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  • Writer's picturePeter McNeile

Killarney: Europe's most westerly racecourse - and its most scenic

The readership of the EMHF web site is well acquainted with the major racing festivals around Europe, which is why this fourth racecourse profile for the month of July steers as far west as is feasible within Europe, rather than the more predictable venues like Newmarket's July meeting, the Eclipse at Sandown, or the Prix de Diane at Chantilly.

For the more adventurous, the only place to head in mid July is west to County Kerry in Ireland, and to undoubtedly Ireland's most picturesque venue, Killarney Racecourse, home of the eponymous 4 day festival from 12-16th.

Arriving in Killarney in springtime is to see the place at its very best. Travelling down through a mountainside bathed in pink rhododendrons, you enter a town which feels in part like Mittel Europa, and certainly in a welcome time warp. Horse-drawn taxis carry tourists around like somewhere in Montenegro, and the scenery across Loch Leane to the national park are breath-taking.

This is a city where you can relax, enjoy the legendary Irish hospitality and soak up the atmosphere of a happy holiday town.

How Killarney Races came into being

Killarney sits at the foot of the McGillycuddy Reeks, a range of high peaks that separate the Ring of Kerry from the Dingle peninsula to the north and the Beara peninsula and Bantry Bay to the south. Kerry is a tourist hotspot for Ireland, and Killarney its beehive. Still maintaining strong agricultural traditions, Kerrymen are known the world over.

Killarney - a backdrop to beat every other
Killarney - a backdrop to beat every other

Post-Depression Ireland needed the men of Kerry to be at their most creative when a group of businessmen sat down on Wednesday November 14 1934 to consider "the possibility of promoting a race meeting", with a view to bringing some revenue into the town from outsiders. Local land owner Lord Kenmare was brought into the fold, and the committee set about raising the Turf Club stake money to underwrite a fixture.

The grand sum of £600 was raised; £20 from each of 30 founders of the event, who would also each need to find another willing to match their investment. The first fixture was set for July 1936.

The first ever winner at Killarney was a horse called Ontario in a 1 1/2 m handicap hurdle, ridden by Willie O'Grady, father to the present luminary Edward O'Grady, who trains at Killeens, but the second race spawned one of Ireland's heroes. The winner, Alcroft, trained by J T Rogers, beat Percy Harris' Hatton, who achieved some measure of immortality when mated with His Grace to produce Hatton's Grace, three time winner of the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham (1949-51).

Even in these formative years of the Killarney Festival, with just a couple of days racing each year, cards were mixed with flat and jump alongside each other. But from the off, Ireland's great racing families took the track to their heart. Aubrey and Cecil Brabazon, the Moores, Myerscoughs, Timmy Hyde and Dorothy Paget were all prominent supporters.

Although austerity reigned in an Ireland where trade with Britain was badly affected by the Second World War, racing continued through the forties, and the stand was doubled in size in time for 1945. The July festival was extended from two to three days in 1947, and 18 years later, a further 2 day fixture was added, cementing a 5 day programme that remained unchanged until 1986.

Nowadays, the five days of the Festival are joined with another 8 days' racing in 3 other multi-day fixtures, building on Killarney's role as a holiday destination for trips around Kerry.

No sort of a racing county

There are parts of Ireland where you could be forgiven for thinking there are more horses than humans, Kildare springing instantly to mind. Yet Kerry is not one of these. It's a job to think of any breeding or training establishment within the county, never mind anything of note.

This makes Killarney's success all the more remarkable, alongside a further 2 other courses within the county boundary. Tralee and Listowel to the north, make this a county quite unlike any other.

People to follow

On the flat, Dermot Weld has a most remarkable record here with a strike rate of 38% over the past 5 years, which provides him, rarely, a level-stakes profit of over £39! John Joseph Murphy and Aidan O'Brien feature highly too.

Over jumps, the ubiquitous Willie Mullins is here usurped by John Joseph O'Brien with an admirable strike rate of 22%. Among other leading trainers, there are no surprises, with Henry de Bromhead, Gordon Elliott and Enda Bolger featuring prominently.

The quantity of runners sent by the country's top yards spells a confidence in ground conditions and a liking for the 1m2f circuit, as well as the delights of scenic Killarney.

Runners from further afield seem rather improbable, nor are they needed to add to an ambiance already overflowing with energy and excitement.

What's to see around Killarney

If the racecourse itself has a relatively recent history, the reverse is the case with some of the local sights.

Killarney, or Ross Castle, sits on the edge of Killarney’s lower lake and was built by O’Donoghue Mór in the 15th century. The Castle came into the hands of the Brownes who became the Earls of Kenmare and owned an extensive portion of the lands that are now part of Killarney National Park. Irish legend, fueled by copious Guinness no doubt, has it that O’Donoghue still exists in a deep slumber under the waters of Lough Leane. On the first morning of May every seven years he rises from the lake on his magnificent white horse and circles the lake. Anyone catching a glimpse of him is said to be assured of good fortune for the rest of their lives. The large rock at the entrance to the bay is known as O’Donoghue’s prison. Ross Castle was the last stronghold in Munster to hold out against Cromwell. It was eventually taken by General Ludlow in 1652.

Ross Castle, a medieval fortress and local visitor attraction
Ross Castle, a medieval fortress and local visitor attraction

Ross Castle is open to the public during the summer months.

C19th Muckross House lies 4m out of Killarney on the edge of two lakes. Completed in 1843 to allow Queen Victoria to visit, it was owned by the Herbert family but is now a full-blown visitor experience with C19th crafts and artisan skills, as well as ornate gardens.

Famous winners

Killarney won't be found in racing annals for spawning legions of Epsom, Curragh or Cheltenham winners, but that's not to say you won't find celebrity in one form or another here.

Killarney visitors need little encouragement to dress up
Killarney visitors need little encouragement to dress up

Since racing continues to be behind closed doors in Ireland for the time being, there haven't been any spectators since 2019, but celeb watchers would have espied Love Island winner Greg O'Shea in the crowd in August as he helped judge the archly competitive Ladies Day competition. And if there's one genre of racing where Killarney leads the field, not just across Ireland, but Europe at large, it's among the summer frocks and hats of two Ladies Days.

This is truly a Group I winner.


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