The area in and around the Irish capital of Dublin is something of a hotspot when it comes to racecourses, with a number of the county’s biggest and best tracks within easy reach of Ireland’s most famous city. And included amongst that number is the County Kildare venue of Punchestown.
Sitting 22 miles to the southwest of Dublin, and just outside Naas in the Parish of Eadestown, the track has the reputation of being the home of the Irish National Hunt game, and stages some of the biggest and best jumping contests held anywhere in the world. If you fancy a Punchestown pilgrimage, read on for everything you need to know about the course and your accommodation options.
Those making the trip to Punchestown will likely need little encouragement in order to extend their visit, particularly as the track’s showpiece fixture is a marathon five-day affair. Throw in the close proximity of Dublin, and an overnight stay in the area starts to become all the more attractive. And thankfully for those looking to stick around for a day or five, accommodation options are in plentiful supply, both close to the track and a little further afield.
There are no hotels in the immediate vicinity of the track and, given its picturesque rural setting, only a handful in the surrounding area. At 1.5 miles to the north, Inglewood Lodge B&B is the closest, whilst the Killashee Hotel and Killossy House are only a little further out to the west.
The highest concentration of nearby accommodation options is to be found in the town of Naas, which itself lies only around 3 miles to the north of the track. With a population of around 20,000, the county town of Kildare provides a charming base of operations for racegoers, with an excellent atmosphere all but guaranteed in the bustling bars of Main Street. The Osprey Hotel, Town House Hotel and Lawlors Hotel are all solid options for those looking to stay in the town but be sure to book early as they do tend to fill up quickly – particularly ahead of the big springtime meeting.
Doze in Dublin
Whilst Naas scores top marks for proximity, it may be a little on the quiet side for some. Many racegoers therefore opt to set up camp in the wonderful Irish capital of Dublin. Only around an hour’s drive from the track, and boasting strong transport links with Naas, it rates a sensible choice. British racegoers in particular would be wise to consider Dublin, as they will most likely need to pass through the capital as part of their journey anyway.
Home to a range of cultural attractions, including Dublin Castle, and a museum dedicated exclusively to whiskey, the city also boasts more than enough bars to cater for the most ambitious of pub crawls. And, of course, as Ireland’s number one tourist destination, accommodation options are in plentiful supply. From major chains including Maldron, Jurys Inns and Travelodge, to luxurious options, such as the Riu Plaza or Marker Hotel – whatever your taste or budget, you should find something to fit the bill.
Wind Down in Wicklow
As entertaining as it undoubtedly is, the hustle and bustle of Dublin may not be for everyone. Some racegoers may instead seek a little serenity following a rowdy day at the racetrack. And,, luckily, for those looking to wind down, one thing which Ireland has in abundance is beautiful countryside.
Boasting a selection of wonderful walks, historical sites and wildlife, Wicklow Mountains National Park is around an hour’s drive to the east of the track, making it a viable option for those travelling by car. Lying along the western edge of the park, Oldcourt Cottage, Kylebeg Cottage and the Lodge are amongst the most conveniently located accommodation choices.
About the Racecourse
For much of its lifetime Punchestown operated as a dual-purpose venue but – other than stepping in to assist with a fixture overload in 2020 – has not held a flat contest since switching exclusively to the National Hunt code in 2002. The track generally lays on around 15-17 meetings over the course of the season, all of which take place between September and May. And the quality on offer is certainly impressive, with the course cramming in a total of 14 Grade 1 contests, the bulk of these taking place during the five-day festival in April.
A relatively straightforward track to reach once in Ireland, the first task for those making the journey from the British mainland is to successfully navigate the Irish Sea. The ferry crossing from Holyhead to Dublin is the most convenient option for many, but racegoers travelling from further north may prefer to use the Cairnryan to Larne route, before then travelling down to Dublin.
Dublin International is the closest airport and lies around 30km to the north of the track. A bus services operated by The Red Cow company then runs between the airport and Naas town centre, which sits only a short distance from the track.
