A Guide to Horse Racing in Ireland

The Curragh, Co Kildare, Ireland, Horse Racing, Budweiser Derby, Winner, Sadlers Wells
Design Pics Inc / Getty Images

Men (and sometimes women) always raced horses (or chariots, as the Celts did) ... so the origins are definitely lost in the mists of time. But we know more about modern winners: Today, horses competing in racing are thoroughbreds, many of whom can be traced back to just three Arabian stallions, imported into England during the early 18th century. It is a family affair, so to say. Thoroughbreds from Ireland are sought after worldwide and can command a high price. County Kildare is literally dotted with studs, including the Irish National Stud.

The Two Basic Types of Horse Races in Ireland

There are just two basic types of races and most racecourses (but not all) cater for both.

Flat Racing
This is about speed and stamina - races run over distances ranging from five furlongs (1,000 meters) to twenty furlongs (4,000 meters). The horses are starting from stalls. There are no obstacles on the course.
Flat racing season starts in mid-March and ends in mid-December. The "home" of flat racing is the Curragh of Kildare.
Horses used in flat racing start running as two- or three-year-olds.

National Hunt or Jump Racing
National hunt races are run over at least two miles (about 3,200 meters) and here horses will have to jump (or, very occasionally, scramble through) a number of obstacles. Races are started from a tape barrier in a slightly haphazard fashion.
National hunt racing is on offer on all the year, the main season running from November until late April.
Horses in the National Hunt competitions are at least four- to five-year-olds. Some horses progress here from flat racing as they get older.
Varieties of National Hunt racing are:

  • Hurdles - run over regular obstacles measuring about a meter in height.
  • Point to Point - a "back to nature"-event run over fences on farmland the spring and autumn. Very rustic, often very muddy, quite exciting to watch.
  • Steeplechase - run over fences of varying size. Steeplechase was "invented" in 1752 when Edmund Blake and Cornelius O'Callaghan wanted to find out whose horse was faster (they were both keen horsemen and liked a bet). They held a race across County Cork between the steeples of the churches in Buttevant and Doneraile. Cross-country.

What's in a Race Title?

Once you know that the race is either National Hunt or Flat, you'll also encounter further sub-divisions. Here they are in alphabetical order:

  • Bumper - here it already gets confusing, because these are special flat races for young jump horses, hence the contradictory term "National Hunt Flat Races". You'll find mostly amateur jockeys braving the distance of up to 4,000 meters.
  • Classics - the common term for the highest quality flat races in Group 1 (see below), all run on the Curragh: the Irish 2000 and 1000 Guineas, the Derby, the Oaks, and the St. Leger all run at the Curragh.
  • Conditions race - a race rated below "Listed" standard (see below) with conditions for qualification.
  • Group 1, 2 or 3 - the "valuable races" (Group 1 topmost), weights carried are the same for all horses.
  • Handicap - a race where horses carry weights, the exact amount determined by the "Official Handicapper" based on the horses' perceived ability. Highest rated horses carry more weight, their less rated colleagues get off lighter. In theory, all horses should thus have an equal chance of winning.
  • Listed - races that are "just below" Group 3 (see above) standard, weights are allocated according to the horse's age.
  • Maiden - a race open only to horses that never won a (professional) race before.
  • Novice - hurdles and steeplechases for horses that did not win these races in previous seasons. A horse that has a steeplechase the season before may, however, run in a novice hurdles race (or vice versa).
  • Nursery - a handicap race for two-year-olds only.

And Finally - How to Dress?

To be honest, horse racing in Ireland is a fairly informal affair and you will see those dressed to the nines rubbing shoulders with farmers in wellies. One exception would be "Ladies' Day" when women of all ages put on their most elegant, extravagant or eye-catching ensemble. And if looks could kill, you would not want to pass between two female visitors on these days.

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The Festivals

The bookies booth in an Irish horse race
Bernd Biege

While you will find race meetings almost every week across Ireland (the Irish weather permitting), the horse racing festivals held at the major courses are in a league of their own. Many have a long tradition and are part of Irish folklore and history – from Fairyhouse's connection to the Easter Rising to Galway's “networking”. And don't forget those “Ladies' Days”, when style becomes more important than horses ...

