By Michael O’Rourke, Horse Racing Ireland
Ireland is the land of the horse, known throughout the world as a centre of excellence for breeding, horse training and racing thoroughbred horses.
At the centre of Ireland’s racing tradition lies Kildare, the thoroughbred county and the heart of that living tradition is the Curragh, a 5000 acre plain, one of Europe’s oldest natural grasslands perfectly designed by time and the hand of man for one of nature’s most beautiful sights, the running horse.
Tales of horses running on the Curragh plains take us beyond recorded history to the myths and legends of old Ireland which tell of Fin McCool and his warriors, the Fianna, emerging from their fortress on the Hill of Allen to race their horses across these plains.
By the 17th century, Dublin came to the Curragh, not for war but for sport, as the gentry gathered on the plains for hunting with hounds, and above all challenging each other to match races. By the late 18th century, the Turf Club was established in Kildare to formalize the rules of racing and to publish a calendar with details of the races run in Ireland. Bloodstock breeding activities led to Bird Catcher, a handsome colt who was one of the most brilliant on the Curragh and whose descendants have made him one of the greatest sires in racing history.
Thus, the foundations were laid for the success story that is Irish Racing. Modern Irish racing took shape with the establishment of the Irish Derby in 1866, the first and greatest of the Curragh classic races. The Irish Oaks, the Irish St. Leger and the Irish Two-Thousand and One-Thousand Guineas followed after. Commercial sponsorship of the Derby, first by the Irish Sweeps and then by Budweiser, put the race firmly in the international limelight and the world’s best horses have ever since contested this jewel in the crown of Irish racing.
One name bestrides the racing history of Ireland like a colossus, Vincent O’Brien, winner of the Triple Crown with Nijinsky, a feat not matched since. In an exceptional career, O’Brien would claim six Epsom Derby’s, three Prix de l’Arc de Triomphes, three successive Aintree Grand Nationals, and four Cheltenham Gold Cups.
Vincent O’Brien’s successor at Ballydoyle bears the same name, but is no relation, other than unshared genius with the racehorses. Aidan O’Brien has rewritten the records so often that any attempt to capture his achievements on the printed page would ensure that piece became outdated overnight.
The story is still being written and new stars of the turf appear every year. The sport itself is changing rapidly but one constant remains – the passion for racing among the Irish people and our natural affinity for the horse as breeders, trainers, jockeys, grooms and in a myriad of other supporting roles. The Celtic warriors of the Fianna no longer race across the plains, but the Celtic tiger’s progeny still come to match the best against the best and while doing so have plenty of fun.
Irish racing festivals have become the major social and sporting occasions of Irish life in every season of the year and maintaining a sporting tradition that spans the centuries, Irish jockeys, trainers and horses continue to win the world over.