Irish Horse Racing

Racing_Shot “There is no secret so close as that between a rider and his horse”

Robert Smith Surtees
Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour, 1853

In the novel of Castle Gillian, one of the most important, if not exciting, scenes is the race meeting where Robin Morrison’s horse, ‘Benbecula’, is ridden by the apprentice jockey, Dinny Lane, after being nursed back to health by Mary Morris of the once-famous stables, ‘Castle Gillian’.

Given that the author, Maurice Walsh, was both a Kerryman and from a family with an abiding interest and background in thoroughbred racing, it is not surprising that one of the pivotal scenes in the novel is set in a regional racecourse.

The question, of course, is which Irish racecourse is used as the location?  The most likely answer – and a racecourse known to Walsh – being not far from Gullane Glen (gael: An Gallán) the location of the novel’s setting – is at Listowel.  Listowel racecourse is a flat left-handed course of just over a mile in length.

Horses_Racing_JumpsIrish people have a strong and innate pride in thoroughbred horse-racing and in their horses’ prowess. An old saying goes that “one may get away with insulting a man’s wife or family but never his horse.”  The history of Irish racing goes back to the mid-18th Century, when the original Irish Jockey Club took the permanent name, the ‘Turf Club’, in 1784.

There have been many instrumental figures in the development of Irish racing over the last two hundred years. In the last fifty years in which the industry has grown exponentially, in which time Ireland has gone from being a bit-player on the fringes of world racing to being a world leader. The most important factor in this increasing prominence is the Irish horsemen and women who have made Ireland a centre of horse racing excellence.

The period from the 1940s onwards was one of change for Irish racing, and a number of men were responsible for this change which elevated Irish horses, owners and trainers to new heights and levels of respect worldwide.

In 1943, the most important figure in Irish racing history, the late, great Dr Vincent O’Brien, trained his first winner, Oversway, having taken over the family’s training licence on the death of his father Dan. O’Brien raised the bar for Irish racing throughout his career, setting ever higher standards.

Over jumps he sent out an extraordinary three winners in a row of each of the Cheltenham Gold Cup (‘Cottage Rake’ 1948-50), Champion Hurdle (‘Hatton’s Grace’ 1949-51) and Grand National, (1953 ‘Early Mist’, 1954 ‘Royal Tan’ and 1955 ‘Quare Times’). At a period of harsh economic times for the country, he gave the people a reason to cheer.

Vincent O'BrienO’Brien’s legacy lies in more than just the memorable racecourse performances of those horses, for they have all exerted a lasting influence on the breed as their bloodlines are to be found in the pedigrees of horses all over the globe.

O’Brien was to win six Derbies and the names of his greatest horses trip off the tongue like the poetry of W.B. Yeats: Ballymoss, Gladness, Nijinsky, Sir Ivor, Roberto, The Minstrel, Alleged, Storm Bird, El Gran Senor, Sadler’s Wells, Royal Academy, legends all.

He was also an innovator and pioneer in the art and science of training racehorses and took it to a new level. It shouldn’t be underestimated how extraordinary it was at the time for Derby winners to be trained from what was, until O’Brien transformed it, essentially a Tipperary farm. He died in 2009 at the age of 92. The esteem in which he was rightly held by the racing public was acknowledged when he was voted by the readers of the racing post as the greatest, most influential racing figure of all time.


All of today’s racehorses can be traced back in the sire line to one of these three stallions:

Darley Arabian1. The Darley Arabian was born circa 1700 and the story goes that he was bought from a Bedouin Sheikh, Mirza II, in Syria by Thomas Darley, an English merchant, for 300 gold sovereigns. However, the story goes that the Sheikh regretted the sale of his finest colt and reneged on the deal but Darley eventually took possession of the colt and he arrived in England in 1704 and became a prolific sire of good racehorses.

2. The Byerley Turk was a ‘spoil’ of war. He was taken from a captured Turkish officer at the Battle of Buda in Hungary by Captain Robert Byerley, serving under King William III of Orange. This was 1688 and the horse was deemed to be around eight years old at the time. When Byerley was dispatched to Ireland his ‘war charger’ came with him and participated at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. The horse also took part in a race meeting at Down Royal that year, winning the top prize of a Silver Bell. He later went to stud in England.

3. The Godolphin Arabian antecedents are less clear but it was believed that he came from Tunisia and that he was owned by King Louis XV of France before being purchased by an Englishman, Edward Coke, and brought to England in 1729. On Coke’s death he bequeathed the horse to his friend Roger Wiliams before the Earl of Godolphin acquired him and stood him as a stallion. Descriptions and portraits of him refer to his exquisite quality and proportions.


