There are few more colourful and vibrant racing festivals in the world than the Punchestown Festival. It’s one that truly celebrates everything that is good with Irish racing and the country itself.
Even though many are there to have a good time, the calibre of racing that takes places at the festival is pretty much second to none. The meeting includes 39 races spread over 5 days, with 12 Grade 1s and over €3.2 million in prize money.
The festival takes place during the end of April or Early May. It lands after both the Cheltenham Festival and Aintree Festival (Grand National), signalling the end of the National Hunt season. The finale means that it’s party time and many punters flock from all across Europe to take in the stunning facilities that are on offer and the first-rate racing fixtures.
Many people see the meeting as the Irish version of the Cheltenham Festival and the whole event is run across a very similar format in terms of times, days, races and even prize money.
Punchestown Festival Major Races
There are eight races per day between Tuesday and Friday and seven races on Saturday meaning a total of 39 races across this mammoth five day meeting. The Punchestown Champion Chase, Punchestown Gold Cup and the Punchestown Champion Hurdle are the key races with the most valuable prize funds.
Punchestown racecourse has been open since 1875 and is located in the parish of Eadestown, which is County Kildare. The track is one of the most picturesque in Ireland and the rolling hills and lush countryside create a simply stunning backdrop.
Punchestown is known as the home of Irish jump racing and it’s here where many of the best Irish races take place, even outside of the Festival. Some of the standout races include the Morgiana Hurdle and the John Durkan Memorial Punchestown Chase, both of which are Grade 1 races.
The racecourse itself is a right handed track and is very undulating. It’s 1 mile and 6 furlong in total length, whilst the chase course can be stretch out to 2 miles. They also have the only cross country banks course in the country as well.
Whilst it’s obviously best know for horse racing, Punchestown has also managed to become a bit of a leader for music festivals and gigs. Over the years the likes of Eminem, Bon Jovi, AC/DC and Westlife have all performed there as part of music festivals such as Creamfields, Oxegen and Ozzfest.
As stated, the festival last for 5 days and runs from a Tuesday through to the Saturday. It’s quite unique in that racing doesn’t start at the track until 3.40pm on the first 4 days and then 2.35pm on the Saturday. This means that races will run through until around 7.45pm, but given the time off year, it’s generally still light.
Day 1 Races on Tuesday (2023)
|Time||Race||Grade / Length|
|15:40||Howden Insurance Mares Novice Hurdle||Listed / 2m ½f|
|16:15||KPMG Champion Novice Hurdle||Grade 1 / 2m ½f|
|16:50||Killashee Hotel Handicap Hurdle||Grade B / 2m ½f|
|17:25||William Hill Champion Chase||Grade 1 / 2m|
|18:00||Goffs Defender Bumper||2m ½f|
|18:35||Dooley Insurance Champion Novice Chase||Grade 1 / 3m ½f|
|19:10||Kildare Hunt Club Cross Country Chase||3m 1f|
|19:45||Oak Lodge Landscapes Flat Race||2m ½f|
Champion Novice Hurdle
The first of the Grade 1 races for day one is the Champion Novice hurdle. The race comes with a €125,000 prize pool and is for horses five-years-old and up. The runners must cover nine hurdles over 2 miles and 100 yards.
The race used to be for four-year-old horses and up, but was changed in 1992. Following the move to go to five years and up, the race was upgraded from a Grade 2 to a Grade 1 in 1998. This is another race that has seen a flock of notable winners including Douvan, Jezki, Faugheen, Hurricane Fly, Brave Inca Moscow flyer and Dawn Run, to name just a few. Ruby Walsh is the most successful jockey with 5 wins in the race and Willie Mullins is the most successful trainer with 8 wins.
The Champions Chase is the highlight of the opening day (some would argue the entire meeting) and is one of the biggest Grade 1 races of the week as well. There is a €300,000 prize fund on offer, with first prize taking home a cool €180,000.
The race is run over 2m and is open to horses aged 5-years-old and up. The race used to be a handicap race, but got changed in 1999 to a classes race instead. The race is heavily linked with the Queen Mother Champion Chase from the Cheltenham Festival and the field often includes horses that have ran well in this race. The last winner to win both in the same year was Sprinter Sacre in 2013.
Notable winners include Un De Sceaux, Sizing Europe, Klarion Davis, Skymas, Moscow Flyer and Master Minded.
Champion Novice Chase
The Champions Novice Chase is one of the newest races to the Punchestown Festival but has already been classed as a Grade 1 race. The race was first run in 2007 and is run over a distance of 3 miles 120 yards.
The race is heavily linked with the Broadway Novices’ Chase at the Cheltenham Festival, although no horse has managed to win both races as of yet. Notable winners include Delta Work, Sir Des Cahmps and Zabana. Davy Russell is the most successful jockey with 5 wins and the race includes a hefty prize fund of €125,000.
