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Thursday 17 August 2017

Peerless Punchestown: The long and colourful history of the Punchestown National Hunt Festival

Siobhán English traces the long and colourful history of the Punchestown National Hunt Festival

Punchestown 1986
Punchestown 1986
Barry Geraghty celebrates after winning last year's Gold Cup on Carlingford Lough. Photo: Damien Eagers
Gordon Elliott and Dick O'Sullivan (Punchestown) at the launch of the new Grandstand and the Punchestown featival
Hurricane Fly
Risk of Thunder
Siobhan English

Siobhan English

It's been dubbed the 'Irish Cheltenham' and this week Punchestown will once again welcome thousands of Irish and overseas visitors to see the world's top hurdlers, chasers and bumper contenders battle for supremacy.

Boasting a prize-fund of almost €3 million, the annual five-day Punchestown Festival not only attracts the crème de la crème of Irish jumps horses, but also many from across the water.

This year's top-class British entries again include God's Own who will be bidding for back-to-back success in the Boylesports Champion Chase tomorrow afternoon. The Champion Chase is undoubtedly one of the crowd's favourites and over the years we have seen some epic duels on the turf. One of the most memorable in recent times was the race to the finish between Cheltenham heroes Sprinter Sacre and Sizing Europe in 2013.

The Henry de Bromhead-trained gelding had lifted the crown in 2012 and a year later was bidding to repeat the feat when pipped to the post by his British rival. However, 12 months later trained Sizing Europe was back to form and claimed his penultimate race before being retired in the spring of 2015.

Early records of this great race date back to 1950 when it was won by the Paddy Prendergast-trained Melman, but racing at Punchestown has been in full swing since the 1820s, with the first meeting said to have taken place there in 1824.

While facilities in the early days were naturally rather limited, by the time the Kildare Hunt Club took over in 1850 plans were already afoot to erect a grandstand, and this was fully operational for its first two-day meeting in 1854.

The club was established in the late 1700s and had originally bought the 500 acres of land on which the racecourse now sits in 1825.

By the mid 1860s, when fences and hurdles were first introduced, attendance had grown to some 40,000. The presence of the then Prince of Wales, Albert Edward, in 1868 further bolstered the crowds, with an estimated 5,000 travelling by train from Dublin alone.


The feature race, the Prince of Wales Plate, was established that year in honour of the Royal visit. It was run over the Downshire Course of three and a half miles and included a four and a half-foot wall.

Other race highlights during that era included the Kildare Hunt Cup, won three years in a row by a gelding named Confederate in 1875, and the Corinthian Cup, presented for the first time in 1853.

In 1861 the National Hunt Steeplechase at Punchestown became the richest race in Ireland, offering a prize-fund to the tune of £300.

Another was the Bishopscourt Cup (Farmers' Race) which was first presented by the Earl Of Clonmell to the farmers of Co Kildare as a challenge cup in 1903.

It still remains a popular race to this day and is held on the Friday of the Festival.

Equally coveted was the Conyngham Cup, inaugurated in 1854 and won six times in the early 1900s by the great Harry Beasley (see opposite page).

Historically this race was the highlight of the season for amateur riders and in 2013 the decision was made to move the race to an earlier date in January and re-name it the Amateur National.

Visible in the background of an early painting of the race by John Sturgess is a small gathering of people on the Priests Hill, the place from which the clergy watched the races during the years that their attendance at such meetings was forbidden by the church.

Last year, racecourse chairman David Mongey was instrumental in securing an additional 160 acres.

This includes the famous hill and the quarry that lies adjacent to the part of the track that holds the likes of Ruby's Double (named after Ruby Walsh's late grandfather Ruby Walsh Snr) that is now famously associated with the La Touche Race.

This world-famous four-mile cross-country race also incorporates hedges and dates back to the early 1900s.

It was named after the La Touche Family who in 1901 gave the lands of Punchestown in trust in perpetuity for equestrian purposes to the Kildare Hunt. Percy La Touche went on to become a manager of the racecourse and the recently opened La Touche Restaurant at the track has now been named in his honour.

Enda Bolger sent out Risk of Thunder to win the race seven times between 1995 and 2002.

Record

The trainer continued his impeccable record in this race last year with his 13th win as a trainer being provided by Quantitativeeasing who is likely to be aimed at the Friends First Cross-Country Steeplechase once again on Thursday.

Without doubt the most coveted race of the Festival is the Punchestown Gold Cup. Sponsored for the first time this year by Coral Bookmakers, it dates back to the 1950s and early winners include the great Arkle in 1963.

More recently we have seen such top chasers as Beef or Salmon, War of Attrition and 2016 victor Carlingford Lough.

It is one race that still eludes Kildare trainer Jessica Harrington who this year will be bidding for local success with her recent Cheltenham hero Sizing John now hot favourite for the €250,000 contest tomorrow afternoon.

Racing gets underway each afternoon at 3.40pm, with Saturday's card kicking off at an earlier time of 2.35pm.

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