24 October 2023
By Roger Kennedy
The thrill of Irish horse racing is a long-established phenomenon, and one which isn’t going away any time soon. Ireland’s relationship with racing goes back centuries, and the ‘sport of kings’ remains not only one of the biggest spectator sports, but one of the most popular betting markets too. Let’s delve into both parts of this unique part of Ireland’s heritage.
The History of Irish Horse Racing
To say Irish horse racing has a long history would be an understatement. The very first chariot races – which count, we’d say – took place on the Curragh all the way back in the third century AD.
The evidence drops off a little after that, but picks up in a big way starting in the 16th and 17th centuries, when nobles raced their horses against each other. The first true precursors to modern racing were arguably the Kings Plate races introduced by Charles II in the late 17th century.
By the 19th century, Irish horse racing was an organised and high profile sport. There were national-level flat and jump races, and an official Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Committee.
As for betting, it’s fair to say that had probably been going on for a while. It was officially legalised in 1926 though, and both high street bookmakers – the predecessors to modern-day online bookmakers – and an on-course Tote soon followed.
Ireland’s Premier Racecourses
There are 26 racecourses officially recognised by Horse Racing Ireland.
Fittingly, getting on for two millennia later, the aforementioned Curragh remains one of the best-known names in Irish racing. This is a flat racecourse, with several prestigious events proving the highlights each year.
Naas racecourse is another well-known and enduringly popular venue. It features both flat racing and national hunting, and its location only 18 miles from Dublin also means it’s easy to reach for tourists.
Speaking of Dublin, Leopardstown is not only situated on the outskirts of the capital, but also happens to be a brilliant racing venue. It’s home to some of the biggest events on the calendar each year, including the Dublin Racing Festival, Irish Gold Cup, and Irish Champions Stake.
Highlights on the Calendar
The three racecourses we’ve already looked at play host to some of the biggest events on the Irish racing calendar. Those include the Curragh Irish Derby Festival, Irish Gold Cup, and so on.
Plenty of other important events also take place around the country each year, however. The Galway Summer Festival in July is always a big highlight, usually getting over 100,000 attendees across its week-long duration. The Irish Oaks is a similarly well-attended event, which also takes place in July.
Most of the other festivals are also focused around the warmer months, including smaller events like the FEI European Championships. Later on in the year though, you also have the likes of the Navan Racing Festival and Leopardstown Christmas Festival to look forward to.
Betting on Irish Racing
Horse racing and betting obviously go hand in hand, and this is as true in Ireland as in the UK, USA, and other racing-mad countries around the world.
Naturally online betting is big business nowadays, whether it’s with domestic or international brands. In-person wagers at racecourses are still popular though, with on-course bookies at the likes of Leopardstown having taken over €2.5 million in single-event wagers in recent years.
Naturally, we’re as much in favour of responsible gambling as anyone. But having a flutter at the racetrack is indisputably a part of Irish culture that goes back centuries, and continues to be extremely popular to this day.