Day 2 Races on Wednesday (2023)
|Time||Race||Grade / Length|
|15:40||Adare Manor Series Final Hurdle||Conditional / 2m 4f|
|16:15||Irish EBF Auction Hurdle Series Final||2m 4½f|
|16:45||Louis Fitzgerald Hotel Hurdle||2m 4½f|
|17:20||Irish Mirror Novice Hurdle||Grade 1 / 3m|
|17:55||Ladbrokes Punchestown Gold Cup||Grade 1 / 3m ½f|
|18:30||Champion INH Flat Race||Grade 1 / 2m ½f|
|19:05||HSS Hire Handicap Chase||Grade A / 2m 5f|
|19:35||Weatherbys Irish EBF Mares Flat Race||Grade 3 / 2m ½f|
Punchestown Gold Cup
For many, the Punchestown Gold Cup is the highlight of the weeks racing and it’s one of the richest as well, with a purse of €300,000. The race is run over 3 miles 120 yards and is open to horses aged 5 years and up. This gruelling contest includes 17 fences in total and is said to be one of the most brutal test over fences of the racing calendar.
The race has only been running in its current format since 1999, but it’s definitely something that has been forged into a modern-classic within that time frame. The original race was first run in 1960, although it was not a Grade 1 race initially.
Again, the race is compared with the Cheltenham Gold Cup and whilst the winners don’t always come over, any horse that has travelled in that race will generally show up here to get more miles under their legs.
Neptune Collonges is the only multiple winner of the race, winning in 2007 and then again in 2008. Other well known winners include Sizing John, Don Cossack, Sir Des Champs and Beef Or Salmon.
Champion Flat Race
The Champion Flat Race is designed to allow trainers to test younger horses out to allow them to get a feel to how tracks run and get used to competing.
However, the race still carries a Grade 1 status and comes with a €100,000 purse. The field often includes horses that have ran well at races like the Champion Bumper at Cheltenham Festival, with winners of both races to include Cousin Vinny in 2008 and Fayonagh in 2017. The race is run over 2 miles and 70 yards and is for four to seven-year-old horses.
Day 3 Races on Thursday (2023)
|Time||Race||Grade / Length|
|15:40||Specialist Joinery Handicap Hurdle||2m|
|16:15||Pigsback.com Handicap Chase||Grade B / 2m|
|16:50||La Touche Cup Cross Country Chase||4m 2f|
|17:25||Ladbrokes Champion Stayers Hurdle||Grade 1 / 3m|
|18:00||Conway Piling Handicap Hurdle||Grade B / 3m|
|18:35||Barberstown Castle Novice Chase||Grade 1 / 2m|
|19:10||Irish EBF Mares Handicap Chase||2m 5f|
|19:45||JP&M Doyle (C&G) Flat Race||2m|
Champion Stayers Hurdle
Another one of the highlights and part of the “big” races that take place at the Punchestown Festival is that the Champion Stayers Hurdle. The race in its current format has been run since 1995 seeing horses aged 4 years and up take on 14 hurdles around the Punchestown track.
The race is tied in with the Stayers Hurdle that is run in the Cheltenham Festival. Quevega was a horse that dominated this race, winning it a staggering 4 times for owner Willie Mullins with jockey Ruby Walsh on board. Other winners have included the likes of Jezki, Faugheen and Rhinestone Cowboy.
Barberstown Castle Novice Chase
The Grade 1 Barberstown Castle Novice Chase is a 2 mile race that takes place at the festival and comes with a purse of €125,000. The race has 11 fences in total.
The Cheltenham equivalent for this is the Arkle Challenge Trophy. Past winners include Big Zeb, War Of Attrition, Douvan, Un de Sceaux and Moscow Flyer. Barry Geraghty and Ruby Walsh share the title for most wins as jockey with four and Willie Mullins leads the way as trainer with eight wins in total.
Day 4 Races on Friday (2023)
|Time||Race||Grade / Length|
|15:40||Stanley Asphalt Hunters Chase||2m 5f|
|16:15||EMS Copiers Novice Handicap Chase||Grade A / 2m 5f|
|16:50||Irish EBF Mares Chase||Grade 2 / 2m 5f|
|17:25||Paddy Power Champion Hurdle||Grade 1 / 2m|
|18:00||Alanna Homes Champion Novice Hurdle||Grade 1 / 2m 4f|
|18:35||Irish Daily Star Champion Hunters Chase||3m ½f|
|19:10||SalesSense International Novice Hurdle||2m|
|19:45||Avison Young INH Flat Race||2m 2f|
Another of the many highlights of the Punchestown Festival is that the Champion Hurdle. The race is run on the Friday and is one the strongest of the 5 days racing. The race has only been running in its current format since 1999, but has strong ties with the Champion Hurdle that is run at Cheltenham. The last winner to win both races in the same year was Honeysuckle in 2021.
