Standing around in a rainy field on a cold Sunday in February might not be many people’s idea of fun, but we Irish have long been famed for our eccentric ways. Just as we have been famed for our love of horses.
And so, amid winter weather that would keep most front doors firmly shut, it is this enduring passion for the equine that brings us out amongst the country’s forty shades of green to enjoy a sport at which we are undoubtedly the best in the world: national hunt horse racing.
The myths and legends of Ireland are populated with heroes and their horses. Records of racing in the country stretch back as far as the third century, when charioteers used to compete across the open plains of County Kildare.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, racing as we know it started to take shape, with the institution of the King’s Plate series (the equivalent of today’s Group races) and the establishment of the Irish Turf Club, which laid out the rules and regulations that are used to govern the sport to this day.
An ideal climate, rich pasture, and a people imbued with a centuries-old affinity with the horse have since made Ireland one of the central hubs of world racing. Indeed, this small country is now the number one producer of Thoroughbreds in Europe.
The high-end breeding industry that has brought the country such success, represented by the likes of Coolmore and the Irish National Stud, is of course geared towards flat racing.
As renowned Irish trainer Ted Walsh points out, “Flat racing is business. If you have a good colt, he may become a stallion and worth a lot of money. If you have a good filly, she can become a broodmare and you might be able to sell her offspring for a good price at the sales.” In national hunt racing however the majority of the equine participants will never be used for breeding and therefore have little commercial value.
So what drives Irish owners to invest often substantial sums in jumps horses? And what is it about national hunt racing that sees the country’s numerous courses regularly filled to capacity with passionate and knowledgeable crowds? Let’s take a tour of a few of Ireland’s diverse national hunt tracks to find out…
Located in what is known as the ‘Thoroughbred County’ of Kildare, Punchestown Racecourse is the home of Irish jumps racing and each April hosts the five-day Punchestown Festival. This is the culmination of the Irish jumps season and features a host of top Graded contests and hot handicaps, attracting the cream of the home horses as well as a select band from Britain.
This national hunt bonanza is the Irish equivalent of the Cheltenham Festival (or even Royal Ascot on the flat), and every owner, trainer, jockey, and breeder dreams of having a winner here.
But it is not simply the high prize money offered that they are interested in, though this might seem the principal goal for an outsider. Nor is it the chance of landing a valuable bit of black type. For, as mentioned above, the odds of making a fortune from the future breeding of even a Champion jumper are very slim.
What drives the Irish national hunt enthusiast is the very idea of sport.
If we turn to the dictionary we will see this term defined as ‘an activity involving physical exertion and skill in which an individual or team competes against another or others for entertainment.’ This combination of ‘physical exertion and skill’ certainly rests at the heart of national hunt racing.
For many Irish national hunt fans, no one race better exemplifies the sporting thrill of ‘the jumps’ than the La Touche Cup, a historic cross-country contest traditionally run over 4 miles and 1 furlong (6,600 meters) on Day 3 of the Punchestown Festival.
Each horse and rider must negotiate 35 formidable obstacles including drop banks, log fences, open stretches of shallow water, Aintree Grand National-style fences, and even a stone wall or two. What is more, this attritional slog is regularly fought out in ground conditions that the average flat horse might drown in.
This is the kind of race that transcends economic concerns and appeals to more visceral and even ‘old-fashioned’ values such as bravery, endurance, and horsemanship, because without these qualities, it is impossible to win a La Touche Cup.
The horses and jockeys (and by extension the trainers, owners, and breeders) who come home with their heads in front at the end of this annual marathon achieve hero status and win the respect and admiration of a tight-knit national hunt racing crowd for whom courage, determination, and the will to win mean a deal more than sales prices or fancy clothes.
It is also for these reasons that, for many, a La Touche Cup winner is much more likely to live on in the memory than even the most impressive victor of, say, a 5 furlong Group 1 flat contest.
In addition to this, and on a much more practical level, jumps horses, and particularly those who run in specialist jumps races like the La Touche, may compete in the same contest for numerous years, with repeat winners of such idiosyncratic challenges being quite a common occurrence.
This is exemplified by a horse like Risk Of Thunder, who won a remarkable seven consecutive runnings of the La Touche Cup from 1995-2002 (there was no race in 2001) and is hence engrained in the consciousness of Irish jumps fans.
After retiring from racing, Risk Of Thunder spent his days as the paddock mate of Istabraq, one of the most famed jumpers of all time, with both receiving regular visits from adoring fans. When Risk Of Thunder died at the age of 27 in 2016, his life and career were the subject of substantial news and TV coverage in Ireland.
“This is the kind of race that transcends economic concerns and appeals to more visceral and even ‘old-fashioned’ values such as bravery, endurance, and horsemanship.”
As Jim Kavanagh, former CEO of the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association, points out, “The national hunt horse will run until he’s 10 or 11 years of age. He’s around a long time, so you can build up a relationship with him. With a flat horse you can’t because maybe at the end of his 3-year-old career he’s gone to stud.”
There is greater narrative to jumps racing and though the Classic path of the European flat season is undoubtedly compelling, the longer, more meandering and unpredictable route of bumper horse to hurdler to chaser has a particular appeal for an Irish people renowned for their appreciation of a good story.
