The sport of horse racing is a truly global phenomenon in modern times, with tracks on every continent – with the exception of ice-bound Antarctica. It is, however, in the UK and Ireland where the sport – at least in its modern form – really began; and these two nations remain very much at the forefront of the horse racing world to this day. Be it in the flat or National Hunt spheres, no other stage for the “Sport of Kings” is yet able to match the combination of quality and variety provided by the United Kingdom and its nearest neighbour.
With the history of the sport in the two nations being so closely interlinked, and in many ways having developed in unison, you would expect there to be many similarities in the manner in which racing is organised and regulated in the UK and Ireland – and indeed there are. There are, however, also a number of differences, which punters and racing fans ought to be aware of, largely concerning the grading of races and the handicap ratings used. Here we take a look at both the similarities and differences in how racing operates in two of the biggest and best nations in the sport.
Comparing Flat Racing in the UK & Ireland
The first aspect to examine is that concerning exactly how races are graded in the UK and Ireland, as it is in this area where the waters can appear to be a little muddy – at least initially. Thankfully though, there are more similarities than differences, both on the flat and in the National Hunt race classifications systems.
Turning first to the flat, the first thing to note is that at the upper end of the grading system, the classifications remain just about identical in the two countries, with the following race classes and their definitions applying in both the UK and Ireland.
The real top-level events, including the Classics in both countries. All Group 1 races are “conditions” contests in which the runners carry the same weight with the exception of fillies and mares or due to age allowances. These races are generally contested by runners rated 115 or higher.
A notch below the Group 1 races but still high-quality events of international significance. Age and sex allowances may apply, in addition to weight penalties for previous victories at Group 1 or Group 2 level. These races are generally contested by runners rated 110 or higher.
The next rung down the ladder, Group 3 races operate in the same manner as Group 2 contests but tend to be of more significance on the domestic scene, rather than at international level. Runners rated 105 or above usually line up in these events.
Listed contests are a notch below Group 3 events, but still a level above a typical handicap race – although certain higher-class handicaps are included in the Listed bracket.
So far, so straightforward at the upper end of the sport then. However, the two nations do begin to diverge as we move down the racing ladder. Whereas in the UK, a class rating system – listing races from Class 1 down to Class 7 – is used in order to define the quality of a race, in Ireland no such system is in operation.
The table below outlines the UK classification system and the ratings bands which fall into each class relating to handicap contests – which make up the bulk of both the UK and Irish racing programmes.
UK Flat Classification
|UK Classification||Rating Bands|
|Class 2||86-100, 91-105 and 96-110.|
|Class 3||76-90 and 81-95.|
|Class 4||66-80 and 71-85.|
|Class 5||56-70 and 61-75.|
|Class 6||46-60 and 51-65.|
Irish Flat Classification
In Irish racing, flat handicaps are not listed as being of a specific “class” but rather by the rating of horses permitted to enter the race in question; so if, for instance, a contest might be titled, the “Dundalk Handicap (50-80)” this would indicate that the event was a handicap race open to runners rated between 50 and 80.
Typical ratings bands used in Irish handicaps include 47-60, 50-70, 50-80, 60-80, 60-90, 60-100, and 70-100. It is therefore still possible to approximate the Irish race classifications with those used in the UK. For example, a 47-60 Irish race would be equivalent to a Class 6 contest in the UK (see table above).
An Irish 60-80 event meanwhile, is an example of a contest which would feasibly cross a number of the UK classes, making things a little trickier. Our best advice here would be to look at the ratings of the individual runners set to line up, and thus determine the “actual” class of the race. For example, if, in a 60-80 handicap the majority of runners are rated between 70 and 80, the race will likely be broadly on par with a 66-80 or 71-85 UK Class 4 race. This is not a perfect system of comparison, but in many cases, it is enough to at least get a feel for the quality of an Irish race in UK grading terms.
Non-Handicap Race Prize Money
There are, of course, many flat races run in the UK and Ireland each year which fall into neither the upper echelons of the sport, nor into the handicapping sphere – Maidens, Classified Stakes, and Sellers, for example.
In the UK, such races are also designated as falling into a specific class – again from 1 down to 7. However, unlike in handicap events, where the easiest way to distinguish between the classes is through looking at the ratings of the horses the race is open to; in non-handicap events it is more suitable to use minimum prize money as our measure.