From Dublin, motorists simply need to stick to the N7 motorway which leads almost directly to the course. Alternatively, for those wishing to leave their cars behind, a bus shuttle service from Dublin to the track is available throughout the Punchestown Festival. Those travelling from Belfast are advised to take the M1 to Dublin before then following the N7 to the course. Depending upon traffic, the journey from Dublin should take around an hour, and once at the track racegoers will find ample free parking available, with Punchestown having the facilities to accommodate around 17,000 vehicles.
For rail travellers, the closest station to the course is that of Sallins & Naas which sits just outside Naas. Whilst there are no regular bus services to the track from the town, a free shuttle service will be in operation during the main spring festival – leaving from the town centre. Alternatively, a taxi from Naas to the track will set you back around €10-€12.
The chase and hurdles courses at Punchestown operate on separate circuits, with the hurdles course lying to the inside of the chase track. Looking first at the chase course, each right-handed circuit measures close to two miles in length and, whilst generally galloping in nature, does contain two bends which aren’t far off ninety degrees. Slightly undulating throughout, the track features a notably stiff finish as the terrain over the final five furlongs climbs slowly but steadily all the way to the line. Whatever the distance, an ability to truly see out the trip is important in events over the larger obstacles.
Each circuit features a total of 11 fences, providing a stiff but fair jumping challenge. If there is to be an error, it is most likely to come in the home straight where the final fence looms up very quickly after the second last. Having negotiated the last obstacle, the field are then faced with a run-in of just over a furlong.
Slightly shorter at 1m6f in circumference, the hurdles track features sharper turns than its chase counterpart and more pronounced undulations throughout. Widely accepted as being the trickier of the two tracks, the field are faced with a total of eight flights per circuit. A real test of a horse’s balance almost throughout, the second last bend and downhill section following the winning post are the areas that are most likely to catch a runner out. In the lead up to the spring festival, the hurdles track often switches to an alternative home straight, creating an even tighter circuit – with this move being made in order to protect the ground in the main straight.
And last but not least Punchestown also possesses Ireland’s only cross-country banks course. Laid out inside the main circuits, this twisting track turns both left- and right-handed and requires the field to negotiate a series of fences, bushes, walls and banks, with only the final brush fence lying on the racecourse proper.
In terms of running style favoured, little bias is in evidence on the chase course. Runners are certainly able to win from the front over the larger obstacles, but the extensive galloping sections, and long run-in after the last, provide midfield and hold-up runners with ample opportunity to get into the race. It is however a different story on the hurdles track where nippy well-balanced sorts able to race up with the pace undoubtedly do hold an edge.
Despite the high-profile racing, Punchestown keeps things relatively low key in the stands, with no official dress code in place. That said, many racegoers do opt for smarter attire at the bigger meetings, whilst smart dress for both ladies and gents is the norm in the hospitality areas.
At the majority of race days Punchestown operates as a single enclosure, with general admission tickets priced at around €12 for adults and €7 for students and OAPs. These prices then rise to €15 and €10, respectively, for the Graded Sunday fixtures. General admission affords access to the main grandstand, a range of public food outlets and bars, the shopping village, and Parade Ring.
At the Punchestown Festival the track is segregated into a General Enclosure and Reserved Enclosure. Prices for the general enclosure rise to €25/€17 for the bulk of the week, with a further increase to €35/€25 on the Friday. Reserve Enclosure entry – priced at €47 on the Friday and €35 for the rest of the week – includes access to the trackside lawns adjacent to the last fence, the excellent Sky Bar, additional seating areas and for those wanting to celebrate a nice win, the Bollinger Champagne Pavilion. Children under 14 go free with a paying adult in all main enclosures.
In addition to the standard entry options, a selection of hospitality packages are available. A dining deal including a four course meal, race card, guest tipster and reserved table is priced at €69 for fixtures outside of the main meeting, whilst a similar package at the Punchestown Festival comes in at around €129. A range of private suites, including the trackside pavilion, offer a more bespoke experience, with the best advice being to contact the track in order to discuss your individual requirements.
