Horse racing, in one guise or another, has been taking place across the island of Ireland for centuries. This includes Northern Ireland whose racing history is rich in its own right.
In terms of quantity, Northern Ireland doesn’t make a huge impact on the racing scene but its best events are important to the sport. We have info on those, as well as Ulster’s current racecourses.
How Many Courses Are There in Northern Ireland?
Northern Ireland currently has just two active racecourses.
It must be said however, that many punters from Northern Ireland have easy access to tracks across the border such as Sligo and Dundalk as well as others.
As is the case with the Republic, there is more of a focus on jumps racing here.
One Norther Irish racecourse is set up for jumps racing only, while the other is a dual-purpose venue.
Northern Ireland’s Racecourses
Northern Ireland’s two existing racecourse are Down Royal and Downpatrick.
Located around 14 miles from Belfast is Down Royal Racecourse. Racing here is hosted year-round across both codes, with meetings running into double figures.
On the Flat, the biggest meeting is Down Royal’s Ulster Derby fixture which is hosted in June. Though the Ulster Derby is a handicap, it is well supported with some fine types taking part which is also the case with the meeting’s other big race, the Ulster Oaks.
Over the jumps, Down Royal’s best meeting is the Champion Chase meeting across two days in November. There are a number of Graded races at the meeting, with the Champion Chase itself being the feature event.
Northern Ireland’s other racecourse is Downpatrick, around 31 miles from Belfast and 26 miles south of Down Royal. Downpatrick is the oldest horse racing site in the territory, hosting races in the same place since 1685. In fact, it is the oldest racing site in all of Ireland and not just Northern Ireland.
Though it seems remarkable now, the Byerley Turk is thought to have run here in 1690. The Byerley Turk along with the Godolphin Arabian and the Darley Arabian are the three foundation stallions to which all modern thoroughbreds can trace their roots.
The Ulster Grand National is run here in March or April.
Northern Ireland’s Major Races
Northern Ireland’s top annual races include:
|Ulster National||Jumps||Downpatrick||March/April||A 3-mile, 4½-furlong handicap chase worth around €47,000. This is an immensely popular race with Ireland’s jumps trainers.|
|Ulster Derby||Flat||Down Royal||June||1m5f Premier Handicap for three-year-olds only. The race is worth almost €100,000.|
|Ulster Oaks||Flat||Down Royal||June||Run on the same day as the Derby. This is a 1m2½f fillies’ handicap.|
|Champion Chase||Jumps||Down Royal||November||A Grade 1, three-mile chase.|
The Champion Chase is of huge significance. It has been won over the years by such stars as Florida Pearl, Looks Like Trouble, Beef Or Salmon, Kauto Star, Don Cossack, Frodon and Envoi Allen.
Despite being a handicap, the Ulster Derby too attracts nice horses and was once won by Media Puzzle, the subsequent Melbourne Cup winner.
How Has Racing Changed Over the Years in Northern Ireland?
Organised racing around the Lisburn area has been taking place since at least the early part of the 18th century. Back then, the sport was staged on land which had been donated by the 1st Marquess of Downshire.
Going back further to the 1680’s, King James II was increasing the popularity of horse racing all around Ireland, including in this area by forming the Down Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders. By 1750, Kings Plate races worth £100 were being run in the area.
In more recent times, while Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were considered separate, racing was to be run on an all-Ireland basis. Though Northern Ireland’s two tracks are situated in the UK, they are under the auspices of Horse Racing Ireland along with the 24 tracks south of the border.
Horse racing in Northern Ireland is not considered to be of the highest quality, though its meetings are well supported by Ireland’s trop Flat and jumps trainers to this day.