There’s no doubt that horse racing has a rich and proud heritage in Ireland, with the country home to some of the most iconic meetings and successful training stables in the world.
You can see the wide range of most renowned Irish race meetings at www.betinireland.ie/sports-betting/horse-racing, and this should give you an idea about just how popular racing is on the Emerald Isle.
It’s thought that 1.3 million people attended race meetings in Ireland through 2019 alone, while betting increased by 4.5% year-on-year during the same period. So, here’s a look at three of the biggest horse racing events in Ireland and a glimpse at why they’re so popular.
1. The Punchestown Irish National Hunt Festival
In England the punters have Cheltenham, while Irish bettors have the coveted Punchestown Festival. Put simply, this is the best and most accurate way to describe one of Ireland’s most watched festivals, which takes place every single year in the wake of the iconic Cheltenham Festival.
The Punchestown Festival also features a similar itinerary to Cheltenham, with the action starting on Tuesday and concluding with the Punchestown Gold Cup on what’s usually a rip-roaring Saturday afternoon.
The Gold Cup certainly draws talented runners and riders from across the length and breadth of the UK, including Neptune Collonges (who is the race’s most successful ever horse having won consecutive events in 2007 and 2008).
On both occasions, Neptune Collonges was ridden by Ruby Walsh, who is the leading jockey at the Punchestown Gold Cup with six triumphs overall. His other winners include Imperial Call (1999), Comanche Court (2000), Boston Bob (2014) and Kemboy (2019).
Interestingly, Walsh is also recognised as the single most successful Cheltenham Festival rider, with a record-breaking 59 individual wins during his career. He was also the leading jockey at the festival 11 times, between the years of 2004 and 2017.
The Punchestown Festival is also home to host of similarly popular races, including the Champion Chase, Champion Hurdle and the Tattersalls Ireland Champion Novice Hurdle. So there’s plenty to keep you occupied, particularly if you’re a National Hunt fan with a love of tight and unpredictable races!
2. The Curragh Irish Derby Festival
Next up is the historic Curragh Irish Derby Festival, which is widely renowned as one of the biggest and most watched race meetings in the world.
This year’s festival kicked off as usual on Friday, June 25th, continuing over the course of the subsequent weekend before concluding on Sunday, June 27th.
This festival is also comfortably the most prestigious and lucrative of all Irish race meetings, thanks primarily to the fact that it hosts the iconic Irish Derby. Make no mistake; this offers the biggest prize in Irish horse racing, with a total prize fund of €690,000 a cheque worth €427,500 handed to the winner.
This year’s Irish Derby was highly anticipated after the event was cancelled in 2020 (against the backdrop of the coronavirus pandemic), with the Group One race taking place as the showpiece Saturday event at 3.45pm. The event lived up to its billing too, as Hurricane Lane denied Lone Eagle by a neck in a thrilling finale that denied the legendary Frankie Dettori his second Irish Derby win (and his first since 1994).
Dettori had looked to have stolen the classic on the Martin Meade-trained runner, only for Hurricane Lane and his jockey William Buick to nick the race at the death.
Interestingly, this was Buick’s second Derby win, with the rider having previously prevailed with Jack Hobbs back in 2015.
3. The Galway Summer Festival
While both of these meetings have already taken place in 2021, the Galway Summer Festival is scheduled to play out between Monday, 26th July and Sunday, 1st August.
A true summer festival, this is one of the brightest and best attended meetings in Ireland, as it often benefits from exceptional weather and a host of races that are incredibly keenly contested.
Two of the best and biggest races are the Galways Plate Chase Handicap and the Galway Hurdle Handicap, both of which combine to create a truly unique atmosphere. These races also drive incredible crowds overall, with well over 100,000 people attending the event as a whole every single year.
Established in 2013, the Galway Hurdle is arguably the single most popular race at the festival, with the 2020 iteration offering an example as to why this may be the case.
More specifically, the race saw the Willie Mullins-trained Aramon defy top weight to edge out the 40/1 shot Heart of Trumps, after an epic encounter that was nip-and-tuck for much of the two mile course.
The much-fancied Petit Mouchoir and Hunters Call completed the placings, while pre-race favourites Felix Daisy (4/1) trailed behind in fifth place.
2021 should see another thrilling and keenly contested race, and one that will be all for the better for the return of crowds and a packed capacity!