Well towards the head of the list when it comes to the average quality of the racing on offer, Punchestown is in fact Ireland’s number one National Hunt-only track. As such, there’s really never a bad time to pay a visit to the Country Kildare venue, but in terms of attendance and popularity, it is the following three fixtures which top the pile.
Where else to start than with the biggest meeting of the season, not only at this track, but in the whole of Irish National Hunt rating. Running from Tuesday through to Saturday in late April each year, this five-day fixture is effectively the Irish version of the Cheltenham Festival and sees many of the same star names showing up.
Highlights include the Punchestown Champion Hurdle and Punchestown Gold Cup, but with a total of 12 Grade 1 contests spread across the festival, the whole week is a top-class racing bonanza. Attracting over 130,000 racegoers over the five days of action, and offering over €3 million in total prize money, this is one of the biggest and best National Hunt festivals on the planet.
Taking place over a punter-friendly Saturday and Sunday in mid-November each year is the second of Punchestown’s festivals. Something of a little brother to the April jamboree, the meeting kicks off with a seven-race card on the Saturday, headlined by a novice chase contest which regularly throws up a future star.
Things then move up a gear in what is a bumper eight-race Sunday card, featuring a trio of contests at Listed level or above. Topping the bill is the Grade 1 Morgiana Hurdle, which has been claimed by greats, such as Limestone Lad, Hurricane Fly and Faugheen over the years.
John Durkan Memorial Chase Day
Taking place in early December each year and held in honour of former jockey John Durkan who passed away at the age of just 31 in 1998, this meeting represents the best of the single-day fixtures at the track. A seven-race cards serves to get those festive racing juices flowing a little early, with the titular staying chase acting as the headline of the day. And it’s a headline act which certainly attracts the star names, with Kicking King, Don Cossack and Sizing John all backing up a win in the race with success in the Cheltenham Gold Cup.
In common with many other areas of Ireland, Punchestown boasts a rich racing heritage, with events in and around the area said to have first taken place way back in 1824. Those earliest events were relatively low-key affairs though, and it wasn’t until 1850 that the first officially recognised meeting took place, being run by the local Kildare Hunt club. However, it wasn’t exactly a roaring success, with no stand of any description in place, and the limited number of spectators complaining of very poor viewing.
The track was at least relatively quick to act on those complaints, opening a wooden stand prior to the first two-day April meeting in 1854. Falling under the management of the newly assembled Kildare National Hunt Steeplechase Organisation in 1861, the improving reputation of the track saw an 1864 meeting attended by Lords, Earls, Barons, and MPs, with the Prince of Wales also listed amongst the early visitors.
Moving into the 1900s, and Punchestown began to be affected by the fractured political situation in the country, with the regular disruption to meetings by Sinn Fein seeing racing suspended in 1919. Returning in 1921, things then continued relatively smoothly until being forced into closure between 1941 and 1943 due to the Second World War.
Champion Chase & Punchestown Gold Cup
Reopening in 1944 the track quickly began drawing huge crowds despite the widespread petrol shortages, with the dedication of many racing fans seeing them cycle significant distances to the track. Increasing popularity led to improved quality on the course, with the Punchestown Champion Chase being added to the schedule in 1950, and the Punchestown Gold Cup following 10 years later in 1960.
Upgrades to the Racecourse
The heady days of the 1960s also witnessed significant enhancements both on and off the track. The 1960/61 season saw brush fences make their debut, swiftly followed by the opening of a new hurdles course, permanent enclosures, and a brand-new upgraded grandstand. With the improved facilities in place the track only continued to grow in prestige, adding a slew of further Grade 1 events throughout the 1980s, 90s and 2000s, the most famous of which came in the form of the Punchestown Champion Hurdle, which made its debut in 1999.
Already well established as one of the most popular tracks in the whole of Irish Racing, the Kildare Hunt Club – who still own the track to this day – have pumped further investment into facilities in recent years, with a total of €6.2m worth of improvements and upgrades taking placed between 2015 and 2018. Offering both top class racing and impressive facilities, there is good reason that a visit to this excellent track is on the bucket list of many a racing fan.