Horse racing in Ireland is what you would call ‘edge-of-the-seat’ entertainment. So, with the Punchestown Horse Racing Festival just around the corner, we asked sports fanatic Paul Rowley to take us through a day at the races and see if he could break even…
A racehorse is an animal that can take several thousand people for a ride at the same time
Those words of wisdom echoed into one ear and out the other as I took a fresh gulp of the Punchestown Racecourse air. There’s definitely something in the air today. The heady combination of steam from the horse’s nose, the grassy turf already in ribbons, the rubbing hands and low laughter from the stands. And the vague but just as probable feeling that there’s more than the jockey riding on the horse.
Placing a bet isn’t a must, but even a one euro flutter on a random name adds an extra frisson to proceedings. I can’t help but be drawn to ‘Celtic Wish’ in the 13.55, but worry that it’s a bit obvious. I follow the crowds to the betting shacks dotting the track side, and the loud bookies in their tweed jackets waving their arms and writing on blackboards. The bookie takes my money and gives me a wink. I wonder if that’s a good sign.
Ten minutes before the race the horses are paraded, giving the crowd a last look and prompting me to regret not choosing the animal with the prettiest colours. The horses approach the line. The stands are packed to the rafters. Expectation fizzes through every finger stroking a betting slip.
Finally the starting gun pierces the hush, the horses dash and the stands erupt with cheers and pleas (and the odd swear word, if I’m honest). The end is met with a cheer, binoculars being thrown aside and even a few betting slips being ripped up. Luckily for me, Celtic Wish powered home in second at an exciting 10/1.
But I’ve started at the end; let’s go back to the beginning.
Horse riding has been a popular jaunt in Ireland for millennia and, naturally, legends and myths are filled with equine companions. Fierce characters such as Cú Chulainn had his mighty chariot horses Grey Macha and Black Seanglan, while the Fianna, a legendary band of warriors, rode around bravely on steeds. Another famous horse was Oisin’s, the magical four-legged hero who could ride on water in the legend of Tír na nÓg (the Land of Youth).
The devotion to horses around the island continues today in trail riding, trekking, beach riding, cross-country gallops, hacking and even dressage, but the thrill of live horse racing is tough to match.
If you’re feeling lucky, you can have your pick of the 28 racecourses dotted around the island. The ultimate in atmosphere is the horse racing festival, though. Crowds pack into Punchestown in May, flock to July’s Galway Races and congregate at the Down Royal NI Festival of Racing in November.
I try to consider another wise quote from WC Fields:
Horse sense is the thing a horse has, which keeps it from betting on people.
Nobody else here seems to have heard it as they approach the tote, though. Experts consider an array of factors: the form guide, the course, race distance, weight, jockey, owner and trainer.
However, buoyed by my windfall of a whole €2.50, I’m just on the lookout for another promising name. I circle the aptly named ‘Ambitious Fan’ in the 2.30 on my guide, get another wink, and hold my breath…
Some of the main races around Ireland include:
But you can see a list of all the fixtures from the official racing site goracing.ie