Stud_BookIn 1793 the General Stud Book was published in England by James Weatherby, the then secretary of the English Jockey club. At the time racing and breeding records tended to be haphazard and, in order to regulate it somewhat, Weatherby undertook to provide an account of the pedigrees of racing horses of the time.

Though updated many times since, this tome traced the pedigrees of about 400 select mares and stallions whose lineage could be reliably known and this core group formed the breed which later came to be known as “Thoroughbreds.” From such small beginnings the breed has found its way to almost every part of the globe. To this day the Weatherby family, now a limited company, still maintains the records of the Stud Book or thoroughbred Breeding registry in both Britain and Ireland.

A strange phenomenon is that the Thoroughbred, which was essentially Anglo/Arab stock became vastly superior to other breeds that developed outside of those in the closed Stud Book. The separate Arab breed that exists today is approximately one second per furlong slower than a thoroughbred. That doesn’t sound like a lot but even in a race of eight furlongs would represent a mismatch that could barely be evened up by a vast weight concession from the thoroughbred. Whether it was environmental factors some genetic compatibility or a combination of both, something clicked 300 years ago in the coming together of this most refined Arabian blood with the native horse stock that produced this superior horse.



The gestation period in horses is generally 11 months but can vary up or down and sometimes lasts a full 12 months depending on various factors such as weather, environmental conditions and nutrition.

Newborn foals range in weight from 70 pounds (31.8 KG) to 120 pounds (54.5 KG) at birth. Foals are suckled by their dam for usually the first six months of life before they are weaned though this can be done earlier if necessary. With the right nutrition young thoroughbreds grow quickly, attaining 90% of their full adult height by the time they are two years old.


Points_of_The_HorseA horse’s skeleton keeps growing until it is five years old. However, they can still appear to be growing by putting on muscle mass after this time. An adult horse has 36 teeth: 12 Incisors or front teeth, 12 premolar and 12 molar teeth. Some horses (most male horses) also have canine teeth and ‘Wolf’ teeth, which are small premolars.

It is possible to tell a horse’s age by looking at its teeth.

Fully mature racehorses weigh from approximately 880 pounds (400 KG) to 1430 pounds (650KG).

An adult racehorse has 205 bones in its body.

The average stride length of a racehorse at the gallop is 4.5 -7.2 Metres, (14.76 – 23.6 Feet). However, some of the great horses in history have reportedly had much greater stride lengths than that. The great US racehorse Man O War, their champion in 1919/20, was reported to have had a stride length of 28 feet: that’s an amazing 8.5 metres.

Every step that a 1000 pound, galloping, racehorse takes puts 1800 lbs. of pressure on each leg.

The heart rate of a racehorse ranges from approx. 28-52 Beats-per-Minute at rest up to 210-250 Beats per Minute at maximal rate.

A horse’s heart weighs approximately 1% of it’s total body mass. The average weight of a racehorse’s heart is 8.5 pounds and it continues growing until the horse is four years old. Some of the great horses in history have had their heart size measured after death and it was much larger than that. One of the greatest stallions in history, Eclipse, reportedly had a heart weighing 14 pounds. Secretariat, the champion American horse of 1972-73 had a heart that, on autopsy, was estimated to be 22 pounds weight!

The left-hand side of a horse is called the ‘near’ side and the right-hand side is called the ‘off’ side.

All horses born in the northern hemisphere become one year old on New Year’s Day each year no matter what date they were born on.


Horses are measured in ‘hands.’ One hand is equal to four inches or 10.16 cm. the ‘hand’ increases in increments of a quarter: i.e. 1, 2, 3. a horse is measure from the ground to the top of its withers. The average racehorse measures 63 inches, 15. 3 hands high or 1.62m approx. This is the average height of a 13-year-old human.


The top speed of a racehorse is 47 miles per hour, making it the second fastest animal on earth behind the cheetah and racehorses have a jockey on their back!

However, a racehorse cannot sustain this top speed for longer than a quarter mile, 2 furlongs or 400 metres and they slow down dramatically at this speed. However, while running at just below top speed of 44 miles per hour a racehorse can sustain this level of speed for an amazing one and a half miles, and is capable of clocking 2 Minutes 24 Seconds for this distance, approximately the world record time.


Racing_Shot_5STAGE 1

The first 6-12 weeks are all about building a routine, usually by sending horses on a couple of steady canters a day.

Many horses have been broken by the time they come to a trainer but most aren’t. Traditionally, it takes five to six weeks to break a horse, to have them accepting the rider at the walk, trot and canter.

Like any athlete, a horse is given a general tonic or vitamins on a daily basis. It is also important to keep the electrolyte levels right, to keep them hydrated with a good balanced diet of straw and feed.

