Bumper crowds expected at Irish tracks for quality Christmas race cards

Leopardstown, Limerick and Down Royal get ready for racing’s busiest day

 Record crowds are expected at Leopardstown for the four-day Christmas Festival. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

Record crowds are expected at Leopardstown for the four-day Christmas Festival. Photograph: Cathal Noonan/INPHO

 

More than 32,000

people are expected to attend Irish racing’s busiest day of the year on St Stephen’s Day, which will nevertheless represent a comparative calm in quality terms before a storm of holiday sporting action later in the week.

Up to 14,000 are expected to continue the Dublin tradition of attending Leopardstown’s St Stephens Day action, many of them once-a-year racegoers at the Foxrock track.

With up to 12,000 forecast to head for Limerick, and almost 6,500 expected at Down Royal, the sole-triple day’s racing schedule on Ireland’s racing calendar is an administrative and professional stretch for industry professionals at a time when most of the rest of the country is kicking-back.

Friday’s €85,000 Racing Post Novice Chase, and the eagerly anticipated appearance of the star novice Vautour, is the domestic highlight, but there will also be major Irish interest at Kempton where the Willie Mullins-Ruby Walsh team will be represented by Champagne Fever in the King George VI Chase and an unbeaten star, Faugheen, in the Christmas Hurdle.

Plenty to prove

Walsh holds a record five King George wins on the legendary Kauto Star, while Mullins won with Florida Pearl in 2001. Champagne Fever has plenty to prove however, not least in stamina terms as this will be a first start at three miles.

“I’m not going there with as much confidence as when we took Florida Pearl as he’d done more as a novice,” Mullins admitted.

“But if we’re lucky enough to win, he could be favourite for the Gold Cup. If not, we’ll have to readjust and approach the Gold Cup from a different angle.”

The hugely exciting Faugheen is already favourite for the Champion Hurdle in March and is long odds-on to land the Grade 1 Christmas Hurdle against just five opponents.

“It’s extraordinary the progress he [Faugheen] has made,” the champion trainer said. “I wouldn’t have dreamed of Champion Hurdles when we bought him.”

However, the big-race momentum switches across the Irish Sea with a vengeance for the three days after St Stephen’s Day with Leopardstown hosting a pair of Grade 1 races each day.

They include Sunday’s €150,000 Lexus Chase where the last two Cheltenham Gold Cup winners, Lord Windermere and Bobs Worth, are due to meet, and Monday’s €100,000 Ryanair Hurdle with its eagerly-anticipated clash between the legendary Hurricane Fly and Jezki.

Quality entry

The depth of quality among the entries has Leopardstown’s authorities keeping their fingers crossed they can break the 60,000 attendance barrier for the four days.

“Anything north of 57,000 and we’ll be satisfied, but there is such quality racing we’re not ruling out breaking 60,000 which would be an incredible marker,” said chief executive Pat Keogh.

“St Stephen’s Day is the Dubliner’s day out. People don’t want to travel far on Stephen’s Day. And we have some very good races here on Friday. Everyone’s looking forward to Vautour. But there are some wonderful big races on the other days. Tony McCoy will be here for the final three days which is a good indication and he’s always a big attraction,” Keogh added.

With no weather issues forecast to complicate the Christmas programme, Limerick’s increasing profile will get another boost this week as the feature race on each of their four days will be shown live on RTÉ television.

“We’re expecting 40,000 over the four days: 12,000 on Stephens Day, 10,000 on the following two days and 8,000 on the last. That’s usually the way it pans out,” said general manager Conor O’Neill.

Ground conditions at Down Royal for Friday’s card are currently “soft” and the track manager Mike Todd is anticipating a Christmas attendance of between 6,000 and 6,500 people.

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