Leopardstown Dublin Racing Festival

Irish Fabric Flag Against a Blue SkyThe Dublin Racing Festival is a two-day National Hunt meeting held each year in early February at Leopardstown Racecourse. Leopardstown itself is situated in the Foxrock area of the Irish capital, around six miles south-east of the city centre.

Created only in 2018, the Dublin Festival brought together a number of established races which were held across multiple meetings in the new year. Racing punters will be keeping a keen eye on which horses are in prime form across the Irish Sea ahead of the Cheltenham Festival.

The meeting takes place over the first weekend in February and although there is only two days of racing, both are crammed with quality chases, hurdles and Irish National Hunt flat races. Of the 15 contests, eight are Grade 1s, two are Grade 2s, one is a Grade A and four are Grade Bs.

Here we will preview each or the races when the runners have been finalised as well as detailing the history of the major races and the meeting.

A Complete History of the Leopardstown Dublin Racing Festival

Dublin Ha'penny Bridge

Leopardstown is very proud of its newly created Dublin Racing Festival. Established in February 2018, the two-day event attracted an impressive 26,136 spectators during its first attempt. The excellent attendance figures were no surprise with punters treated to seven Grade 1 events across the inaugural meeting.

While the festival itself may be new compared to more established festivals, many of the races that form it have long welcomed some of the best jumping talents across Britain and Ireland. Most of them originally took place during three standalone meetings at Leopardstown held between late January and mid-February. The creation of the Dublin Festival saw the best of these three racedays merge to create a new meeting of supreme quality.

The Dublin Festival is not just a delight from a racing perspective though. So far, there has been a real focus on trackside entertainment, showcasing the best of Dublin’s culture, music and food. Truly a complete package on and off the course, it is little wonder why this two-day festival is so highly anticipated.

1950 – Irish Champion Hurdle founded

The Irish Champion Hurdle stands as one of the leading races of the entire Dublin Festival. It is also the oldest race of the meet too, having been established soon after the end of World War II. None other than Vincent O’Brien won the first renewal, doing so thanks to a horse by the name of Hatton’s Grace.

The contest has featured at Leopardstown every year since bar three exceptions. In 1955 and 1970 the race was called off and in 1995 it temporarily moved to Fairyhouse.

1956 – Arkle Novice Chase

Although this race began a year before Arkle was even foaled, it has long been known as the Arkle Novice Chase, or more casually, the Irish Arkle. Organisers have tweaked with the distance of the race over the years. Starting at two miles, it moved up two furlongs in 1980 and another furlong in 1992. Three year after this, the trip was reduced to its current length of two miles and one furlong.

1969 – Origins of the Ladbrokes Hurdle

Today’s Ladbrokes Hurdle has roots dating back to 1969 and the creation of the Irish Sweeps Hurdle. This initial race was part of the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake, which aimed to raise funds for Ireland’s health service. After just two years, the race moved from Fairyhouse to Leopardstown. Fast forward to 1987 and the event began a new phase when it lost its sweepstake connection and turned into the Ladbroke Hurdle.

1987 –Irish Gold Cup & Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle established

One of the stars of the Dublin Festival, the Irish Gold Cup, made its first appearance in 1987. Originally named the Vincent O’Brien Irish Gold Cup, for most of its history (1991-2015) it has been known as the Hennessey Gold Cup. During this time, as a longstanding race existed in Britain with the same title, some referred to this contest as the Irish Hennessey to avoid confusion.

The same year Leopardstown also said hello to a new novice hurdles event. Initially known as the Paddy Power Hurdle, it has also been sponsored by Le Coq Hardi and Deloitte. Irish company Chanelle Pharma took over the reins in 2019, a year after the race was cut shorter in length by two furlongs.

1989 – Dr P.J. Moriarty Novice Chase begins

Leopardstown rolled out a new event named ‘Le Coq Hardi Novices Chase’ in 1989. Nine years later the official title of the race changed to the Dr P.J. Moriarty Memorial Novice Chase to honour the life of Paddy Moriarty. The former chief executive of the ESB (Electricity Supply Board), who died months earlier, was also on the board of Leopardstown Racecourse. For most of you, you will know this race by its sponsored title, the Flogas Chase, which has existed since 2015.