Racing_Shot_2STAGE 2

Work is stepped up. This entails what is called half-speed work, or a “swing”, which is quicker than a hack canter but not a flat out gallop.

Flat horses are stalled – put through the starting stalls (or barriers) until they are comfortable with the claustrophobic nature of being boxed in on all sides.

By the time you have a young horse stalled, three to six months will have elapsed. Not all race horses make it past Stage 2 if they fail required stall tests after several attempts.


Most horses travel with boots and bandages to protect their feet and the tail is tied to stop them rubbing it.

Arrival at the track is a minimum of two hours before race time.

The horse is walked and the mouth sponged, while many trainers now put a muzzle on to stop it picking at the shavings in its box.

Great care is taken to keep raceday horses calm. Some horses like crowds and noise, others are more flighty and prone to becoming stressed if not managed at the track.  Clear signs of anxiety may include the horse’s ears being pinned back, tetchiness with a strapper, throwing the head about and similar indicators that not all is well.


“The racing surface is paramount. That is top of the list.”

Ireland’s unpredictable climate tests the ability of the ground staff throughout the nation’s 26 tracks. In times of snow and frost, grass growth is the main concern. If it’s raining, flooding is a problem and in dry spells, watering might have to be considered.

What the ground conditions are like on the course are critical. Some horses can go on any surface, but all have a preference and most are vastly inferior on heavy if they prefer good ground and vice versa. A quick perusal of the form should reveal a trend.

The going refers to whether the ground is hard or soft, and there are numerous variations around those classifications. In Ireland they are as follows:

Good to Firm
Good to Yielding
Yielding to Soft
Soft to Heavy


In Ireland the maximum weight typically carried by a horse in Flat racing is 10 stone. The minimum weight on the flat is 8 stone 4 pounds.


Racing_Shot_4A horse that stays well but doesn’t quicken will need to be near the pace, stretching the others out, while a horse with finishing speed will need to be reserved and settled.

It is important to get the horse to ‘drop the bit’, basically to relax and get into a nice rhythm no matter where it is positioned. If they don’t do that they usually can’t win. It is all about getting your horse in the comfort zone, about economy of effort. If they are out of their comfort zone it makes things that bit more difficult.

An important part of this is having the horse on the right leading leg. If the course is left-handed you want it to lead with its left leg; i.e. it is the last leg to leave the ground, pushing the horse into its airborne state between strides.

During the race you are aware of other horses and what their jockeys are doing. You know the horses that you have to beat and look out for them. Closer to the finish when the race really begins, and you want the horse to go faster, you change your hands i.e., basically take a tighter grip on the reins.

This lifts the bit in the horse’s mouth, communicating to the horse that you want it to go a bit faster and it feels that sense of urgency from you, it stretches out under you and hopefully that extra speed is there when you ask for it. If it is, you gradually keep increasing the speed as much as necessary to get into the position you want to be in. Some horses take more work than others to do that and when you are close to the finish you really start riding hard but all the time keeping in rhythm with the horse, pushing it to stride.


The whip is needed to encourage the horse. When you use it, the horse realises that maximum effort is now necessary and hopefully it will stretch its head out in front of you and really try hard. The whip is also helpful to keep the horse balanced and going in a straight line. If the ground is soft, the whip is very important to keep the horse going forwards especially when it gets tired.


Nowadays, all race cards carry information on a horse’s previous races. The first thing to look at is where the horses have finished. The numbers to the left of their names indicate that. A lot of 0s indicate a failure to be placed. 4, 3, 2 and the coveted 1 are what you want to see. The numbers start from first runs to last, moving from left to right. Recent finishes are usually more relevant than something that happened three years ago.

But there is more to this form than meets the eye. Apart from the finishing positions, cards provide in-depth information on a horse’s last three runs.

Other factors apart from the finishing positions to consider include:


In flat racing, you have sprinters too and even in that sphere, there is a significant difference between five and six furlongs, as there is between 100m and 200m.


Many races are handicaps. A handicapper’s dream would be for every horse to pass the line in a dead heat, because his job is to give the horse with the best form the top weight and rate everything else in comparison to that to give them an equal chance.

Good form leads to an increase in weight, so just because a horse won last time out doesn’t mean it will do so again. In fact it often means it won’t because it is in receipt of a penalty.


Has the horse a preference for galloping courses or a tighter track? A long-striding horse will prefer the former; the speedster will relish the latter. Is it a flat track or one with lots of undulations that make it difficult to settle into a rhythm? Does the horse have a distinctly better record going left-handed than right-handed? It might sound strange but some horses are a stone worse travelling one way or the other.

Now you know where the term ‘horses for courses’ came from!