As possibly the most racing-mad nation on the planet, Ireland is unsurprisingly home to a wide range of racecourses, from the large tracks which play host to major meetings, to smaller countryside affairs. And falling firmly into that latter category is the picturesque venue of Sligo.
Nestled in a valley between the Benbulen and Knocknarea mountains in the Northwest, the welcoming atmosphere, and this most scenic of tracks with its spectacular views attracts racegoers from near and far.
Given its location in one of the most beautiful regions of Ireland, and its proximity to a number of urban hubs, many racegoers may not need too much encouragement to extend their visit with an overnight stay. Luckily for those seeking to explore a little more of what the area has to offer, a number of accommodation options are available, both close to the track and a little further afield.
Closest to the Course
Despite the wonderful countryside setting, Sligo isn’t quite so remote from society as the views from the track may suggest. Lying only around 1km to the north of the course is the town of Sligo itself. Given that proximity, the town famously so beloved by WB Yeats, rates as the most convenient base of operations for racegoers looking to stay in the area.
With a population of around 20,000, this coastal settlement is the largest town in County Sligo, and possesses plenty to keep visitors entertained. History buffs will likely wish to pay a visit to the town’s ancient Abbey ruins and cathedral, whilst a range of bars including the Swagman Bar, Shoot the Crows and the Snug Bar cater to those fancying a post-race tipple. Accommodation in the area includes the competitively priced Lough Gill Lodge and Old Fort, with the Glasshouse and the Sligo Park Hotel & Leisure Centre offering a more luxurious stay.
An alternative to Sligo is the charming town of Bundoran. Only around 35km along the coast to the west of Sligo, this popular tourist destination boasts excellent beaches – belying its size to regularly be voted as one of the top 20 surfing towns on the planet. Being such a hotspot with visitors, the town boasts an impressive array of pubs and bars, with highlights including Emerald Bar, the Chasin’ Bull, and the Kicking Donkey and Georges Bar.
A particularly popular choice with racegoers during the summer months, Bundoran is home to a range of accommodation options to suit all tastes and budgets, including an excellent Radisson Blu, the highly-rated traditional offering of Fitzgerald’s Hotel and a whole host of B&B style operators.
Or Bunk in Ballyshannon
If the summer seaside scene is not for you, why not head a further 5km to the west of the track to Ireland’s oldest town of Ballyshannon. Sitting on the banks of the River Erne, the town known as the “Gateway to County Donegal” is steeped in history, boasting an ancient Abbey and mill amongst other attractions. The pubs in the town may be small in number, but they certainly aren’t short on character, with the Thatch Bar and Dicey Reilly’s Pub and Off Licence, in particular, being well worth a visit.
Those looking to stay in this quaint town will have the choice of only a handful of accommodation options, but much like the pubs in the area, each of these possesses plenty of charm. Dorrian’s Imperial offers the most traditional hotel experience, but for something a little different why not try Cookie’s Cottage or Assaroe Falls.
About the Racecourse
Despite the ability to stage both flat and National Hunt action, Sligo is amongst the less frequently used tracks on the Emerald Isle, laying on a total of nine race days, all of which fall between late April and October. A low-key course, there are no contests at Listed level or above, with the seasonal highlight being the Lough Gill Handicap Hurdle which headlines the track’s major two-day meeting in August. The standard of the action may only be of average quality, but the track is invariably well attended, benefitting from its summer scheduling and the fact that many of the fixtures are punter-friendly evening meetings.
Racegoers travelling to Sligo from the British mainland have the choice of two ferry crossings; either the Holyhead to Dublin route or that which traverses the sea from the Scottish port of Cairnryan to the northern Irish destination of Larne. Alternatively, the closest airport is that of Knock International which welcomes regular flights from London, Manchester, and Liverpool.
Those alighting in Dublin should take the M50 onto the M4 before following the N4 to the course. From Larne the A8, M2 and M1 lead onto the A4 which in turn joins the N4 via the N16. Motorists will find the track well signposted on approach, but for those using satnav the postcode is F91 T2VC. Upon arrival at the track, racegoers will find ample free parking available in the centre of the course.
For those arriving by rail, the closest station to the track is that which sits within Sligo town centre, only around 2km from the course. Enjoying strong links with the capital, the station benefits from a regular service from Dublin Connolly Station. For those wishing to stretch their legs, the track is well within walking distance from Sligo Station, or alternatively a taxi rank is situated close by. A further option is to take a short stroll to the bus station, with both the 458 and the 64 services stopping just outside the course.
Only around a mile in circumference, Sligo’s broadly oval, right-handed circuit is one of the tightest in the land, being made up of sharp bends and short straight sections. In addition to the tight turns, the track also features undulating sections throughout, most significantly over the final four furlongs which rise all the way to the line, and severely so for the final two furlongs.
