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
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.