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Horse racing in Belfast dates all the way back to 1685 as the sport has always been popular in the capital of Northern Ireland. Today, there are two racecourses in an around the city: Down Royal and Downpatrick. A day at the races is seen as the perfect social occasion by many in Belfast. They are able to have a drink with friends, enjoy some food in the restaurants at the course and cheer on the horse they have backed in each race.
Here is a look at why the two courses in Belfast continue to attract huge crowds and what races standout on their schedules each season.
Down Royal won the racecourse of the year at the Horse Racing Ireland Awards in 2017 in recognition of what a fantastic job the dual course does in putting on top class flat and national hunt racing for fans of the sport in Belfast and beyond.
In the summer, the Ulster Derby is the biggest meeting on the calendar at Down Royal as a big crowd flock to the racecourse to see the most valuable flat race held in Northern Ireland. Horse racing is the preferred betting activity in Belfast and one of the reasons for that is the love of the sport by those living in the city, especially on days like the Ulster Derby. The capital city is one of the towns with the highest online gambling activity per inhabitant, therefore, those who live there also enjoy having a punt, whether that is on their tablet, laptop or at a racecourse.
Legendary trainer Vincent O’Brien currently holds the record for the most wins in the Ulster Derby with seven to his name between 1969 and 1987. In 1975, Caucasus won this one mile, four-furlong contest for O’Brien before going on to prevail in the Irish St Leger later that year. One of the other famous winners of the Ulster Derby is Media Puzzle as Dermot Weld’s colt scored in it in 2000 as a three-year-old and then, two years later, came out on top in the Melbourne Cup, the race which stops a nation in Australia.
Today, the likes of Aidan O’Brien, Jim Bolger and Willie Mullins support the flat race in June with their leading three-year-olds. The most recent winner was Clongowes in 2017 as he prevailed for former multiple Classic-winning trainer Bolger and jockey Ronan Whelan.
During the winter months, horse racing fans in Belfast enjoy national hunt racing at Down Royal. The leading race over jumps is the JNwine.com Champion Chase in November. This is a Grade One contest over three miles and features not only the best chasers in this division in Ireland but often some of the leading horses from the UK travel across to take part. The winner tends to then take part in the Cheltenham Gold Cup, the Blue Riband event of the Cheltenham Festival, therefore, this is a great race to watch for clues for the most prestigious contest in the sport. In 2015 Don Cossack was successful in the JNwine.com Chase before completing the double at Cheltenham, while the great Kauto Star also won both races in 2007 and 2008 respectively.
The WKD Hurdle is also a race that the leading Irish trainers support with their best horses. This contest was established in 2001 and, since then, the likes of Monksland, Jezki and Identity Thief have all been successful. Mullins won the race for the first time in his career this season with Melon, who is on course to win the Champion Hurdle at the Cheltenham Festival later in the campaign.
Downpatrick is a racecourse just outside of Belfast that holds national hunt racing throughout the year. The right-handed oval track holds around 10 meetings, all of which attract strong crowds who enjoy the unique undulating course.
The feature race at Downpatrick is the Ulster National Handicap Chase, also known as the Ulster Grand National and run over three miles and four furlongs, therefore, it is a stamina-testing contest. Like with all the nationals across Ireland and the UK, they always attract big crowds as punters love betting on these races, which often throw up some big price winners and surprises.
In 2013 Pineau De Re was successful in the Ulster Grand National and then went on to score in the world’s most famous steeplechase, the Grand National at Aintree just a year later at odds of 33/1. Philip Fenton’s runner won by 23 lengths at Downpatrick as he blew away his rivals with Danny Mullins on board.
News Item made history in 2007 by becoming the first horse to win the race in successive years as he showed his liking for racing in Belfast once again – all three of his career victories have come in the city. His second Ulster Grand National success was very popular with the racegoers as he was well backed in the betting, resulting in him going off as the 4/1 favourite. Those who put their money behind the defending champion were never worried as he won by 22 lengths in an impressive display.
With two racecourses continuing to put on top class racing, the sport keeps going in the right direction in Belfast to the delight of the supporters who will continue to fill the stands at Down Royal and Downpatrick.