Ireland has a rich history of horse racing, with official sporting contests dating back to the mid seventeenth century. With 24 courses currently in the Republic of Ireland and two courses in Northern Ireland it is not only a hugely popular spectator sport but also a global centre for breeding and training thoroughbreds.
Most courses in Ireland are mixed tracks holding both flat and jumps racing on the turf. The Curragh is a flat only course whilst Kilbeggan, Thurles, Wexford and Downpatrick hold only National Hunt racing. Dundalk is Ireland’s only all-weather flat course and there’s also flat racing on the beach at Laytown.
Map of Racecourses in Ireland
Racecourses in the Republic of Ireland
|Course||Location||Race Type||Track Surface|
|Ballinrobe||County Mayo||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Bellewstown||County Meath||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Clonmel||County Tipperary||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Cork||County Cork||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Fairyhouse||County Meath||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Galway||County Galway||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Gowran Park||County Kilkenny||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Killarney||County Kerry||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Limerick||County Limerick||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Listowel||County Kerry||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Naas||County Kildare||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Navan||County Meath||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Punchestown||County Kildare||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Roscommon||County Roscommon||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Sligo||County Sligo||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Tipperary||County Tipperary||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Tralee||County Kerry||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
|Waterford and Tramore||County Waterford||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
Racecourses in Northern Ireland
|Course||Location||Race Type||Track Surface|
|Down Royal||Lisburn||Flat, Jumps||Turf|
Horse Racing in Ireland
Should you want to explore horse racing in Ireland for yourself, there are lots of options as shown in the map above. It does not boast as many courses as Great Britain, but with Ireland having around one racecourse per 270,000 inhabitants, it has a much higher per capita rate, the highest in the world in fact. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that the Irish love their horses and their racing but that simple fact illustrates it perfectly.
Most Racecourses Are Dual Purpose Tracks
The Republic of Ireland is especially horse racing mad and as we have noted it is here where the vast majority of the Emerald Isle’s tracks are found. Locals here simply cannot get enough of the sport that has existed locally for centuries in an official capacity. It is also worth mentioning that a very high proportion of Irish courses are dual purpose, meaning they host both flat and National Hunt action.
Both forms can be viewed throughout the calendar year too, rather than only having access to jumps action in the winter months and flat racing in the summer months. This is partly down to plentiful rain the island of Ireland gets, keeping the ground soft enough for NH racing even in the summer months.
Whether you want flat racing, jump racing, or a bit of both, Ireland has got you covered and then some. You cannot go wrong with any course or meeting really but to narrow the possibilities down, we will take a look at the most notable courses and some of the most popular meetings (not necessarily those with the best quality racing) the island has to offer. There really is a huge selection though and the following are just our pick of the highlights.
Before we do this though it is worth covering some points about horse racing in Ireland more generally. Some British racecourses are known for being reasonably strict when it comes to their dress code but Ireland, as a whole, takes a more relaxed stance. There may be certain expectations if heading into an exclusive part of big course but for at most venues, and in most areas, no dress code applies. This means visitors are free to put on something nice and casual if they like, such as a t-shirt and jeans, rather than dressing up for the occasions. The usual rules about decency (I.E. non-offensive fancy dress) apply.
As for tickets, a very standard, run-of-the-mill raceday will usually set an adult back in the region of €15, or around £13. Some venues may offer cheap tickets, or do discounted prices for pensioners, students etc. but this is seen as quite a typical price. If you are wanting to head to some of the ‘big meetings’, these will set you back a little more, with a standard ticket costing €20 to €30 being far from unusual for these sought-after dates.
An afternoon (or evening) at the races in Ireland is an affordable day out and this is partly why so many people love giving it a try. There are well over 300 meetings to choose from, almost an average of one per day with over a million people in attendance across them each year. The course that typically boasts the highest average attendance is Galway, so this is always a safe bet should you want a vibrant atmosphere. At the bottom end of the scale, the likes of Dundalk, Clonmel and Tipperary and Roscommon are all ideal for a more relaxed, peaceful outing due to their (relatively) low average spectator numbers.