Those tackling the chase course are faced with five relatively undemanding fences per circuit, the last of which lies in the home straight prior to a run-in of one furlong to the line. Utilising the inner section of the course, the hurdles track is that bit sharper than its chase counterpart and again features five obstacles per lap, with the last coming in the home straight.
Both on the flat and over jumps, the track is well suited to nippy, well-balanced sorts who like to race up with pace and, despite the stiff finish, is a course that favours speed over stamina. That said, it is crucial the leaders judge the pace correctly in order to avoid running out of steam over that tough final section. Not setting off too quickly is particularly important when the ground is riding on the soft side which, given the track’s location at the base of a natural bowl, is far from an unusual occurrence. And when the going is described as soft here it generally does mean very soft indeed, creating conditions that some runners simple can’t handle.
When looking at the draw on the flat course, the relatively low number of fixtures means that any patterns need to be treated with a degree of caution. Nevertheless, a low draw against the inside rail does seem to be an advantage, and particularly so over distances of 10 furlongs and above. All in all, this is a very tricky track under both codes, and as such, any runner who has previously shown an ability to handle conditions may be worth a second look in the betting.
A relaxed tourist-friendly venue, Sligo has a dress code to match. Other than a stipulation against fancy dress and branded clothing in the hospitality areas, racegoers are pretty much free to dress as they please. Whatever your choice of attire though, do remember to factor in the weather, as the northwest coast of Ireland is no stranger to wind and rain.
There is just one main enclosure in operation at Sligo, priced at €15 for adults and €10 for students and OAPs, with all children under the age of 14 going free with a paying adult. Standard entry affords access to the parade ring which also doubles as the winner’s enclosure, a self-service restaurant, Pavilion Bar, Public Bar and a range of mobile catering facilities.
In addition to the standard options, a selection of group package deals are available. Parties of between two and ten may wish to take advantage of the €45 deal which grants entry, a race card, a reserved seating area, a two-course meal and a beverage. An alternative for groups of 10 or more is the €30 offer which includes entry, race card, burger, and drink. The track also boasts three suites able to cater for 40 to 60 racegoers. Those looking to book a suite are advised to contact the track in advance in order to discuss the customizable options available.
With only nine meetings from which to select, and the majority of the action being fairly run of the mill handicapping fare, there aren’t too many standout contests at the track from a racing perspective. There are nevertheless still those fixtures that come out ahead of the rest in terms of popularity and attendance, with the following three meetings leading the way.
Taking place at the beginning of August each year this two-day fixture, held over a Wednesday and Thursday, is one of the first dates in the diary of local racing fans. Coming hot on the heels of the mighty Galway festival, this fixture similarly offers a mix of flat and jumping action. The opening day is dedicated to all things on the level, with Thursday’s jumps card then featuring the headline act of the Lough Gill Handicap Hurdle.
Family Fun Day
This Sunday afternoon card in the middle of July sees the track go the extra mile in an effort to provide a fun day out for racegoers of all ages. Expect appearances from a selection of well-known cartoon characters, face painting and more, with a live music performance in the bar helping to keep the party atmosphere going after racing. With a seven-race jumps card on the track, there’s something for everyone here.
Of course, everyone loves a Ladies Day, and all the better should it fall during the height of summer, factors that combine to make this mid-August meeting easily one of the best attended of the year. Competitive handicap hurdling fare provides the action on the track, whilst in the stands, the members of the fairer sex do battle for the honour of being crowned the meeting’s Best Dressed Lady.
The earliest reports of racing in the Sligo locale date back to 1781, when the first fixture held under Turf Club rules took place at the Bowmore venue of Rosses Point. The track of those early days differed markedly from the tight modern layout, with the runners locking horns over a horseshoe-shaped course that extended for fully three miles from start to finish.
The racing remained there until grinding to a halt during the 1840s. Absent for close to 30 years, racing finally returned in 1873 when a gentleman by the name of John Wynne established a new track on his own land at Hazelwood.
Still failing to settle on a permanent home, racing remained at Hazelwood until switching back to Rosses Point in 1886, before returning to Hazelwood once more in 1898. Barring an enforced closure for the duration of the First World War, there it stayed until 1942 when a decline in the conditions of the track brought racing to an end.
Change of Locations
Scouting around for a new home in order to meet the lingering demand for racing in the area, the current site at “The Pump Field” in Cleveragh was selected. Taking several years to build the course and facilities, the new venue opened for the first time on the 24th August 1955, attracting an opening ground of 7,000 enthusiastic racegoers.
Happily, this incarnation of the track has proven to be more settled than those which preceded it, with racing running uninterrupted to the present day. A resolutely small countryside venue throughout its lifetime, the track has benefited from significant investment in recent years. Included amongst a total of £4.4 million in upgrades since 2013 is the building of a new grandstand and two-storey hospitality building and improvements to the trainers and jockeys’ areas. Combing a relaxed countryside atmosphere with an excellent race day experience, Sligo is one of Irish racing’s hidden gems.