Ireland is synonymous with lush greenery and beautiful horses, which go hand in hand when it comes to Irish horse racing. National Hunt Racing, the sport of jumping over a series of hurdles, originated in southern Ireland. One of the best stud farms in the world, Coolmore Stud, is located in Tipperary. Also based in Tipperary is incomparable Irishman Aidan O’Brien, one of the greatest horse trainers in the world. Ireland’s best horses have been making a steady impact on American racing for years, and with the addition of synthetic surfaces to California, they look to become even more formidable in the near future.
There are twenty-seven different racecourses in Ireland for both flat and hurdle racing. Some of the best races run throughout the year include the $1.5 million Irish Derby (gr. I), run for the first time in 1866, and the Irish Champion Stakes (gr. I), a race won by Sadler’s Wells in 1984. In fact, the great Sadler’s Wells retired to Coolmore Stud for the breeding season of 1985.
Coolmore Stud: The Pride of Ireland
The Coolmore farms located in Australia and the United States are among the best of each respective country, but the original Coolmore Stud in Ireland surpasses even those. Established in 1975, the farm has produced many racing legends over the years. Standing there until early 2008 was Sadler’s Wells, arguably the greatest stallion in the world with 276 stakes winners to date including stars like Montjeu, High Chaparral, Galileo, and El Prado. This year, Coolmore Ireland will stand 21 stallions, including Classic winner Galileo (IRE) and the highly regarded pair of Duke of Marmalade and Dylan Thomas.
Coolmore’s runners are prepared at Ballydoyle, a training facility managed by Aidan O’Brien also in the county of Tipperary. Prison-like security on the grounds surrounds Ballydoyle, which is home to racehorses whose total value hovers around $100 million. In the last ten years alone, horses such as George Washington and Rock of Gibraltar have emerged from Ballydoyle. Before that, both Sadler’s Wells and champion Nijinsky, sire of Kentucky Derby winner Ferdinand, were based there.
Irish Horses in America
The annual Breeders’ Cup in North America, which celebrated its twenty-fifth anniversary last year, has seen sixteen Irish-bred horses take home victories. Twice, in the 1996 Breeders’ Cup Turf and in the 2003 Filly and Mare Turf, Irish-breds swept the top three places. In 2008, three different races were won by Irish-breds: Goldikova in the Mile, Conduit in the Turf, and Muhannak in the Marathon.
Due in part to the success of Irishman Patrick Gallagher, a regular trainer on the Southern California circuit who was born and raised in Northern Ireland, Irish horses have been making an impact in Southern California in particular. After receiving early schooling from his close friend, the legendary jockey Bill Shoemaker, Gallagher trained Irish-bred fillies Three Degrees (IRE) and Valbenny (IRE) to become graded stakes winners in Southern California. “Irish horses are raised on the incredible grass there from day one,” Gallagher explained. “They get just as good care here as there, but being on that grass all the time might make a difference in how they grow up.”
Before the addition of synthetic surfaces to American racing, European-bred horses were purchased and imported to the States with an eye on turf racing. According to Gallagher, that is no longer the case. “Before, we brought them here to run on the turf. But now we have another option: to run for bigger purses on the all weather.”
There are no glaring differences in the way Irish horses are trained compared to American horses. However, in Ireland and other European countries, all horses are trained out of yards such as Ballydoyle rather than living on the racetrack year round. With a focus on National Hunt Racing, Irish horses tend to last a little longer and compete well when older. There is no racing on the dirt in Ireland, as all races take place on the turf or a synthetic surface.
Influencing the Modern Thoroughbred
One Irish-bred stallion is rapidly changing the American racehorse gene pool. That change comes via Street Cry (IRE), the Dubai World Cup victor who stands at Darley in Lexington, Kentucky. In his first crop, Street Cry sired Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (gr. I) winner Street Sense, the lightning fast sprinter Street Boss, and the undefeated champion mare Zenyatta. It now costs $150,000 to breed to the young stallion, whose offspring should continue to light up the racing world for years to come.
In California, In Excess (IRE) has led the stallion list twice and regularly appears as the sire or dam sire of stakes winners bred in the Golden State. Irish-bred Theatrical contributes worldwide influence as the sire of million-dollar earners in Japan and the United States.
This St. Patrick’s Day, take a look at the pedigrees of the horses in the program and notice how many are of Irish descent. They may be worth a play at the windows as the ultimate hunch bet!
Emily Shields s a regular contributor to Case the Race. She has written for California Thoroughbred, Churchill Downs media, and international racing magazines.