The three most famous courses in Ireland, the ones that your average UK fan might well have heard of and that host the highest class meetings, are Punchestown, Leopardstown and Curragh (also referred to as ‘the’ Curragh).
Punchestown is seen as the home of jump racing in the Republic of Ireland as it hosts a hefty portion of the leading jump races in the country. In total it offers over 15 high-quality jump racing fixtures each year, all taking place on a top-class course that offers runners a fair but reasonably challenging test of their ability.
To maintain its reputation as an elite jump racing venue, Punchestown has had to regularly update and modernise its offering. In 2015, it was announced the course would enjoy a €6.2m makeover which included the construction of the €4m Hunt Stand, something that was completed in 2018. Incidentally, this ambitious project was completed exactly two decades after the course spent £7m on developing the main grandstand and enclosure.
While Punchestown focuses solely on jumps racing, the Curragh is a flat-racing venue. Situated to the south of Punchestown, it hosts the lion’s share of Group races in the country including 11 of the 13 Group 1 races. It is the nation’s undisputed king of flat racing despite it providing a rather unusual test courtesy of its horse-shoe-shaped track (used for races of one mile and longer).
For the many, many spectators that visit, it is a place that boasts some of the very best facilities anywhere, partly thanks to a striking €81m, four-tier grandstand that was completed in 2019. This massive building, known as the Aga Khan stand, now proudly stands as the centre piece of the entire course, providing superb views of the action.
The other elite Irish Racecourse, Leopardstown, dabbles in both jump and flat racing. It is quite a busy racecourse with over 20 meetings hosted throughout the entire year, including several in the evening, so it is easy to find a convenient time to pay it a visit. Its handy location, just 8km south of Dublin, allows it to attract very healthy crowds and no racecourse in Ireland enjoys more visitors each year in total. For any keen golfers out there, it is worth mentioning that in the centre of Leopardstown’s course you can find an 18-hole golf course, making this the perfect track for a dual-focus break.
If you want to see the very best thoroughbred horses then targeting a meeting with a Group 1 (flat) or Grade 1 (jump racing) is the best way to go. These are the most elite races on the calendar and the tend to carry large amounts of prize money, something that is reflected in the quality of thoroughbred that shows up. If you are into racing, seeing the big names in the flesh is an exciting spectacle but if you are more of a casual observer then these may not be the best meetings for you, especially as tickets for them often come at a premium.
Summer Festival in Killarney
Rather than opting for the traditional ‘big’ meetings like the extremely prestigious Curragh Irish Derby Festival or Punchestown Irish National Hunt Festival (Ireland’s answer to the Cheltenham Festival) we will look at some slightly less high-profile, but just as entertaining, alternatives. We start with the Summer Festival in Killarney, which runs for five successive days in July.
It is both their social and racing highlight of the year, often drawing a handsome crowd partly due to the town being a great tourism destination. At any day during the festival, you will enjoy a simply stunning view as Killarney Racecourse is hugely picturesque with its beautiful mountain backdrop. For many it is the most beautiful, scenic racecourse on the entire continent and we would probably not dispute that.
Laytown Racecourse’s Annual Meeting
With only one all-weather course in the country, at Dundalk, almost all racing in Ireland takes place on good old-fashioned mud and grass, but there is one extra and much-loved exception. For a completely unique racing experience, you will want to get yourself down to Laytown Racecourse for their annual meeting (usually in September).
Rather than racing on grass, horses at Laytown compete on sand as its temporary track is set up on the seafront, but under normal IHRB rules. For safety purposes, horses can only compete in straight line sprints but it is quite the sight to behold horses storming right down the coastline. The standard of horses competing is low but this really is a truly unique spectacle in UK or Irish racing.
With the action taking place on a public beach, virtually all facilities (which are very limited) are only set up for the meeting and are dismantled straight afterwards. In fact, the only permanent building you will find at Laytown is a block of toilets. This does mean there can be extremely limited protection from any wind and rain so do not expect to find a nice warm reception area full of TVs broadcasting the action.
Listowel’s Harvest Festival
It is partly because racing only takes place once a year at Laytown that makes it so special and limited availability is what makes racing at Listowel so cherished too. Only two meetings take place at the County Kerry course during the calendar year, a three-day affair in June and the week-long Harvest Festival in September.
