Horsing Around in County Kildare

A Personal Travel Diary

Darling, it’ll be such fun,” I said. “Pubs with dogs by the fire and rivers of Smithwick’s ale and coddle for dinner! It won’t be all horses all the time.” When I made this pronouncement, I spoke from the heart. I had never been to County Kildare, Ireland.

Racers on the Punchestown Racecourse.

The instant I planted a dainty hoof on the Irish turf, I was revealed as the blackest of liars. Ireland is the world’s fourth-largest producer of Thoroughbreds, and most of these magnificent horses are bred in County Kildare, home to more than 100 stud farms and 3 race tracks, a multitude of training facilities, tack shops, and all the other enterprises ancillary to the Thoroughbred business. It may well be the horsiest place on earth— and I say that having spent time in Lexington, Kentucky.

On our first night we were to stay at the Killashee Hotel, near Naas. Installed in the right-hand-drive rental car, we set off down the M7 motorway. “Would you mind terribly if we made a quick stop in Curragh?” I asked. “There’s a shop; it’ll just take a minute.” My friend sighed faintly.

The TRI Equestrian Superstore in Curragh is Ireland’s largest equestrian emporium.

Located just outside the famed Curragh racetrack, the TRI Equestrian Superstore is Ireland’s largest equestrian emporium, offering every conceivable article necessary for the horse, rider, or stable. Blessedly, TRI’s Curragh Cafe offers refreshments to appease non-riding companions, and this is a great kindness considering the hours a rider can spend in this garden of equine delights. I left with a spiffing new pair of Dubarry boots and a Horizon Card, which allows non-EU residents to record purchases for a value-added tax (VAT) refund upon departure from Ireland sans annoying paperwork.

The Thomas Turner-designed Victorian manor house at the Killashee Hotel.

We arrived at the Killashee Hotel just as the daylight was fading. The Thomas Turner-designed Victorian manor house bathed in a warm glow of subtle spotlighting as we rolled to a stop in the grand circular driveway. Once inside, we were shown down a long, picture-lined gallery to our suite, featuring a king-sized bed, period furniture, and a restful sage green-and-gold interior. Fortified with a fine steak and the promised Smithwick’s from the cozy bar, we set off for a look at the grounds. The formal gardens are breathtaking in the moonlight, but the intrepid soul who traverses a slightly intimidating wooded path will be rewarded with a magical sight. The Nun’s Graveyard sits next to a small orchard, its wizened trees gone feral. The atmospheric cemetery, the final resting place for 20 or so sisters, dates from the days when the house served as a convent school. Perhaps the most adorable feature of the hotel is The Snug, a traditional Irish pub that sits around the corner from the hotel entrance. Sadly, the pub was closed during our stay. All I can say is, if the inside resembles the outside even remotely, you’ll never want to leave.

The Snug Irish pub around the corner from the Killashee Hotel.

Exploring the Countryside

If there’s one thing you can say about the Irish, it’s that they’re just about the friendliest people you could ever hope to meet. Based on some pre trip research and the enormous generosity of everyone I contacted, I was armed with a long list of introductions and suggested attractions. As an equestrian occasionally requires more than stained breeches and a sweater sticky with horse drool, I was directed to Kildare Village. This designer shopping outlet boasts 90-plus boutiques, selling everything from designer clothing to luxury housewares, and offers plenty of dining options to fuel your shopping extravaganza.

Elizabeth Emanuel, designer of Princess Diana’s wedding dress, at the Newbridge Museum of Style Icons.

If you don’t blow your entire budget there, half an hour down the road you’ll find Newbridge Silverware, a massive emporium that offers everything from tea services and flatware to handmade silver jewelry. Once you’ve satisfied your inner magpie with something shiny and dined in the store’s café—which, much to my friend’s relief, serves beer—do visit the Newbridge Museum of Style Icons. Located above the store, the free museum exhibits costumes worn by such luminaries as Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor, the Beatles, and Marilyn Monroe. You’ll be sure to recognize many of the exhibits, for instance the hot pants and bowler ensemble worn by Liza Minelli in Cabaret. Diana, a Fashion Legacy runs through the end of 2017 and features dresses worn by the Princess of Wales.

Having resisted the siren call of fishermen’s sweaters and Claddagh rings, we made time for another sort of window-shopping. The name Goffs has been synonymous with Irish bloodstock for over 150 years; Thoroughbred auctions at this storied institution are free and open to the public. For the horse mad, there could be few spectacles more compelling, and an auction offers all the buzz and hobnobbing of a posh cocktail party.

It’s best to start outside, behind the main auction arena, and watch the cavalcade of beauties as they parade around a circular track for inspection by potential buyers. Inside the auction arena, the horses prance around a small ring, with bids appearing on a screen overhead. I was nearly unhinged with excitement and could have stayed until the last yearling was sold, but even the indulgence of my sainted friend has its limits. Fortunately, beer was effective in keeping non-equestrians content. Goff’s inviting bar is also famous for its succulent carvery sandwiches.

Goffs has auctioned Irish bloodstock since 1866.

