History of Irish Horse Racing

Horse racing in Ireland has a long and rich history. Legends tell of mythical warriors like Fionn MacCumhaill racing their horses across the Curragh plains while ancient manuscripts relate that chariot races took place on the Curragh in the third century AD.

Match races (one nobleman’s horse racing against another to determine which was faster in order to establish bragging rights) were common occurrences in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first manuscript relating to actual horse races is a royal warrant from 1603 which entitled the governor of Derry to hold fairs and markets at which horse races could be held.

As the 17th century progressed, racing became more organised and competitive in Ireland especially with the introduction by King Charles II (The Merrie Monarch) of valuable King’s Plate races. These Plates were the equivalent of today’s Group One races and were fiercely contested. The horses that won them were much sought after for breeding. There is evidence that the Royal Plate races at the Curragh had become well established ‘features’ by the 1690s.

In the mid-18th century a regulatory body for Irish racing was formed, at the Rose and Bottle Inn on Dame Street in Dublin. Originally called the Society of Sportsmen, it then became the Irish Jockey Club and around 1784 took the name the Turf Club (now the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board). In 1790 The Turf Club published the first volume of the Irish Racing Calendar. This document provided details of races run in Ireland (previously such details were published in the English Racing Calendar).

The Irish National Hunt Steeplechase Committee was incorporated into the Turf Club around 1866 to organise National Hunt racing (jump racing) in the same way as Flat racing. Jump racing at Punchestown (first recorded in 1824) became a permanent fixture in 1860 when stands and enclosures were erected and many other racecourses soon followed.

Funding for racing has always been a fundamental issue and was the reason why many racecourses came and went. Between 1751 and today, there are documented records of racing having taken place in 409 separate locations throughout Ireland (including our current racecourses), results of races from where were published in the Racing Calendar. Places such as Ballingarry in Co. Limerick which held one meeting in 1882, Curry in Co. Sligo which held two meetings (1879 and 1887), Ennis in Co. Clare which held racing intermittently from 1763 to 1924 and the course in Phoenix Park in Dublin which held racing as far back as 1833 but closed for good in 1990.

Successive Irish governments have understood the importance of horse racing to the Irish economy and society in general and have helped to drive this industry and sport forward. In 1926, a bill was introduced by the Free State government which legalised off-course betting shops. The Tote was introduced onto racecourses in 1930 to much opposition from bookmakers. In 1945 the Racing Board was set up to deal with the financing of the sport and racing thrived with building projects and increased prizemoney.

In 1994 the Irish Horse Authority came into being and this body oversaw further investment in racing and particularly in racecourses. Then to bring racing into the 21st century a semi-state body, Horse Racing Ireland (HRI), was set up in 2001 and since that time racing has gone from strength to strength in Ireland and is now a leisure pursuit embraced by millions. Importantly, the very infrastructure of the sport is being copper-fastened through substantial investment in racecourse facilities and capital projects.

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