Seven days for a festival is extremely long yet enthusiasm never seems to wane during this fantastic occasion that is full of different ways of entertaining the crowd. What’s more, the festival features a complete mix of flat and jumps racing, ensuring it serves up a rich and varied racing experience with something for everyone.
Galway’s Summer Festival
Week-long race meetings are rare as mentioned above but there is another in Ireland, this point again illustrating just how much the locals love this sport, with this further seven-day feast coming courtesy of Galway. Their summer festival regularly ends up bathed in sunshine and there is a jovial atmosphere throughout.
In addition to music performances and the excitement of the high-class Galway Plate, this festival also gives you the perfect excuse to dress up extra smartly. Some very generous prizes are dished out on Ladies Day for those deemed the best dressed and later on there is even a ‘Mad Hatters’ competition during what is very much a family-friendly day of the festival.
Ulster National Day at Downpatrick
For racing north of the border, although Down Royal has some quality meetings, the fixture we are going to most recommend is the Ulster National day at Downpatrick. If you are someone that loves the thrill of jumps racing, this lengthy battle will be right up your street. For this challenge horses have to tackle 16 fences, often on soft ground, across a distance exceeding three and a half miles.
It requires guts, stamina and talent to win and sometimes these can come from an unlikely source. For an alternative but very similar race, Fairyhouse, located close to Dublin, holds the Irish Grand National every easter Monday and this too never manages to disappoint.
History of Irish Racing
There is some evidence of horse racing taking place in Ireland around two millennium ago. The ancient text Togail Bruidne Dá Derga makes reference to the Curragh being the site of some chariot racing during the time of Conaire Mór, who had been a ruling monarch sometime between 110BC and 60 AD. It is not until you reach the 1600s though that you get more substantial evidence of ‘proper’ horse racing taking place on Irish soil in a form that we would recognise it today. There is one royal warrant from 1603 that entitled the governor of Derry to host fairs and markets where horse races could be held.
As the decades went on racing become increasingly more organised and more competitive. The speed of progress was aided by the interest King Charles II had in racing as he sponsored several King’s Plate races which tended to come with a sizeable purse. Winning these races made horses very sought after for breeding purposes so there could be additional income raised through stud money.
Early Racing Governance
With more and more racing taking place around the country, it was deemed that some governance was needed to oversee it all. A bunch of keen racing enthusiasts met in Dublin’s Rose and Bottle Inn down Dame Street to thrash out the details. They created what we know today as the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board but the first name the group took was the Society of Sportsmen before changing into the Irish Jockey Club and then the Turf Club in 1784. In 1790, the group published their first racing calendar (previously races were listed in the English Racing Calendar), outlining all planned meetings in Ireland for the year.
There was also the Irish National Hunt Steeple Chase Committee that ran alongside the Turf Club for a number of years but the pair merged in 1866. A few years before, in 1860, Punchestown racecourse became permanent hosts to jump racing when they established stands and an enclosure. Many courses also built permanent structures on their grounds in the hope they would survive for decades to come.
Over 400 Different Racing Locations
Of course, some did, but there are many sites that failed to stick around for a long time, whether due to lack of interest, lack of funding, or unsuitable ground. Records indicated that between 1751 and today, racing took place at over 400 different spots across Ireland. In most cases it was lack of funding that had been the problem but in more modern times governments have been more aware of the positive impact racing has on the Irish economy.
Subsequently, over the past century or so, horse racing in Ireland has benefitted from both direct investment and also favourable legislation. In the Republic of Ireland, in 1926, a bill was introduced that legalised off-course betting shops and the Tote followed four years later. In 1945, the Racing Board was established specifically to deal with financing the sport and this helped increase racecourse investment and also prize money.
The Racing Board
The Racing Board was later replaced by the Irish Horseracing Authority in 1994, which is something we have known since 2001 as Horse Racing Ireland. This group acts as the regulatory body of horse racing taking place on the island of Ireland, so their remit covers both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is for this reason that you will find that races at Down Royal and Downpatrick pay out prize money in euros, despite the local currency being pounds sterling.