Prize Money in the UK
The below table highlights the types of non-handicap races run in the UK, and the applicable minimum prize money requirements, for both two year old races, and those for runners aged three and older.
|Race Type||Minimum 2yo Prize Money||Minimum 3yo+ Prize Money|
|Class 2 Conditions||£25,500||£45,000|
|Class 2 Classified Stakes||£25,500||£45,000|
|Class 2 Maidens and Novices’||£14,000||£19,000|
|Class 3 Conditions||£19,000||£25,000|
|Class 3 Classified Stakes||£19,000||£25,000|
|Class 3 Maidens and Novices’||£10,000||£11,500|
|Class 4 Conditions||£11,000||£12,500|
|Class 4 Classified||£11,000||£12,500|
|Class 4 Maidens and Novices’||£11,000||£12,500|
|Class 4 Sellers and Claimers||£6,100||£7,250|
|Class 5 Maiden and Novices’||£7,000||£8,000|
|Class 5 Sellers and Claimers||£4,500||£4,500|
|Class 6 Maidens and Novices’||£5,000||£5,000|
|Class 6 Sellers and Claimers||£3,500||£3,500|
|Class 7||No Minimum||No Minimum|
Prize Money in Ireland
Again, in Ireland, no such classification system exists for these non-handicap contests but, by cross referencing the prize money for an Irish race with the above table, it is possible to estimate the class of an Irish event in UK terms.
This may not be quite so robust a method of comparison as that based upon the ratings of the runners permitted to enter, as levels of prize money can differ for a variety of reasons, but it can still serve as a rough guide when attempting to assess the standard of a non-handicap Irish race.
Comparing National Hunt Racing in the UK & Ireland
When looking at the UK and Irish National Hunt race classifications, we find a similar pattern as that which is in evidence on the flat. Namely, at the very top level of the sport, the races tend to be rated in the same manner, with the main differences then coming lower down the ladder.
We will begin by listing the race classes used in UK National Hunt racing, starting with the Grade 1, Grade 2, Grade 3 and Listed events which together make up the Class 1 category.
Roughly the equivalent of Group 1 races on the flat, these contests represent the real championship level of the sport and include contests such as the Cheltenham Gold Cup, Champion Hurdle and King George VI Chase. All Grade 1 races are contested as weight for age affairs, with the fillies and mares also receiving a weight allowance.
Slightly below the Grade 1 standard but run under the same conditions, with the addition of weight penalties for previous wins at a specified level.
In the UK, Grade 3 contests are almost always high-quality handicap events – representing the real cream of the handicapping scene and including the world’s most famous race – The Aintree Grand National.
The Listed classification is a real mixed bag in the UK, containing both handicap and non-handicap events – all of which are a little below Graded standard, but higher in quality than a standard handicap.
When comparing the above to the Irish Classification system, we find that those races at both Grade 1 and Grade 2 level are directly comparable to those held in the UK. However, the Grading systems then begin to drift apart when we reach Grade 3 level.
Whereas in the UK Grade 3 events are almost always high-level handicaps, in Ireland races rated at Grade 3 level are predominantly weight for age affairs, and run under broadly similar conditions as those outlined in the Grade 2 definition above.
Ireland has a different method when it comes to rating the highest-class handicap events of their season, with the Irish classification system containing three categories of race which aren’t in evidence in the UK; namely Grade A, Grade B and Grade C handicaps. When looking at the official ratings of the runners who contest these events, it is still possible to determine a correlation with those events held in the UK as detailed below.
Irish Quality Handicap Grades
|Irish Grade||UK Equivalent|
|Grade A||Grade 3|
|Grade B||Top-end Listed|
|Grade C||Mid to lower Listed|
Irish National Hunt Classification
Again, as with flat racing, the Irish do not label their lower level handicap races as falling into a specific class, but they do note a ratings band detailing the quality of runners permitted to enter, for example the “Easter Festival 11th-13th April Handicap Hurdle (80-102)”, which took place at Fairyhouse on 22nd February, 2020, was open to all runners rated between 80 and 102. By noting these rating bands, it is possible to correlate an Irish race with a UK class through consulting the table below.
UK National Hunt Classification
|UK NH Classification||Rating Bands|
|Class 1||Grade 1,2,3 and Listed Handicaps|
|Class 3||0-120 and 0-135|
|Class 4||0-100 and 0-115|
|Class 5||0-85 and 0-95|
|Class 6||National Hunt Flat Races And Hunter Chases|
It is noticeable just how wide the UK ratings bands are – all starting at 0 – but in reality the majority of handicaps, at least those above Class 5 level, tend to be contested by runners towards the upper end of the ratings band. Our advice here would be to concentrate on this upper end for purposes of comparison, with the top 25lb being a sensible figure to use. That is, consider Class 3 as including bands of 100-120 and 110-135.
Of course, as with flat racing, there are many National Hunt contests which can’t be categorised as falling either into the top rank of races or into the handicapping sphere.