With the first meeting at Ireland’s premier jumps venue having been held in 1824, the Punchestown turf has come to mean much more than money for many. To win a race at the Festival is to become even a small part of a national hunt racing heritage rich with legendary tales of courage and athleticism that is hard to equal anywhere else in the world.
THE GALWAY RACES
I can think of very few places where it would be considered economically viable to stage seven consecutive days of horse racing, yet Galway’s annual week-long racing binge, which first began as a two-day event in 1869, now stands as one of the feature meetings of the year.
Due to the fact that it runs for seven full consecutive days and is scheduled from the end of July into August, most of the action at the Galway Races, which in fact combines both flat and jumps contests, cannot rival Punchestown in terms of quality.
That said, a ripple of excitement and a recognizable roar will nonetheless rise from the packed stands for even the lowliest of Maiden Hurdles. This fervent following can be explained for two principal reasons.
Firstly, there is the betting angle. As Ted Walsh, who has an intimate understanding of the Irish racing psyche and who is not averse to taking a punt on one of his own fancied (or preferably unfancied) runners, explains, “The people who go to national hunt racing understand it and they like to gamble.”
The roar that rises as the tapes go back is not merely the expression of a purely sporting excitement, but a release of tension and a means of encouragement for the beast whose form has been closely followed and on whom hard-earned is riding.
Of course, great sums are also gambled on prestigious flat contests such as the Epsom Derby or the Hong Kong Cup, but the Galway Races are defined by their ever-energetic betting markets.
A word for a local runner set to turn over a talking horse from a more powerful stable in the Galway Plate, the feature chase of the week, can make or break a host of punters and creates a sense of solidarity among them that is entirely unique.
This combination of excitement and solidarity is fundamental to the second reason for the particular appeal of both Galway specifically and national hunt racing in general: the ‘craic’.
This elusive Gaelic-derived term will often be reached for when diehard jumps fans attempt to express what sets their preferred code apart from the flat and is generally employed by Irish people to refer to good times, banter, or general boisterous enjoyment.
For if the Prix de Diane at Chantilly in France evokes the height of flat racing’s famous elegance, then the Galway Races express the heart of the jumps’ unrivaled conviviality.
The stranger next to you in the Galway stands might become your best friend for the day. A jockey passing on his way from the weighing room might toss you a tip for the next race. A triumphant owner might pay a round of drinks for the entire winners’ enclosure.
There is a certain irreverence and sense of fun in the air at Galway that is rarely attained at many flat meetings of similar stature due to the fact that high-profile flat events can often have a serious economic impact for the participants in terms of breeding and sales.
In contrast, and to continue with the earlier theme of narrative, it is most often the big wins for the least illustrious of owners and trainers that generate the greatest reaction at Galway.
This was exemplified wonderfully in 2012, when the small yard of famously eccentric and ebullient Cork trainer Mick Winters sent out Rebel Fitz to win the Galway Hurdle, the feature hurdle race of the Galway Festival.
Due to the humble nature of his connections, the horse had been largely disregarded by the bookies, despite impressive and progressive form. In the week leading up to the race, however, the 7-year-old was seemingly backed by every person in Cork and his price tumbled from 16/1 to 5/1 at the off.
When Rebel (as he is known) passed the post in front under Cork jockey Davy Russell, there were scenes of unbridled jubilation in the paddock, and Mr. Winters was carried to receive his prize on the shoulders of a raucous crowd of friends and associates.
“Coming down the hill I thought we were beat, and I thought on the line we were beat,” Winters said after the popular victory. “Our crowd were like lunatics around me, and they thought he won. He is named after John Fitzgibbon, the Cork hurler, and he is Cork through and through.”
Though no doubt in part stimulated by a few big bets landed, this unforgettable moment of spontaneous expression again represents the sense of solidarity and sporting passion that is so entirely distinct to Irish national hunt horse racing.
Like the yard of Mick Winters, Ballinrobe is small and virtually unknown outside Ireland. Yet for those who live in proximity to this rural track, it holds great importance due to the fact that it regularly brings together a community who, outside of racedays, would otherwise have limited opportunities to gather as a large group.
And gather they do, as from my experience you might well see more faces in the stands for a Ballinrobe bumper than a Longchamp Listed race.
What is more, these are people for whom the animals themselves, though they may not be as glamorously bred as those that strut around the Bois de Boulogne, are the principal attraction.
Indeed, each horse is closely scrutinized by the locals in the parade ring before a wager is laid and the progress of the race is attentively assessed, often with the aid of some well-worn binoculars.
In addition to this, the informal atmosphere that is such a feature of jumps racing in Ireland means that attending a meeting at Ballinrobe is an intergenerational outing. The kids are free to enjoy themselves in a secure environment as the other members of the family take in the action.
The afore-mentioned Jim Kavanagh asserts that, “The national hunt is more rural in so far as the people that follow it are, by and large, rural people and close to the horse.” At a track like Ballinrobe, this is clearly felt, with local owners, trainers, jockeys, and breeders always prominent in both the racecard and the stands.
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From the pulsating home run in Punchestown’s La Touche Cup, to the rising roar of a well-backed winner of the Galway Hurdle, or a local-bred victory on a big day at Ballinrobe, Irish national hunt racing holds a unique place within global racing culture.
So ignore the weather warnings and experience national hunt racing in Ireland in 2018. You may get wet, but you won’t regret it!