Cork Easter

When: Easter Weekend
What: Three days of flat and jump racing in Mallow, running over the long Easter weekend. Cork is often regarded as the “home” of National Hunt racing due to its historic associations with the sport. The event is often eclipsed by the Fairyhouse Grand National, however.

Fairyhouse Grand National

When: Easter Weekend
What: The Fairyhouse Easter Festival is the focus of most punters' attention every spring and crowds roll in from Dublin. The racing here was, in fact, responsible for some of the early successes of the Easter Rising in 1916 – as many British officers had opted to spend their Easter Monday here.

Punchestown Festival

When: Late April
What: Punchestown Racecourse is one of the main venues for National Hunt racing in Ireland and hosts nearly twenty race meetings throughout the year, every year. The undisputed highlight is the Irish National Hunt Festival in April, five days of racing in a row.

Curragh Derby

When: June/July
What: The Derby Festival is one of Ireland's top sporting and social events of the calendar, complete with glamour, family fun, and also a bit of racing from some of Europe's top horses. After all, they are after the biggest prize in Irish racing!

Bellewstown Summer

When: June/July
What: A festival running for three days, devoted to evening racing and often used to chill out from the Curragh Derby.

Killarney July

When: Mid-July
What: This festival at the stunning Killarney Racecourse can be described as the main event of Killarney's racing calendar, complete with an entertaining mix of flat and national hunt racing over five days. Very popular with the holiday crowd, come early!

Galway Summer Festival

When: July/August
What: The Galway Festival is regarded as one of the most important events of the summer season and boasts a full week of top-class racing and entertainment. Cue traffic chaos. For long periods the festival was also (in)famous for the informal networking in the Fianna Fail tent, where politicians and (selected parts of) the public could mingle.


When: Mid-August
What: A festival running over four days with three evening meetings in one of the most popular vacation spots in the South-East of Ireland: Expect huge crowds and a generally relaxed, family-friendly atmosphere.

Bellewstown August Festival

When: Mid-August
What: Famous for racing during late summer evenings on the Hill of Crockafatha, a unique experience to round off the summer (well, if there was one). Two days only.

Killarney August

When: August/September
What: Four days of evening racing on Killarney Racecourse mark the end of the summer season in the busy south-western resort. More relaxed than the earlier festival, but still drawing a good crowd.

Galway Autumn

When: Early September
What: A popular festival with classy racing, but a less formal affair than the long summer festival. A good chance to spot horses that may be famous next year ...

Listowel Harvest

When: Mid-September
What: Seven days of racing make up the last major festival of the summer season. Very popular with the rural community and pre-booking accommodation is definitely advisable.

Down Royal

When: Early November
What: Generally regarded as a showcase event for the cream of National Hunt racing, Down Royal in November is the place where experts meet.

Punchestown Winter

When: Mid-November
What: One highlight of this festival is the Grade 1 hurdle race, regarded as an early season trial and indicator for the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham (England) – traditionally an “adopted” Irish event.

Fairyhouse Winter

When: Early December
What: An early highlight of the National Hunt season, often regarded as the beginning of the winter racing proper. Very popular with the festive Dublin crowd.

Leopardstown Christmas

When: From St. Stephen's Day (Boxing Day)
What: After the turkey is eaten and the presents are given, it is time for some excitement outside the home – the Leopardstown Christmas Festival is regarded as a good day out for everyone.

Limerick Christmas

When: From St. Stephen's Day (Boxing Day)
What: Another great Christmas festival of racing, mainly drawing the crowds from the West of Ireland.

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The Venues

Jockeys in Irish horse racing need to be small of stature and light of weight ... though not necessarily fine strapping lads.
Bernd Biege

Ballinrobe Racecourse

Ballinrobe, County Mayo
What races are run at Ballinrobe?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
About two kilometers outside the town of Ballinrobe.

Bellewstown Racecourse

Bellewstown, County Meath
What races are run at Bellewstown?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
Just off the main Dublin to Belfast road (N1), signposted.

Clonmel Racecourse

Davis Road, Clonmel, County Tipperary
What races are run at Clonmel?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
About two kilometers from Clonmel town center, just off the Waterford to Limerick road.