Non-Handicap Race Prize Money
Once again, prize money levels can be useful when attempting to assess the standard of an Irish race in UK Class terms. As such, the below table – which details the minimum prize money stipulations for each class of non-handicap race held in the UK – may assist in providing a rough correlation with Irish races of a stated type and prize money value (remembering to convert from €’s to £’s of course).
Prize Money in the UK
|Race Type||Minimum Chase Prize Money||Minimum Hurdle Prize Money||Minimum Flat Prize Money|
|Class 2 Conditions||£22,500||£18,500||£20,000|
|Class 2 Juvenile, Novices’ & Beginners’||£22,500||£18,500||£20,000|
|Class 2 National Hunt Flat||NA||NA||£20,000|
|Class 2 Hunters’ Steeple Chases||£18,500||NA||NA|
|Class 3 Juvenile, Novices, Beginners’ & Maidens||£25,000||£20,000||£14,000|
|Class 3 National Hunt Flat||NA||NA||£14,000|
|Class 3 Hunters’ Steeple Chases||£10,000||NA||NA|
|Class 4 Juvenile, Novices, Beginners’ & Maidens||£11,500||£10,000||£8,300|
|Class 4 Sellers and Claimers||£11,500||£10,000||£8,300|
|Class 4 National Hunt Flat||NA||NA||£8,300|
|Class 4 Hunters’ Steeple Chases||£5,800||NA||NA|
|Class 5 Maidens||£7,000||£6,000||£5,000|
|Class 5 Sellers and Claimers||£7,000||£6,000||£5,000|
|Class 5 National Hunt Flat||NA||NA||£5,000|
|Class 5 Hunters’ Steeple Chases||£3,800||NA||NA|
|Class 6 National Hunt Flat||NA||NA||£3,500|
|Class 6 Hunters’ Steeple Chases||£1,500||NA||NA|
Perhaps the most controversial area of difference between UK and Irish racing concerns the handicapping of the horses. Given that the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board (IHRB) employs its own handicappers to assess the merits of horses running in Ireland, and the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) does likewise for those competing at UK tracks, this area of conflict is to some extent inevitable.
Handicapping in both countries is thankfully underpinned by the same methodology. One ratings point equates to one pound in weight; that is, a runner rated 100 would be required to carry five pounds more than a 95 rated performer in a handicap contest.
However, the initial assigning, and subsequent adjustment of these ratings will always be open to some degree of subjectivity. As human beings, it would be unrealistic to expect the UK and Irish handicappers to analyse a runner’s performance in exactly the same way, and therefore there is always likely to be a slight difference in the manner in which horses are assessed on each side of the Irish Sea.
For a significant chunk of the season, this issue doesn’t cause any particular problems. Irish trained horses running in Irish handicaps run off their Irish marks, and UK trained runners running in UK handicaps run off their UK marks. The issues only start to arise when a UK runner takes part in an Irish handicap or vice versa. The most obvious approach would be for the UK runners to run off their UK mark when running in Ireland, and the Irish performers to run off their Irish marks when lining up in Britain. However, things are not so simple as that.
What Happens When an Irish Horse Runs in Britain (And Vice Versa)?
What actually happens is that a UK trained runner taking part in a handicap run in Ireland will run, not off their official UK racing, but instead off a mark assigned by the Irish handicapper; and an Irish runner lining up in Britain will do so off a mark attributed by the UK handicapper.Now, sometimes these alternative UK and Irish ratings will be the same, but on other occasions they won’t, with a few pounds in variation not being uncommon. You won’t hear many trainers or owners complaining should their charge be handed a lower rating for a race not on home soil, but you will be quick to learn of it should they be handed a higher mark!
One of the highest profile recent occurrences of such a complaint came from Gigginstown House Stud owner, Michael O’Leary, concerning the weights his runners had been assigned for the 2017 Aintree Grand National, as reported in the Irish Times. The Irish owners and trainers can’t really be blamed for voicing their opinions, no doubt with the aim of swaying the judgement of the UK Handicappers ahead of future ratings assessments. It should be noted though that Irish-based runners have landed three of the last four Grand National’s (as of 2019) and also tend to do rather well at the Cheltenham Festival. Purely on a results basis, it is hard to argue that the Irish contenders are unfairly treated when making the trip over for the major UK events.
Races Held Both in the UK & Ireland
Having discussed the main differences between UK and Irish racing, we now examine one of the key areas of similarity – namely, the races that the two nations have in common.
When looking through the UK and Irish fixture lists, be it on the flat or over jumps, it soon becomes apparent that the two jurisdictions stage many versions of the same race. The most obvious examples being the Classic contests of the 1000 and the 2000 Guineas, the Oaks, the Derby and the St Leger, and the major championship level events such as the Champion Hurdle over the jumps. But why does this process of race-mirroring exist and what benefits does it bring?