1994 – Spring Juvenile Hurdle debuts

In 1994, the Spring Juvenile Hurdle replaced the Le Coq Hardi Hurdle, which was another two-mile contest. It initially began with Listed status but has enjoyed three successive promotions since, moving to Grade 3 in 1995, Grade 2 in 2003 and Grade 1 in 2010.

1994 – Jodami in Gold Cup hat-trick

The Irish Gold Cup quickly established a reputation for having a number of runners who won the event more than once. Within the first decade of its creation, Carvill’s Hill and Nick the Brief had both won the contest twice and Jodami bagged himself three wins in a row. Not only did Jodami become the first to do so in 1994, but a year earlier he become the first to win the Irish Gold Cup and the Cheltenham Gold Cup in the same season. This latter achievement was later managed by Imperial Call (1996) and Sizing John (2017).

1998 – Florida Pearl scoops elite double

With the Flogas Novice Chase just three furlongs shorter than the RSA Chase, it can act as useful preparation for the Cheltenham contest. Florida Pearl became the first horse to win both events in 1998. It is a double that has been attempted several times since but only Cooldine (2009) and Boston Angel (2011) have successfully pulled it off, as of 2020.

1999 – Golden Cygnet Novice Hurdle introduced

Months before the new millennium, Leopardstown added new race to their January schedule, the Waterford Crystal Novice Hurdle. Four years later the race name was changed to commemorate Golden Cygnet, a horse who tragically died due to an injury sustained in the 1978 Scottish Champion Hurdle. Although his hurdling career lasted less than five months, at the time Vincent O’Brien declared that he was the best hurdler he had ever seen.

From 2016, the contest has been run as the Nathaniel Lacy and Partners Solicitors Novice Hurdle.

2001 – Istabraq’s legendary status grows

Istabraq will long be remembered as one of the most talented hurdlers of a generation. Sold off as a youngster, his career was revived by John Durkan and later Aidan O’Brien following Durkan’s death. In 1998, 1999 and 2000 he managed to win the Irish Champion Hurdle, become the first horse ever to win it three times. Each time he did so, he also won Cheltenham’s Champion Hurdle weeks later.

Not content with just breaking the record, O’Brien wanted an unprecedented fourth victory in the Grade 1 hurdle event. He got exactly that in 2001 with Istabraq making light work of what was a fairly weak field, guided by usual jockey Charlie Swan. This ended up being Istabraq’s final Grade 1 victory before his retirement in April 2002.

2001 – Ladbroke Hurdle splits

The race known as the Ladbroke Hurdle was effectively cloned into two identical contests. One ‘clone’ moved to Ascot and is known as the Betfair Exchange Trophy Handicap Hurdle, held in December. The other remained at Leopardstown but adopted a name new, the Pierse Hurdle. Due to their similarity, both these contests can be seen as a continuation of the original Ladbroke Hurdle.

The contest that remained at Leopardstown has run as the Boylesports Hurdle and the Coral Hurdle since. It ended up coming full circle in 2019 though when the ‘Ladbrokes Hurdle’ name returned.

2004 – Florida Pearl enters Irish Gold Cup history

We have already mentioned Jodami’s hat-trick of victories in the Irish Gold Cup but Florida Pearl managed one better than this. Having won the Grade 1 event for a third time in 2001, aged nine years, a record-breaking fourth win seemed to be very much on the cards. Surprisingly though, he was badly beaten as a 6/4 favourite in 2002 and pulled up when the third favourite in 2003.

Undoubtedly on the decline by this point, retirement beckoned for Florida Pearl. On his final start however, in February 2004, the Irish-bred horse rolled back the years to win a fourth Irish Gold Cup title. By ending a near two-year winless run, he became the all-time leading horse in the race.

2015 – No taming Hurricane Fly

As one of the all-time great hurdlers, Hurricane Fly was no stranger to success. He won 24 races over the obstacles across just 32 attempts, resulting in truly phenomenal strike rate. The biggest individual portion of his success came in Leopardstown’s Irish Champion Hurdle, a race he won more than any other.

The small bay horse first clinched champion status in 2011 and he successfully defended his title on four consecutive occasions. On the last attempt, in 2015, Hurricane Fly set off at odds of 11/10, the longest he had ever been for this race. Although Jezki was expected to run him very close, the Willie Mullins runner made fairly light work of things, winning by more than three lengths. A fifth victory, unsurprisingly, meant Hurricane Fly became the Irish Champion Hurdle’s most successful horse, a record likely to survive for some time.

