Punchestown Racecourse dubbed it the ‘Great Comeback’ as the national hunt racecourse opened the turnstiles and diehard rage-goers flocked to Ireland’s leading jump festival.
There was no shortage of Dubs to be found among the punters during race-week, as spotted by this Gazette journalist and staff photographer Aishling Conway.
An incredible 40,984 filled the racecourse on Friday last (April 29) for the Bollinger Best Dressed Final – up 8,457 on Friday of 2019. Crowds were down on Tuesday, the opening day of Festival 2022, and badly down on closing day, Saturday 30, owing to the atrocious weather.
The cumulative overall figure was just under 116,000 – as opposed to 126,840 in 2018, not bad with Covid still casting a threatening shadow for many.
Shona Dreaper, PR & Communications Manager at Punchestowns stated:
“We were delighted with the great comeback. The weather held up great all week, up to Saturday morning, which would be our most weather sensitive day, it’s family day for kiddies….
“Our strategy to reduce free ticket circulation paid off; crowd sizes stabilised and those who were there had a really comfortable experience.
“Friday was a very special day. Record crowds, great weather, Honeysuckle and Rachael – but the real hero of the day was the crowd. Huge and diverse as the crowd was, as busy as the bars and food outlets were, there wasn’t one minute of trouble.
“A pleasure to host such a crowd. We are very proud of the people who make Punchestown” added Shona.
The real pundits go for the racing, and they avidly watch the Gordon Elliot vs Willie Mullins competition unfold, the leading jockeys, the big losers, the winners. For this journalist, it’s as much about the social aspect, as it is the racing.
Spritely Patsy Conway from Churchtown aged 84 is going to the racecourse since she was a tot.
“I grew up only a few miles from the racecourse,” she told me on opening day of the races. “I went from the time I was three or four years old – the whole family went as there was no one else to mind the younger ones”, she said, “Despite the family moving to Churchtown well over 60 years ago, I’ve only missed racing here in the last 80 years when the venue was closed owing to Covid, etc.”
Photographed with her daughter Linda O’Leary at Punchestown, Patsy says the atmosphere is unique at Punchestown. The Conway siblings all used to meet up during the festival but sadly, her brothers Paddy and Monsignor Seamus died in recent years so the joyful return carried its own melancholy.
Phoenix Park was nostalgically referred to by many racing Dubs last week.
For Declan Murray, a native of Crumlin who now resident in Baltinglass, Co Carlow, that was the venue his late father took the family to.
“Without cars, Leopardstown and Fairyhouse were too far to drag us all, but I remember the excitement of going to racing at the Park. I’ve been coming here for well over 25 years since my family moved down the country.”
For Liz Noone from Drimnagh, Phoenix Park also holds fond childhood memories. But last week, she visited the Kildare jump venue for the first time ever!
“I can’t believe I’ve never been here before,” she said. “And I’m overwhelmed with the atmosphere, the buzz but also the great facilities. We could move everywhere with ease, from the parade ring, to the stands, up and down reviewing the bookie prices. Lot of catering accommodation, inside and out and we even went across the track to view the jumps up close!
“It was such a comfortable but exciting day – plus I pulled a few winners, so I will definitely be back.”
Brian Murphy from Newcastle is a regular at the racecourse, not surprising given his late father Tom was once a leading member of the Kildare Hunt. Brian still keeps a horse at home in Newcastle to ride out, it’s in the genes.
Lovely to meet Joyce Hill too, a regular racegoer at Punchestown and indeed, the Curragh for flat racing. A former marketing executive, I used to speak to her weekly during my years working in commercial press.
“Oh Rose, I’ve just bought a house in Ballyfermot and it’s all go now…… “
That’s the glory and intimacy of race-going, you may not have seen people since the last race meeting but it’s straight into banter and catch-up.
Mind you, there were no Dublin winners featured in the Bollinger Best Dressed Fashion Stakes, that in itself is unusual.
The Great Comeback at Punchestown in 2022 was a resounding success. Whether it was Gordon Elliot’s return to the winning enclosure, or Rachael romping home on Honeysuckle in the Paddy Power Champion Hurdle, or the last ride of retiring jockey Robbie Power, celebrity spotting or the style – national hunt festival at Punchestown will remain a firm favourite with the Dublin punters.
Sure, you don’t even move outside the Pale!