The fact that many UK races have an Irish doppelganger can simply be ascribed to the natural development of the sport. Just as in other sports, such as football, where the initial system used in the English Football League was quickly imitated by those nations developing later – to the extent that the vast majority of football leagues in the world now follow a remarkably similar formula – so it has been with the development of racing. Where Ireland saw the popularity of the UK Classic races and Grand National in particular, it quickly sought to emulate those successes through the creation of its own versions of those major events.
One benefit of both the UK and Ireland – and indeed other nations – staging separate versions of the same high quality contests is that it assists the European Pattern Committee in achieving its objective of providing, and organising, a high quality and consistent racing programme across the continent.
Finally, the fact that the two countries have their own variations of the same race greatly assists in comparing the form lines of the UK and Irish runners, particularly as many of the same horses run in both the UK and Irish editions of the race – a statement particularly true of the UK Classics and major events at the Cheltenham and Punchestown Festivals.
It must be noted, however, that whilst in the majority of races run under the same name the conditions will largely be the same, this is by no means always the case. The most high profile example being the differences between the UK and Irish St Leger. In the UK, the final Classic of the flat racing season is open only to three year old colts and fillies. However, in Ireland, all runners aged three and above, be they colts, fillies or geldings are permitted to enter – making it the only UK or Irish Classic which allows both geldings, and runners older than three to line up.
Flat Races Common to the UK & Ireland
There are many similarly titled races held in the UK and Ireland each year, but we conclude this section with comparison tables for the higher level of contests which fall into that category, both on the flat and in the National Hunt sphere. We start by looking at the flat races common to the UK and Ireland.
Higher Level Flat Races in the UK
|Race Title||Course||Class||Distance||Prize Money||Runners|
|1000 Guineas||Newmarket||Group 1||1m||£500,000||3yo fillies|
|2000 Guineas||Newmarket||Group 1||1m||£523,750||3yo|
|Oaks||Epsom||Group 1||1m4f||£523,750||3yo fillies|
|St. Leger||Doncaster||Group 1||1m6f||£700,000||3yo|
|Champion Stakes||Ascot||Group 1||1m2f||£1,300,000||3yo+|
|Pretty Polly Stakes||Newmarket||Listed||1m2f||£50,000||3yo fillies|
|November Handicap||Doncaster||Class 2||1m3f197y||£70,000||3yo+|
Higher Level Flat Races in Ireland
|Race Title||Course||Class||Distance||Prize Money||Runners|
|1000 Guineas||Curragh||Group 1||1m||€400,000||3yo fillies|
|2000 Guineas||Curragh||Group 1||1m||€400,000||3yo|
|Oaks||Curragh||Group 1||1m4f||€400,000||3yo fillies|
|St. Leger||Curragh||Group 1||1m6f||€500,000||3yo+|
|Champion Stakes||Leopardstown||Group 1||1m2f||€1,250,000||3yo+|
|Pretty Polly Stakes||Curragh||Group 1||1m2f||€250,000||3yo+ fillies|
National Hunt Races Common to the UK & Ireland
Similarly to flat racing, the more elite National Hunt races in the UK and Ireland are mirrored. We we will take a look at the National Hunt races common to both the UK and Ireland.
Higher Level National Hunt Races in the UK
|Race Title||Course||Class||Dist||Prize Money||Runners|
|Grand National||Aintree||Grade 3||4m2½f||£1,000,000||7yo+|
|Champion Chase||Cheltenham||Grade 1||2m||£400,000||5yo+|
|Champion Hurdle||Cheltenham||Grade 1||2m||£450,000||4yo+|
|Gold Cup||Cheltenham||Grade 1||3m2½f||£635,000||5yo+|
|Champion Bumper||Cheltenham||Grade 1||2m½f||£75,000||4-6yo|
|Stayers’ Hurdle||Cheltenham||Grade 1||3m2½f||£325,000||4yo+|
|Mares Hurdle||Cheltenham||Grade 1||2m4f||£120,000||4yo+|
Higher Level National Hunt Races in Ireland
|Race Title||Course||Class||Dist||Prize Money||Runners|
|Grand National||Fairyhouse||Grade A||3m5f||€500,000||5yo+|
|Champion Chase||Punchestown||Grade 1||2m||€300,000||5yo+|
|Champion Hurdle||Leopardstown||Grade 1||2m||€184,000||4yo+|
|Gold Cup||Leopardstown||Grade 1||3m5f||€232,000||5yo+|
|Champion Bumper||Punchestown||Grade 1||2m½f||€100,000||4-7yo|
|Stayers’ Hurdle||Punchestown||Grade 1||3m||€300,000||4yo+|
|Mares Hurdle||Punchestown||Grade 1||2m4f||€91,000||4yo+|