The History of Horse Racing in Ireland

History of horse racing in ireland image of horses racing on grass

Horse racing today is one of the most popular sports in Ireland. Huge events such as the Punchestown Festival, the Irish Derby, and the Galway Summer Festival not only hold some of Ireland’s biggest horse races annually but are also a celebration and reflection of Irish culture. Throughout Irish history, horse racing has always been intrinsically linked with Irish culture and society and the sport’s rich history is a key reason horse racing is so popular today. This article will travel through the history of Irish horse racing, shedding light on why the sport today is so central to Irish culture.  

History of horse racing in ireland image of horses racing on grass

Early Origins

While it has been estimated that Irish horse racing could date back to the 3rd century BC in Ireland, the first records of horse racing in Ireland come from between 110 BC and 60 BC. The ancient text Togail Bruidne Dá Derga (Destruction of the Mansion of Da-Derga) mentions chariot races that occurred during the reign of Conaire Mór, who was believed to be the High King of Ireland during this period. It is said that these races took place on the Curragh, which is around 2,000 acres of flat open land in the modern-day county of Kildare. Even today, the area of the Curragh is used for some of the largest horse racing events in Ireland such as the Irish Derby. Throughout the subsequent centuries texts such as the Book of Leinster mention horse racing and myths such as the Fianna also reference chariot racing. However, up until around the 17th century, there is little to no written evidence of official horse racing events within Ireland.

The History of Betting in Irish Horse Racing

Horse racing and gambling have always been intrinsically linked throughout the globe, and Ireland is no different. With increasing British influence in the 16th and 17th centuries in Ireland, British horse racing and gambling culture seeped into Irish society. Wealthy elites would travel from England to Ireland to settle or visit and would indulge in the burgeoning horse racing and gambling trade in Ireland. By 1750, there were estimated to be over four hundred horse races across Ireland and bets could be placed on all races. This carried on throughout Irish history, with the Irish Free State legalising off-site betting shops in 1926. This has carried on into the modern day, with the Irish horse racing industry alone bringing a value of €2.46 billion to the Irish economy in 2022, both through online racing bookmakers and their high street counterparts.

Official Records of Horse Racing

While most of the earlier evidence is shrouded in Irish myth and legend, the first official record of horse racing dates back to 1603 with a royal warrant in Derry entitling the governor to organize fairs, markets, and horse racing. Throughout the 17th century, many records appeared detailing horse racing within Ireland: a poem in 1622 told of a jockey hilled in a horse race in Carrickfergus and another record was told of a race between the Earl of Ormond and Lord Digby in 1634. Further to this, in 1666 King Charles II offered a prize to the winner of a 4-mile horse race in the King’s Plate Races within Ireland in the hope of making the sport more competitive. Hence, this marked the beginning of the sport becoming more competitive, widespread, and organised within Ireland. 


Throughout the 18th and 19th century, the sport only became more popular and competitive as the reach and influence of the sport grew in Ireland. Despite restrictive British legislation such as the Penal Laws, which restricted the ownership of horses by Catholics to under a value of £5, the sport only grew in popularity among all classes in Ireland. The frequency of race meetings grew annually throughout the decades, and by 1750 over 70 race events from Ireland were advertised within the English Racing Calendar. 

In the mid-18th century, a regulatory board was established for Irish horse racing within Dublin. Originally named the Society of Sportsmen, the organisation eventually became known as the Turf Club, and its first racing colander was established in 1790. Since the establishment and legitimation of sports racing within Ireland, the sport has only gone from strength to strength. In the 19th century, many of the most famous racing events today, such as the Irish Derby, the Punchestown Festival, and the Galway Summer Festival here established. These developments were central to the continuing growth of the sport. Throughout the 20thcentury, after the Irish Civil War, the Irish Free State understood how central horse racing was to the country. This consistent growth led to the establishment of the Irish Horse Authority in 1994 which has since overseen the huge investment and growth in Irish horse racing up until today.

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