Downpatrick Racecourse

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As the senior of Northern Ireland’s only two racing venues, Downpatrick Racecourse occupies a very special place in the hearts of County Down residents. The dual-purpose track is a tight, undulating, right-handed oval that measures one mile and two furlongs in length and features a tough uphill finish. Each year, a total of 11 fixtures are scheduled, covering both the winter jumps and the summer flat racing seasons. The biggest annual event on the calendar is the Ulster National, which is run in late February over a distance of about 3½ miles.

Northern Ireland’s Oldest Course

The first race meeting in vicinity of the town of Downpatrick was held in 1685, about the same time that King James II issued a Royal Charter creating the Down Royal Corporation of Horsebreeders to encourage horse breeding in the county of Down. The “old grounds” of the course originally contained an undulating three-mile track in the shape of a horseshoe, and one of the first major races run there was a King’s Plate event in 1690, inaugurated with a £100 donation from King William III.

The first great horse to run at Downpatrick was “The Byerley Turk,” today recognised as a founding father of the Thoroughbred breed, listed as one of the three foundation stallions of the Stud Book. It happened in 1690, when Colonel Byerley was on his way to join the Battle of the Boyne as a charger for the Williamite armies. He stopped in Downpatrick long enough to race The Byerley Turk at the track, setting the pace for many other great Thoroughbreds to come. For example, the 1947 Aintree Grand National victor Caughoo raced at Downpatrick, as did the 1988 English and Irish Grand National winner Rhyme n’ Reason.

In the latter part of the 18th century, the track was moved closer to the town, occupying its current setting only a mile away. Despite the relocation of some meetings to the newly opened Down Royal Racecourse in 1789 and a couple of War-related disruptions, racing has continued here with few interruptions for more than 200 years. Maintaining the course has been aided since the 1970s by the formation of a Supporters Club, which has raised substantial sums since its inception.

Among the famous horses that started their careers at Downpatrick are the 1995 Cheltenham Supreme Novices’ Hurdle winner Tourist Attraction and the 1997 Cathart Challenge Cup champion Sparky Gayle. One particularly noteworthy Ulster Grand National winner at Downpatrick Racecourse was a horse named Laffy, owned by H.M. the Queen Mother. Although the horse finished second, it was determined that the apparent winner, Connkehely, had missed out a fence. As Laffy was declared the victor, the Queen Mother became separated from her security guards and was mobbed in the winner’s enclosure by a crowd of well-wishers.

Racing at Downpatrick Today

Although it is located within the United Kingdom, like its rival course Down Royal near Listurn, Downpatrick Racecourse does not conduct races under the rules of the British Horseracing Authority. Instead, its events are run under the authority of Horse Racing Ireland. The racecourse is strongly supported by the local community and its meetings tend to be “intimate, cosy affairs” with exciting flat and jump racing on offer.

In addition to the highlight of the year at the course—the Powers Whisky Ulster National run in late February—there are a number of other popular racedays on the calendar, such as Ladies Day in September and the Boxing Day Meeting in December. Thanks to modernisation efforts undertaken in recent years, the grounds offer excellent facilities, including a new grandstand which can accommodate 1,500 spectators. A snack bar and three public bars can be found in the stand, too.

Admission on raceday is £10 per adult, £5 for OAPs and students, and children are admitted free of charge. Various punters packages are available throughout the year at £15 and £20, and private boxes with four-course corporate lunches can be organised in the top-of-the-range marquees, inclusive of access to Tote betting facilities and a private bar.

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