Cork Racecourse

Killarney Road, Mallow, County Cork
What races are run at Cork?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
One and a half kilometers from Mallow town on the Killarney Road (N72).

Curragh Racecourse

The Curragh, County Kildare
What races are run at the Curragh?
Flat only
Where is the racecourse?
Right on the Curragh plain, three kilometers from Newbridge.

Down Royal Racecourse

Maze, Lisburn, County Down, BT27 5RW, Northern Ireland
What races are run at Down Royal?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
The course is located about four kilometers from the town of Lisburn.

Downpatrick Racecourse

24 Ballydugan Road, Downpatrick, County Down, BT30 6SP, Northern Ireland
What races are run at Downpatrick?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
Just two kilometers from the center of Downpatrick.

Dundalk Stadium

Racecourse Road, Dundalk, County Louth
What races are run at Dundalk?
Flat only
Where is the stadium?
About one kilometer outside Dundalk town center, heading north – this track was Ireland's first floodlit all-weather horse racing venue.

Fairyhouse Racecourse

Ratoath, County Meath
What races are run at Fairyhouse?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
Near the village of Ratoath, well signposted off the M2 and M3.

Galway Racecourse

Ballybrit, County Galway
What races are run at Galway?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
Six kilometers outside Galway City, off the Tuam Road.

Gowran Park

Gowran, County Kilkenny
What races are run at Gowran Park?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is Gowran Park?
A kilometer outside the village of Gowran, right next to the Dublin-Waterford road (N10).

Kilbeggan Racecourse

Loughnagore, Kilbeggan, County Westmeath
What races are run at Kilbeggan?
National Hunt
Where is the racecourse?
Around one to two kilometers from Kilbeggan town.

Killarney Racecourse

Killarney, County Kerry
What races are run at Killarney?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
Just a kilometer outside Killarney town, on the road to Kenmare.

Laytown Races

Laytown, County Meath
What races are run at Laytown?
Flat only
Where is the racecourse?
Actually, there is no racecourse: Laytown is a small seaside resort and hosts the only officially approved beach racing event in Europe. So, just head towards the beaches (and follow the signs).

Leopardstown Racecourse

Foxrock, Dublin 18
What races are run at Leopardstown?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
In Foxrock (Dublin 18), about six kilometers south of Dublin City center. Well signposted.

Limerick Racecourse

Greenmount Park, Patrickswell, County Limerick
What races are run at Limerick?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
At Greenmount Park in the townland of Patrickswell off the M20, about eight kilometers south-west of Limerick City on the M20.

Listowel Racecourse

Listowel, County Kerry
What races are run at Listowel?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
Just outside Listowel.

Naas Racecourse

Tipper Road, Naas, County Kildare
What races are run at Naas?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
About a kilometer outside Naas town center – but do not follow the signs for Punchestown (see below).

Navan Racecourse

Proudstown, Navan, County Meath
What races are run at Navan?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
About three kilometers outside Navan town, on the Kingscourt Road (R162).

Punchestown Racecourse

Naas, County Kildare
What races are run at Punchestown?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
About five kilometers from Naas on the Naas-Ballymore Eustace Road. It is signposted from Naas, but take care to avoid confusion with Naas Racecourse (see above).

Roscommon Racecourse

Racecourse Road, Roscommon, County Roscommon
What races are run at Roscommon?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
Just outside Roscommon town on the Dublin-Castlebar Road.

Sligo Racecourse

Cleveragh, Sligo, County Sligo
What races are run at Sligo?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
Cleveragh is just a kilometer from Sligo town center, off of the Pearse Road.

Thurles Racecourse

Thurles, County Tipperary
What races are run at Thurles?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
Just over a kilometer west of Thurles town, west of the main Cork-Dublin road.

Tipperary Racecourse

Limerick Junction, County Tipperary
What races are run at Tipperary?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
Three kilometers west of Tipperary town, on the Limerick road.

Waterford & Tramore Racecourse

Tramore, County Waterford
What races are run at Tramore?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
Just outside the town of Tramore, about 13 kilometers from Waterford.

Wexford Racecourse

Newtown Road, Wexford
What races are run at Wexford?
National Hunt, Flat
Where is the racecourse?
Just outside Wexford town, off the Dublin-Rosslare bypass.

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