The history of horse racing in Northern Ireland and Belfast

Horse racing has a long and storied history throughout the island of Ireland.

If you were to pop into any pub in Belfast on a race day, this would be immediately obvious as you will inevitably be greeted by the sight of eager horse racing fans obsessively scanning the nearest TV screen for the latest race updates.

Thankfully, horse racing websites have made this task considerably easier, as you can now access information on all the latest races, as well as the horse racing offers, with the click of a button. To learn more about the best horse racing betting offers, check out!

Looking beyond the modern races held at the likes of Downpatrick and Down Royal, however, what is the history of horse racing in Northern Ireland?

According to the conventional accounts of the sport, its history stretches all the way back as far as 60 AD. The ancient text ‘Togail Bruidne Dá Derga’ references chariot races taking place in the Curragh during the lifetime of King Conaire Mór, with the Curragh still holding a special place in the Island’s horse racing culture.

Other references to horse and chariot racing are found throughout ancient Irish mythological texts, with the likes of the Liber Hymnorum and the Book of Leinster all making mention of this traditional sport.

In its more modern form — which would be more familiar to horse racing fans in Belfast today — the 17th century proved particularly important.

A 1603 royal warrant entitled the governor of Derry/Londonderry to hold fairs and markets in the area, which also included the staging of horse races. Evidently, this was a popular pastime in this period, with a popular 1622 poem telling a tragic tale of a much-loved jockey being killed while participating in a horse race in Carrickfergus.

Horse racing was also clearly a popular activity for Anglo-Irish peers, with Lord Digby, the Earl of Ormond and Lord Kildare all either holding or actively competing in races.

It was during the reign of King Charles II, however, that competitive horse racing began to formalise. In 1666, Charles II introduced the King’s Plates Races.

At the same time, horse breeding was developing across Ireland. This was helped by the establishment of horse studs such as The Curragh and the Down Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders.

These developments helped to cultivate competitive horse racing throughout the island. Race meetings were advertised extensively in the press, with a 1750 English racing publication even advertising over 70 events in Ireland.

This development continued during the 19th and 20th centuries at a steady pace, despite minor interruptions during periods of war, such as the Napoleonic Wars and the First World War. In both instances, competitive horse races dropped in volume and frequency so horse stocks could be used by the military. However, these races later resumed.

The strong legacy of horse racing outlined above has left the Island of Ireland pockmarked with a network of historic racecourses which continue to be popularly used today. While the province of Leinster has some particularly important sites in The Curragh, Leopardstown and Punchestown, Ulster similarly holds its own.

Downpatrick Racecourse, which is located just outside of Downpatrick in County Down, has a history stretching all the way back to 1685 when James II of England issued letters patent establishing The Royal Corporation of Horse Breeders in the County of Down. Race meetings have been continuously held at this site for well over three centuries and it continues to draw crowds from across the British Isles.

Similarly, the Down Royal Racecourse also has a history stretching back to the same royal charter issued by James II of England. Although the races themselves have a slightly shorter history, with the first events occurring in the early 18th century.

In addition to these historic racing locations, Northern Ireland has also produced a long line of talented jockeys. This includes names such as Stephen Carson, Ray Cochrane, Pat Cosgrave, Tony Dobbin, Richard Dunwoody, Tony McCoy and John Reid — to list just a few!

Interestingly, many of these figures were born in County Down, which shows just how big an impact the Downpatrick and Down Royal racecourses have had!

Belfast natives will be quite familiar with Thomas Dunwoody, who is easily the most well-known jockey to hail from the city. Born in 1964, Dunwoody went on to have a glistening career, securing notable wins across Great Britain and Ireland. Perhaps most notably, he is a three-time Champion Jockey, which is awarded to the jockey that has ridden the most winning horses during a season.

Clearly, Northern Ireland, and Belfast in particular, have a long and storied history with horse racing. Thankfully, this legacy is being kept alive both by the many horse racing fans found throughout Northern Ireland, as well as the many talented jockeys Ulster continues to produce. This has helped to cement horse racing as one of the most popular sports in Northern Ireland!

Love Belfast
Love Belfast
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