More than a horse race, the Galway Races is one of Ireland’s major summer social events. The festival spans seven days and includes musical performances, best-dressed awards and great street food in addition to serious jockeying around the track.
Want to see it for yourself? Here is everything you need to know about how to go to the Galway Races:
History of the Galway Races
2018 marks the 149th Galway Races Summer Festival. The nearly 150-year history is impressive, but the earliest records suggest that horse races have actually been held in the area for much longer - dating back to the 1200s.
The Ballybrit racecourse, which still hosts the Galway Races, opened on August 17, 1869. 40,000 people came to opening day and turned parts of Galway City into a campground. The horse race became a three-day event in 1959 and slowly extended over the years until it transformed into a weeklong festival in 1999.
The Galway Races are such an important part of Irish culture that they were immortalized in the W.B. Yeats poem "At Galway Races," as well as in songs recorded by the Clancey Brothers and the Dubliners.
What to Expect at the Galway Races
Racegoers tend to dress well so skip the casual wardrobe and be sure to pack your hat. You will also want to look your best while trying to spot celebrities among the well-heeled crowd.
Even if the dress code feels a bit formal, the races are all about the craic (Irish for "fun"). The pints will certainly be flowing and you can also make a stop at the Champagne bar.
Betting is par for the course and you can pick up a race card before heading down to the parade ring to watch the horses prance in order to make your final selections. Here is a guide to Irish horse racing to get you started.
The races are the main attraction, but there are several events each day which range from concerts to audience contests with cash prizes.
Galway Races Schedule & tickets
The seven days of Galway Races kick off on the week leading up to August bank holiday (long weekend) every year. For 2018, the Galway Race schedule is:
Monday, July 30 is opening day with the first of seven races starting at 5:20 p.m. Gates open at 2:30 p.m. and it is worth going early because there will be live music and DJs.
Tuesday, July 31 sees the races start at 5:20 p.m., with the last of the seven races taking off from the gates at 8:40 p.m. Other events include a celebrity derby for charity but the main event is the Colm Quinn BMW Mile Handicap—a race with a 120,000 euro grand prize.
Wednesday, August 1 the grounds open at 2:30 p.m., with the first race at 5:10 p.m. The main race today is the Galway Plate—the same course that has been raced for 149 years, and which includes 14 jumps spread out over two miles.
Thursday, August 2nd is an incredibly popular day to attend the Galway Races because it is Ladies Day. Gates open at 11 am and the non-race activities centering around Best Dressed Lady (with a 10,000 euro prize) and Best Hat (2,000 euro prize). All of the eight races are sponsored by Guinness, with the main event boasting a 300,000 euro prize.
Friday, August 3 is a popular day thanks to the long holiday weekend. In addition to races (which start at 5:10 p.m.), there is also another fashion contest known as Friday’s Fair Lady Competition, which has a 2,000 euro prize.
Saturday, August 4 is known as Super Saturday, with the first of the eight races starting at 2 pm, and wrapping up at 5 p.m. The fairgrounds open at 11:30 a.m. and the focus of the day is on family fun—with special games and bounce castles appearing for kids.
Sunday, August 5 is the Mad Hatter day with adult and child contests for the most creative hat. The gates open at 11:30 a.m. on the final day of the races, with horses taking off for the first race 2:15 p.m.
Tickets can be purchased in advance on the website for 25–30 euros depending on the day. Group booking packages for 10 or more people include discounted prices, as well as food and drink vouchers. Children under 12 are free and there are discounts for senior citizens and students, but these tickets must be purchased in person with a valid ID.
When booking tickets online, it is also possible to pay more to reserve a seat on the top floor of the main Millennium Grandstand. It is well worth the small additional cost if you want to be sure of a space to watch the actual races from.
Where to stay
The Galway Races draw nearly 150,000 spectators, which is no small feat for a city that is normally home to a population of barely half that. What that means is that accommodation in Galway is at a serious premium when the races are in town. Plan to book your hotel as far in advance as possible, or look into B&Bs (which are relatively common in Ireland in general).
The horse races themselves take place outside of town, but it is never a bad idea to stay in the center of Galway City because specially hired buses leave from Eyre Square to cart racegoers to the track for 9 euros roundtrip. The lively buses are usually more fun than driving on your own, especially because the race crowds leads to serious congestion and traffic.
What else to do nearby
The racecourse at Ballybrit is a short trip from Galway City. The dynamic college town is known for its beautiful setting on Galway Bay as well as for its live music. After exploring the pubs in the center and shopping for used books at beloved Kenny’s, take a walk out to Salthill.