One can get a lot done at Goffs, including more tack shopping at an outpost of Berney Brothers Saddlery. The Berney family has been in the saddle-making business since 1880 and boasts clients including Prince Charles and Sheikh Mohammed, as well as professional riders from all over Ireland and abroad. For a custom saddle, hunt fittings, or other equestrian needs, you’ll want to visit the main store in Kilcullen. If you ask very sweetly, the charming Tom Berney will give you a peek into the saddler’s workshop, where you can watch skilled craftsmen build each saddle entirely by hand.

Given that my friend was going to be spending the week scraping horse dung from his handmade Church’s boots, I thought it only fair to offer him the most luxurious accommodations Kildare has to offer. Thus, our next stop was one of the most elegant resort hotels in Ireland—the K Club in Straffan, a mere 30 minutes from Dublin. The original Straffan House, built by Hugh Barton in 1832, was modeled on the great chateau at Louveciennes, just west of Paris.

An exterior view of the K Club.

A number of tasteful additions have been made to the main house, and today the property has 140 guest rooms, 2 golf courses, a ballroom and conference facilities, and a 20,000-square foot spa. A major golfing destination, the resort has hosted many prestigious tournaments, including the Ryder Cup. Thankfully, golf is hardly the sole activity on the menu, and guests can enjoy the full range of country pursuits as well as wine cellar tours, art history lectures, and more. The hotel is well known for its important art collection, featuring artists such as renowned Irish expressionist Jack B. Yeats, the brother of Nobel Prize winning poet W.B.Yeats.

The Viceroy suite is one of K Club’s sumptuous accommodations.

The K Club offers many dining options, but the resplendent River Room is certainly not to be missed. Dress for dinner and enjoy a blend of French and Irish-inspired cuisine in a formal setting. Since I’m always looking for the equine connection, the cozy Vintage Crop cocktail bar was my favorite spot in the hotel. The bar is named for K Club owner Michael Smurfit’s famous steed, who won the Melbourne Cup in 1993 and was the first Irish horse to surpass the 1 million pounds mark in winnings. The forest-green walls are hung with racing memorabilia and equestrian paintings— and, of course, the Melbourne Cup itself occupies pride of place.

La Touche action at Punchestown.

Off to the Tracks

Once installed at the K Club, we let the fun begin in earnest, shuttling across Kildare, visiting stud farms, training facilities, and racetracks. Aside from horses, County Kildare offers a surfeit of the astonishing scenery one expects in Ireland—rolling green hills, sheep wandering onto winding one-lane roads and, since we visited in November, trees ablaze with glorious red and gold.

Horses have been racing on the flat, grassy Curragh plains since Roman times, and Kildare is home to three race tracks: the Punchestown Racecourse, home of Ireland’s National Hunt Festival; the Naas Racecourse, offering both National Hunt and flat meetings, and the famed Curragh, which hosts all five Irish Classic flat races. Time allowed a visit to only one; the Curragh it was. Not only is Curragh one of the world’s most famous racecourses, but it’s also one of the finest Thoroughbred training grounds in the world. I enjoyed the incredible fortune of a personal tour, which included a walk up the legendary grass gallop and a stroll along the Old Vic, a woodchip gallop funded by Sheikh Mohammed and named for the 1989 Irish Derby winner.

The Irish National Stud in Tully is a major attraction in Kildare, and offers attractions apart from the stud operation. Indeed, it has all the ingredients for a family day out, with tours, dining options, a playground, sumptuous Japanese gardens, and the opportunity to see some living legends who spend their retirement from racing welcoming visitors. There’s also a museum dedicated to the great horses of Ireland, including the iconic Arkle. A three-time winner of jump racing’s ultimate prize, the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Arkle is undeniably the greatest steeplechaser to ever set hoof to turf. His skeleton holds pride of place in the museum.

Premier Training

If you’re in Kildare to get into the racing game, Tom Taaffe is the man to see. Fortunate traveler that I am, I found myself visiting his training facility, Portree Stables, to get a behind-the-scenes look at the racing business. Indeed, it was his father, Pat, who rode Arkle to his three Cheltenham victories. Tom also began his career as a jockey and is now a highly regarded trainer who’s sent a winner to Cheltenham as well. He trained Kicking King, the 2005 gold cup champion. Those in the know will agree: watching the morning gallops with one of Ireland’s leading trainers is just about as good as it gets.

Trainer Tom Taaffe on a morning gallop.

And if you’re ready to take your life into your hands and attack some terrifying Irish drains, Tom’s wife Elaine can help you out. A hell-for-leather regular the hunting field, she encouraged me to cap on my next trip over. Emphasizing that the Kildare Hunt welcomes visitors, she notes that the requisite contact details are on the Kildare Hunt website for those who dare.

The Saddler’s Bar and Bistro in the Kaedeen Hotel.

After my friend was forced to return to his City trading floor—possibly to his not inconsiderable relief—I ended my whirlwind week at the four-star Keadeen Hotel, just down the road from the Curragh. I felt a bit low as I checked in the night before my flight, loath to leave this equine paradise with its fairytale landscape and lovely people. The warmth of the hotel staff, the roaring fire in the dining room, and a savory shepherd’s pie made the pain of imminent departure all the more acute. And yet, they gave me one final, lasting taste of what the equine-oriented visitor can enjoy in this part of Ireland. If it’s horse heaven you seek, look no further than County Kildare.

 

Published in Equestrian Living December/January 2017-18 issue.

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