse feed and nutrition company, this seven-race card is lit up by the graded race double bill of the Red Mills Chase and Red Mills Trial Hurdle. Away from the quality racing action, there is a firm focus on fashion at this meeting, with a style marquee, fashion shows and Best Dressed prizes – all of which combine to make this one of the first days pencilled into the social calendar of many of the County Kilkenny natives.
If action on the level is more your thing, the track’s only Group class contest of the Danny Cordelll Lavarack Fillies Stakes takes place in September, but in terms of race day atmosphere, the Ladies Day of mid-July is tough to beat. Racegoers do seem to love a Ladies Day, and things are no different at Gowran Park in what is easily one of the most popular fixtures of the year.
Competitive handicapping action is the order of the day on the track, with the course laying on a whole host of additional entertainment, including live music, a Ladies’ Marquee, and another Best Dressed competition. With excellent prizes on offer to the winners you’ll want to dust of your finest finery!
Fittingly for one of Ireland’s pre-eminent dual-purpose venues, it was a mixed meeting which kicked off proceedings at Gowran Park, with the inaugural fixture on the 16th June, 1914 featuring both flat and National Hunt action. Beginning on a relatively small scale, the total prize money on offer at that opening fixture came in at a princely £130, or around £3,600 in today’s money.
The McAlmont Family
Many things have changed at the track since it first opened its doors over 100 years ago, but a constant throughout that time is the close ties between Gowran Park and the McAlmont family; current board member Harry McAlmont being the great grandson of Desmond McAlmont who served as a steward at the very first meeting all those years ago.
1948 saw the beginning of a period of growth for the Kilkenny venue with the track being taken over by a company set up by clothing magnate, Jack Duggan. Significant investment in facilities soon followed, as did a couple of notable firsts for the course. Becoming the first Irish track to provide racecourse commentary in 1952, Gowran Park then became the scene of the first ever tote jackpot win in that excellent footballing year (perhaps less excellent for the Irish) of 1966. Making its debut in 1954, the Thyestes Chase also entered the fray in what was a real period of boom for the course, making it a natural fit to become one of the very first tracks to be broadcast on live tv during the 1960s.
Famous Races Added
Increasing profile and popularity ultimately lead to an increase in the quality of the action on offer, with the graded contests of the Red Mills Trial Hurdle and Red Mills Chase being added to the calendar in 1990, followed by the Gowran Park Champion Chase in 1998. On the level the granting of Group 3 status to the Danny Cordell Lavarack Fillies Stakes provided a significant boost to the flat programme.
2003: New Grandstand
Fast forward to the current century and the course is showing no signs of slowing down, with the Grade 2 Galmoy Hurdle being introduced in 2002, and 2003 seeing the opening of a brand spanking new €3.5milllion grandstand, together with substantial improvements to the parade ring and stable yard. Continuing to provide an excellent experience to punters and those working within the industry, the track looks set to thrive for some time to come. Why not pay it a visit?