Unlike in Britain where the sport is huge but has to compete with a great number of other sporting pursuits, horse racing in Ireland remains a massive part of society and culture.
Horse racing has a very long history in Ireland, in fact the very invention of ‘steeplechasing’ was invented in the country, leading to what we see now as the major jump racing game in Britain, Ireland and France.
With that, Ireland has a very strong suite of racecourses hosting both Flat and jumps racing. We’re looking at those tracks, as well as Ireland’s biggest races.
How Many Courses Are There in Ireland?
Up to 2023, Ireland had 24 racecourses. Under the auspices of Horse Racing Ireland, there are 26 in total as Northern Ireland’s two tracks are also included.
Eight of the tracks are in Munster including Cork, while another four are in Connacht and include Galway. The bulk of the tracks are in Leinster and include the Curragh, Fairyhouse, Leopardstown and Punchestown.
Of the 24 total racecourses, 4 of them are set up for jumps racing only. Another three are Flat-only venues. Only one of those is a turf course, the Curragh, while Dundalk is the sole all-weather track and Laytown Races is run on the beach.
The other 17 tracks in Ireland are dual-purpose venues, staging both Flat and jumps racing yearly.
The Top Racecourses in Ireland
While Ireland’s 24 current tracks are unique and disparate, a small bunch stage the major annual races and festivals across both codes. They are:
This is the home of Irish Flat racing. The Curragh hosts a number of Group 1 races including the Irish 1000 and 2000 Guineas, the Irish Derby, Irish Oaks, the National Stakes and more. Uniquely, the Curragh has the option of racing their Plate Course, Derby Course and Inner Course.
Though also capable of holding Flat meetings, Fairyhouse is famous for its jumps course with the highlight of the year being the Easter Festival. At that, the Irish Grand National takes place. The famous race has been staged here since 1870.
Horse racing has taken place at Galway since 1869. The track is most famous in the modern day for the hugely popular summer Galway Festival which takes place over seven days. It is run during the same week in late-July or early-August as the Glorious Goodwood festival in England. More than 140,000 people attend.
Leopardstown is the top dual-purpose racetrack in Ireland. On the Flat, there are plenty of strong races throughout the year but the season is defined by the Irish Champion Stakes meeting in September. Over the jumps, Leopardstown hosts the Dublin Racing Festival featuring Grade 1 action in February.
A jumps venue of major importance, Punchestown is famous for its Punchestown Festival. The festival comes after Cheltenham and Aintree and closes the Irish jumps season. A number of Grade 1 races are run there during festival week.
Ireland’s Major Races
Ireland holds important positions within both the Flat racing and jumps racing calendars.
There are 13 Group 1 races in Ireland on the Flat along with some top betting handicap races. Over the jumps, there are fully 37 Grade 1 events and some more major handicaps including the Irish Grand National. The most important races in Ireland are:
|Irish Gold Cup||Jumps||Leopardstown||February||3m Grade 1 chase, run during the Dublin Racing Festival.|
|Irish Champion Hurdle||Jumps||Leopardstown||February||2m Grade 1 hurdle, run during the Dublin Racing Festival.|
|Irish Grand National||Jumps||Fairyhouse||March/April||3m5f handicap chase, run during Easter.|
|Punchestown Gold Cup||Jumps||Punchestown||April/May||3m1f chase race, a Grade 1 run during the Punchestown Festival.|
|Irish 2000 Guineas||Flat||Curragh||May||1m Group 1, one of five Classics.|
|Irish 1000 Guineas||Flat||Curragh||May||Fillies’ equivalent of the above.|
|Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial||Flat||Leopardstown||May||1m2f Group 3 race, provides many top contenders for the Derby and Irish Derby.|
|Irish Derby||Flat||Curragh||June||1m4f Group 1 for 3yo colts, the third Classic of the year.|
|Irish Oaks||Flat||Curragh||July||Fillies’ equivalent of the above, similar to the Oaks at Epsom.|
|Galway Plate||Jumps||Galway||July||2m6f chase, run during the Galway Festival.|
|Galway Hurdle||Jumps||Galway||July||2m hurdle, run during the Galway Festival.|
|Irish Champion Stakes||Flat||Leopardstown||September||A major 1m2f Group 1, one of the top-rated races in the world.|
|National Stakes||Flat||Curragh||September||Very important 7f Group 1 race for juveniles.|
|Irish St Leger||Flat||Curragh||September||The last Classic, though unlike the St Leger in England, open to 4yo+.|
|Morgiana Hurdle||Jumps||Punchestown||November||2m Grade 1 hurdle, a top trial for the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham.|
|Savills Chase||Jumps||Leopardstown||December||3m Grade 1 chase.|
|John Durkan Chase||Jumps||Punchestown||December||2m4f Grade 1 chase.|
As well as these races, handicaps such as the Irish Lincolnshire, Irish Cambridgeshire, Irish Cesarewitch and the Rockingham Handicap are major betting events for punters in both Ireland and Britain.
How Has Racing Changed Over the Years in Ireland?
The riding of horses has been happening in Ireland for as long as anyone can find records.
In terms of horse racing as a sport, it became competitive and more organised around the 1660’s. Then, King Charles II established the King’s Plate races which were designed to suit horses with a combination of speed and strength. The races tended to be run over four miles, the horses carrying 12st.
Quickly, Ireland became a major breeding ground for the thoroughbred. Even now along with England, France, Australia and specifically Kentucky, Ireland is one of the superpowers of the breeding industry.
Racing continued to blossom through the wars in Ireland. In 1945, The Irish Racing Board was set up to oversee the sport professionally and was followed eventually by the Irish Horse Authority in 1995. As of 2001, the overseers of the sport have been the HRI, Horse Racing Ireland.
Via the breeding industry, racing and associated income streams, horse racing in Ireland is now worth over €1 billion a year. The sport employs more than 14,000 people and is seen as one of the world superpowers along with Britain, France, USA and Australia.
Famous Courses in Ireland to Have Closed Down
Racing in Ireland has gone on for so long, and not always during organised times, that racing has taken places in hundreds of different areas.
Some professional horse racing layouts have been and one over time however, including these:
|Clonmoyle Racecourse||We know little of this course, but an Ordnance Survey from 1840 makes reference to Clonmoyle Racecourse as being near to the eastern side of Clonmoyle West townland.|
|Greenpark Racecourse||Greenpark was Limerick’s racecourse for quite some time. As well as racing, it hosted other sporting events and even a US presidential visit. The track closed due to flooding problems in the mid-90’s, with a new Limerick Racecourse opening soon after.|
|Mullingar Racecourse||Mullingar Racecourse opened at Newbrook in 1852. Though successful for many years, the course closed in 1967.|
|Phoenix Park Racecourse||Racing began at Phoenix Park, Dublin, in 1902. The track hosted lots of Ireland’s main Flat races including the Irish Champion Stakes and the Phoenix Stakes. It closed in 1990.|
|Tralee Racecourse||Though over the years many top racehorses appeared at Tralee, the track closed for business in 2008. Its fixtures were handed to other Irish racecourses.|