The race used to be restricted to 5-year olds and up, but this got reduced to 4 years olds and up in 2009. Winners include the incredible Hurricane Fly who has won on four separate occasions, along with the likes of Faugheen, Jezki, Brave Inca and Istabraq, to name just a few.
Champion Novice Hurdle
The Champion Novice Hurdle is one of the more exciting races at the festival as this is where you get to take a look at potential future Gold Cup runners, even though the race is linked with the Novices’ Hurdles at Cheltenham.
The purse for this race stands at €125,000 and has had its Grade 1 rating since its inception in 1995. Over the years the race has been dominated by jockey Ruby Walsh, riding eight winners in total, along with trainer Willie Mullins, who has ten wins to his name.
Day 5 Races on Saturday (2023)
|Time||Race||Grade / Length|
|14:35||Donohue Solutions Cross Country Chase||3m 1f|
|15:10||Colm Quinn BMW Handicap Chase||3m 7f|
|15:50||Coolmore Irish EBF Mares Champion Hurdle||Grade 1 / 2m 4f|
|16:25||Pat Taaffe Handicap Chase||Grade B / 3m ½f|
|17:00||Ballymore Champion Four Year Old Hurdle||Grade 1 / 2m|
|17:30||Fitzwilliam Sports Handicap Hurdle||Grade B / 2m 4f|
|18:05||Lawlors Hotel Naas (Pro Am) Flat Race||2m|
|18:40||Punchestown Charity Race||1m 7f|
Mares Champion Hurdle
The Mares Champion Hurdle is one of the youngest races at the meeting and was first run in 2004. What’s been interesting to see with this race is that it initially started life as a Listed race, before then becoming a Grade 3 in 2006. It then got fast tracked to a Grade 1 in 2013 and has been at this status ever since.
Annie Power is the most notable winner in that and was another for the dominating partnership of Ruby Walsh and Willie Mullins. The horse went on to win the likes of the Aintree Hurdle and Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham as well.
Another of the more exciting races is the Four Year Old Hurdle, which gives punters a chance to see the future stars in the making. This Grade 1 race comes with a €125,000 purse and allows horses of 4 only, as the name would suggest.
The race has been linked to that of the Triumph Hurdle at Cheltenham and the last horse to win both races in the same year was Katarino in 1999. Ruby Walsh has had five winners in this race, with trainer Willie Mullins having eight wins.
Racing at Punchestown has been taking place since 1850. It was originally set up as the Kildare Hunt club and even though it was a less than successful venture, it did signify what would be the start of one of the biggest developments in Irish horse racing.
The poor facilities, track and even management of the site did eventually start to improve and by 1854 a wooden stand was erected to accommodate a larger number of visitors. These changes slowly started to take effect and the calibre of horses and even attendees started to improve, along with royal visits from the then Prince of Wales.
But the racetrack has never had an easy ride. Political differences in the 1920’s rocked attendances and the course closed altogether throughout the first and second world wars. It was only by the 1960’s did they start to get back on track and the inclusion of fences/hurdles meant that they were able to offer a much wider variant of races.
In more recent times, the track has been the beneficiary of a £6.2million development to improve facilities further. It’s now one of the most popular race tracks and tourist attractions in Ireland, bringing in huge sums of money for the local economy each year.
In terms of the festival itself, well this dates back to 1854 when it was known as the Spring Festival. Over the years its evolved from the original three-day Spring meeting, to the now five-day Spring meeting, known as the Punchestown Festival.
Ruby Walsh will go down as one of, if not the, greatest jump jockeys of all time. He had over 2,700 career wins and with it more Grade 1 winners than any other jump jockey.
The Punchestown Festival is another one where he’s be impressively successful. He’s had 45 Grade 1 winners at the festival alone, dominating in most of the races as the standout jockey. His most successful race has been the Champion Novice Hurdle that he has won a record 8 times.
Walsh retired in 2019, but his affection for racing in Ireland and in particular the Punchestown Festival was highlighted when he announced his retirement after winning the Punchestown Gold Cup on Kemboy. It happened to be his 213th Grade 1 winner of his career.
Another legend of the sport was that of Jockey, Pat Taaffe. The Irishman had rode many winners in his career, including the Grand National, Cheltenham Gold Cup, Irish Grand National, King George VI Chase, Hennessey Gold Cup and the Whitbred Gold Cup.
Taaffe is also one of the most successful jockeys to have rode at the festival and famously steered the great Arkle to victory in the Gold Cup in 1963. He also holds the record for the most Champion Chase wins at the festival, with 5 in total running from 1951 through to 1966.