Emerald Isle Excellence: The Biggest Horse Races in Ireland

Ireland flag horse racing

Few, if any, nations have influenced the global racing scene to the same extent as Ireland. Home to the most talented thoroughbreds – both over jumps and on the flat – the Irish also boast many of the most powerful breeding establishments on the planet. Champion after champion has emerged from the Irish racing scene over the years, and the current century shows little signs of the power shifting away from our Irish cousins.

The Irish are no strangers to success on the global stage, having registered major wins from Britain to Australia and almost everywhere in between. However, they don’t always have to travel so far to land a major pot, and here we pick out the 10 biggest events of the Irish Racing year.

Fab Five on the Flat

Curragh Irish Derby Day
The Curragh’s Irish Derby Day (Florian Christoph, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr)

Ireland is one of the few countries aside from the UK where jumps racing is very popular. Before we come to that, here are the highlights on the level.

Irish Derby

Taking place around four weeks after the Epsom equivalent, this late June/early July event similarly attracts the most talented three-year-old colts in the sport. Held at the County Kildare track of the Curragh, this Group 1, 1m4f contest offers a handsome €1.15 million (2023) in total prize money and attracts regally bred sorts from both sides of the Irish Sea. Given the break between this race and the English version, many of the same horses often line up, with Sinndar, Galileo, High Chaparral, Camelot and Auguste Rodin amongst the runners to record a famous Derby double.

Irish Oaks

Around two weeks after the Irish Derby, the spotlight again shines upon the Curragh, as the three-year-old fillies get their chance to shine in the Irish Oaks. Also held over the 1m4f trip and falling into the Group 1 category, the prize money is a little less at €460,000 (2023), but the prestige which accompanies a win is broadly on par with the Epsom version. Many of the greatest fillies in the sport have scorched the turf to victory in this race, including Enable and Snowfall, who each achieved the English and Irish Oaks double.

Irish 2000 Guineas

First run in 1921, the opening Irish colts Classic of the season has recently passed its centenary and remains one of the standout events of the year at the Curragh. Taking place in late May each year, around three weeks after the Newmarket version of the race, this Group 1 has been dominated by team Ballydoyle, with Aidan O’Brien making it a round dozen wins with the success of Paddington in 2023. With €460,000 (2023) up for grabs, the event matches the Irish Oaks in prize money and regularly sees the best of the English and Irish milers do battle. As of 2023, nine colts have achieved the Guineas double, including Churchill in 2017.

Irish 1000 Guineas

There is a strong Curragh flavour to this list, with the historic track playing host to all five Irish Classic contests. First up for the fillies each year is this 1m Group 1 affair, offering €460,000 in prize money and traditionally taking place the day after the Irish 2000 Guineas in late May. Included amongst what is always a stellar line-up is a selection of fillies arriving on the back of a run in the English version of the race. As of 2023, four fillies have registered a Guineas double, including the hugely popular English raider Attraction in 2004.

Irish Champion Stakes

This late-season event sees the focus switch to the Dublin track of Leopardstown for one of the most spectacular all-age contests of the year. Offering a cool €1.15 million in prize money, this 1m2f Group 1 affair provides a fascinating clash of the generations as the latest Classic crop locks horns with the most talented older runners in training. Regularly amongst the highest-rated races in the world, the list of previous winners reads like a who’s who of racing greats, with the likes of Sadler’s Wells, Dylan Thomas, Sea The Stars, and Golden Horn all featuring on the roll of honour.

Best of the Jumps

Racing at Fairyhouse
Racing at Fairyhouse (Dan Heap, CC BY 2.0, via Flickr)

As well as the five races listed above, the five NH contests that follow are also a huge part of the Irish racing scene.

Irish Grand National

Everyone loves a Grand National. There’s just something about the sight of a field of strapping staying chasers tackling a marathon trip which captivates racing fans from far and wide. Things are no different in Ireland, with this 3m5f, 24-fence contest always one of the biggest betting heats of the season. A cornerstone of the Irish sporting season, its fixed position on Easter Monday helps to ensure a capacity crowd at Fairyhouse. Those in attendance are rewarded with one of the finest spectacles Irish racing has to offer, in a contest previously won by the legendary duo of Desert Orchid and Arkle.

Irish Gold Cup

Of the 37 Grade 1 events on the Irish National Hunt programme, 15 take place at the beautiful track of Leopardstown, found just to the south of Dublin. Included amongst that number is this high-class contest for the most talented staying chasers. Staged around a month before the magnificent Cheltenham Festival, it is in this €227,500 (2023), 3m event that the best of the Irish stamina-laden performers explode onto the scene. The prolific Willie Mullins landed this prize for the 12th time with Galopin Des Champs in 2023, who subsequently claimed Cheltenham Gold Cup glory in spectacular style.

Irish Champion Hurdle

The Dublin Racing Festival of February is one of the first dates in the diary of Irish horseracing fans and is littered with Grade 1 highlights. Hot on the heels of the Irish Gold Cup comes this mouthwatering event, which sees the best of the 2m hurdles do battle. Many of the leading lights from this race have followed up at Cheltenham in March, including the sensational Istabraq, who claimed this prize on four occasions, and Hurricane Fly, who bettered even that record with an incredible five successive wins between 2011 and 2015.

Punchestown Gold Cup

With the latest Cheltenham Festival still fresh in the memory, Ireland plays host to its own five-day bonanza in late April/early May. This €279,000 (2023) 3m½f chase takes centre stage on Day 2 and draws many of the same contenders from the Prestbury Park equivalent in March. Given the demands of the Cheltenham contest, it is a tough task to win both races in the same season. Tough, but not impossible, as illustrated by Kicking King (2005), War Of Attrition (2006), and Sizing John (2017).

Punchestown Champion Hurdle

It seems every leading jumps festival needs a Champion Hurdle, and not to be left out, Punchestown grants the 2m hurdlers their turn in the spotlight on the penultimate day of its flagship meeting. Nine flights stand between the field of speedy jumpers and the lion’s share of the €282,000 (2023) prize pot, with quick, accurate hurdling the name of the game. Making its debut in 1999, the race made a flying start, with Aidan O’Brien’s mighty Istabraq posting a dominant success. Since then, this has largely been the Willie Mullins show, with four-time hero Hurricane Fly amongst the Closutton-based stars to claim the prize.