Located in the Irish parish of Eadestown, the Punchestown Racecourse is home to the National Hunt Festival of Ireland. Jump racing has been conducted here since the Punchestown Races were organised in the 19th century, later reconstituted as the “`Kildare and National Hunt Steeplechases” in 1861. By 1868, the meeting had become so popular that its first day drew a crowd of some 150,000 spectators.
The current Punchestown Irish National Hunt Festival, or Punchestown Festival for short, is considered to be the major horse racing event of the Irish National Hunt Season. It takes place each year during the last week of April or first week of May and stretches over five days, from Tuesday through Saturday. Comparisons to England’s Cheltenham Festival, which is run in a very similar format, are quite common.
Central to the Punchestown Festival are more than two dozen major races, both jumps and flats, with eleven rated as Grade 1. The most important contests include the Champion Chase, the Ryanair Novice Chase, the Champion Hurdle, the World Series Hurdle, the Evening Herald Champion Novice Hurdle, the Growise Champion Novice Chase, and the Champion INH Flat Race, among others.
One of the most anticipated features is the Punchestown Guinness Gold Cup held on race-week Wednesday. Introduced in its present version in 1999, this jump race replaced a previous one open only to novices. It was initially sponsored by Heineken, and then Diageo Plc., who have used it to promote their Guinness brand since 2005.
This is a Grade 1 National Hunt chase open to horses aged five years and older. Run on turf, it covers a distance of three miles and one furlong, with seventeen fences to be cleared. Many of the chasers are the same as those who run for the Cheltenham Gold Cup in March. The last time a horse won both races in the same year was in 2006, when War Of Attrition beat Beef Or Salmon by a comfortable margin of two-and-a-half-lengths.
Another focal point is the Avon Ri La Touche Cup, which is run over Punchestown’s legendary “banks course” on race-week Thursday. It is a uniquely Irish event that combines steeplechasing and hunting over four miles and three furlongs. In 2010, this race was selected to become part of a new European Series of ten races held in six countries known as the “Crystal Cup.” Involving France, Belgium, Italy, the Czech Republic, and England as well as Ireland, it offers a combined prize fund of over €700,000, with a trophy and an additional €10,000 going to the most successful stable at the end of the series.
Apart from its role as the highlight of the Irish racing season, the Punchestown Festival is also an indispensable item on the Irish social calendar. It combines thrilling race action with live entertainment, delicious food, and plentiful drinks. With a casual atmosphere, including complimentary activities for children and no dress code, enjoyment can be had by the entire family.
Beyond the paddocks, gathering places at the Punchestown Festival include: the Dobbins Food Hall with its array of top-quality dishes and home made breads; the La Touch Café bar on the ground floor of the main grand stand serving snacks, coffees and pastries; and a main stage main stage used for an entertainment programme of live music, children`s entertainment, fashion shows, best dressed finals, and expert betting panels.
On the first four days of the Festival, Tuesday through Friday, the first post time is at 3:40pm, with gates opening from 11:30am. The last race of each day starts around 7:15pm. On the final day, Saturday, which is known as Punchestown Family Day, the first race is se for 2:30pm and the gates open a half an hour earlier.