2017 – Mullins makes his mark

Patrick Mullins, son of legendary trainer Willie, had long established himself as a top amateur jockey by 2017 but he was still missing a win from a Grade 1 hurdle. This wait came to an end on 12th February 2017 as Mullins rode Bacardys to glory in the Deloitte Novice Hurdle. Not only a significant personal feat, but he also became the first amateur jockey to win the elite novice hurdle contest.

Willie also set a new record for himself this year, by winning a sixth consecutive Golden Cygnet Novice Hurdle title. Previously no other trainer has even managed more than back-to-back wins so this was some unprecedented dominance.

2018 – Dublin Chase created

Most of the major races that became part of the Dublin Festival had existed for at least a couple decades prior. Something of an exception to the rule was the Grade 2 Dublin Chase, which officially speaking was a new event. In reality, it was a rebranded version of Punchestown’s Tier Cottage Chase, won by the likes of Moscow Flyer and Sizing Europe. That two-mile contest enjoyed its final appearance in 2017 with the Dublin Chase its direct replacement.

Seven horses lined up for the first edition of the Dublin Chase with Willie Mullin’s Min proving victorious on the day. It was the same story in 2019 with the French horse again an assertive winner. There was even an ambitious hat-trick attempt 12 months later but stablemate Chacun Pour Soi denied Min what might have been a long stay in the record books.

2018 – Killiney Novice Chase makes way

One race that had every chance of being part of the Dublin Festival was the Killiney Novice Chase. Originally scheduled for late January at Leopardstown, it had held Grade 2 status before a downgrade to Grade 3 in 2017. Organisers however decided there was no space for the contest at the Dublin Festival so it was instead rehoused at Punchestown.

2018 – Changes made to the Golden Cygnet Novice Hurdle

In preparation for the new Dublin Racing Festival, the Golden Cygnet Novice Hurdle was bumped up in both class and distance. Previously a Grade 2 race stretching two miles and four furlongs, for the 2018 renewal it became a Grade 1 event, two miles and six furlongs in length. The stiffer competition did not faze unfancied outsider Tower Bridge who narrowly secured a 25/1 victory.

2019 – Attendance drop no cause for concern

Attendance figures for the second ever Dublin Festival revealed a drop close to 2000 across the two days. HRI’s chief executive Brian Kavanagh, remained completely unconcerned though, confidently stating the Dublin Festival was here to stay. He also praised the “terrific atmosphere” across both days at the racecourse. Leopardstown chief Pat Keogh added that overnight frost and the hangover from Ireland’s Six Nation match were largely to blame for the reduction in numbers.

2019 – Festival gets another top-rated event

The Dublin Festival began with seven Grade One races but just one year later and they had another. Responsible for putting their total up to a remarkable eight top-class events was the Dublin Chase, reclassified after only its inaugural running. At the same time, the event also received a prize money boost of €25,000, resulting in a highly lucrative €125,000 purse.

2020 – Faugheen secures ‘special’ victory

The Leopardstown crowd enjoyed a real treat during the 2020 Flogas Chase as fan-favourite Faugheen edged out stablemate Easy Game in a gripping encounter. After the race, Willie Mullins, who has witnessed some truly memorable races, called this victory a “special” one. He added that for a 12 year old horse to battle as he did, is a fantastic feat.

Mullins’ praise of an aging Faugheen was not misplaced either; 12 year old winners of Grade One contests are rare, Sizing Europe (2014) and Florida Pearl (2004) being the only two recent examples. To manage it in a novice event made the achievement all the more incredible. The win also handed Mullins a record-breaking eighth win in the Flogas Chase, his seventh since 2008.

2020 – Friday start idea shelved

The Dublin Festival secured a record-breaking crowd of 26,374 as it bounced back from the very slight disappointment of 2019. Despite the incredibly healthy numbers, Leopardstown’s new chief executive suggested that the meeting may begin on a Friday, rather than Saturday, in future. The proposal was not well received among some; Ted Walsh for one described it as “hare-brained” due to Dublin’s traffic congestion on Fridays. Lacking a strongly positive response, any rescheduling plans were put on hold.