Racing hoping crowds come back for ‘old normal’ fun on St Stephen’s Day

Over 57,000 attended the 2019 Leopardstown Christmas festival; the same again would be welcome now that restrictions have been lifted

For the first time in three years, an ‘old normal’ Christmas tradition resumes on St Stephen’s Day with the start of the bumper holiday racing programme.

Unrestricted crowds are allowed back to the trio of fixtures at Leopardstown, Limerick and Down Royal for the first time since 2019.

The Covid-19 pandemic forced festive racing behind closed doors in the interim, but the sport is preparing to welcome back holiday revellers on the busiest single day of the racing year in Ireland.

Both Leopardstown and Limerick will race for four days each and officials are keeping fingers crossed the public returns to their pre-pandemic habit of a festive day out at the races.


The official attendance of the 2019 Leopardstown festival was put at just over 57,000, but it’s difficult to predict if similar figures can be reached three years later.

“I live in an optimistic world and I’m hoping we will reach the 2019 figures,” Leopardstown’s chief executive Tim Husbands said.

“Some of it depends on whether they are still of a mind to book in advance or if they come on the day to the gate. Tickets are still available both ways.

“If hospitality is anything to go by there’s huge anticipation. All hospitality is gone on the 27th and 28th and it’s very strong on the other days too. It’s a good indicator, I think,” he said.

Those going back to Leopardstown for the first time since 2019 will see the impact of the €20 million investment in facilities that has been made in the meantime.

“They’ll still be able to find the comfortable places, the little niches they have for family and friends, but there will be new things to explore too,” Husbands said.

Perhaps racing’s most familiar face, Rachael Blackmore, won’t be in action at Leopardstown on Monday. She is instead going to Kempton to ride Envoi Allen in the Ladbrokes King George VI Chase.

The sole Irish raider is a general 5-1 shot in betting lists leading up to the cross-channel feature due off at 2.30.

Another familiar face, Davy Russell, will be looking from the sidelines after retiring recently, but otherwise much of the domestic action looks like basking in the atmosphere that made it such a popular event before the pandemic.

Once again Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott look like being the trainers to follow.

Both are represented at all three cards on St Stephen’s Day and bookmakers reckon Elliott could hold the edge in both €100,000 Grade One feature races up for grabs.

The Co Meath trainer runs Fil Dor and Hollow Games in Leopardstown’s Racing Post App Novice Chase.

He also has the forecast favourite Gerri Colombe in the Guinness Faugheen Chase at Limerick. Mullins runs three against him in that race, including the likely main danger, Kilcruit.

Elliott’s top rider, Jack Kennedy, has opted to go to Leopardstown where he will team up with Fil Dor.

Over €1.4 million in prize money is up for grabs at Leopardstown alone over the coming four days. A total of seven Grade One races, including Wednesday’s €175,000 Savills Chase, will take place there.

There are eight cross-channel programmes in total on Monday, although the focus is primarily on Kempton.

As well as the King George, Constitution Hill could start the shortest favourite of the holiday period in the Christmas Hurdle.

The unbeaten star is set to face just four opponents that include his stable companion Epatante. She has won the race twice in the last three years.

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor

Brian O'Connor is the racing correspondent of The Irish Times. He also writes the Tipping Point column