Horse Racing Events – What Major Horse Races Can You Bet On?
Last updated & tested: 2019-05-15
As horse racing is the sport of kings, it has a truly global profile. There are certain international horse races that make for some of the most valuable prizes in any sport. Whether it’s in the UK or Ireland, on mainland Europe or even further afield, famous horse races have developed with storied histories to go with them. Like all sports, horse racing events are evolving with new races added, others moved to accommodate them and some even discontinued if the quality and quantity of entries are declined.
Here at OpenOdds, we celebrate more than just UK horse races and cover big events in the Republic of Ireland and abroad. This is our hub for major horse races that highlights the absolute best in this great sport. Before you place any bets on these events, it’s good to know a little bit more background on what exactly you’re taking a bet on. While the history of horse racing events don’t provide any guarantees, being aware of trends in relation to successful horses, jockeys and trainers can help to inform your betting choice. That’s what we’re all about on OpenOdds! More details can be found below on the action that takes place throughout the season in the UK, Ireland and beyond.
An overview of UK horse races
Some of the major horse races in Great Britain can go back 200 years or more. There is a rich tradition for this sport in the British Isles generally, but we’re dealing with Ireland separately here. The Jockey Club founded in 1750 was responsible for the regulation of UK horse races until 2006 when the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) took over the day-to-day running of the sport. With rules, like all jockeys weighing in after a race, established early on, a calendar of racing soon developed and gradually evolved into the annual programme we know today.
Broadly speaking, British horse racing has a jumps or National Hunt season that has its best events on during the winter months between October and April, and a Flat season that starts properly at the end of April and finishes in October. Both spheres of horse racing in the UK have less high profile events outside of those windows, with the Flat happening on all-weather artificial surfaces at certain racecourses, like the Northumberland Plate at Newcastle, predominantly during the winter.
What UK jumps racing is there?
As obstacles like hurdles, fences and even ditches on a Cross Country course are crossed in National Hunt horse racing, the animals ideally need there to be some give in the ground when clearing them in order to reduce the risk of injury on landing. The going during the winter months is invariably softer underfoot than the summer months in the British Isles, so what famous racing events are on in that window between October and April?
The Cheltenham Festival is a big driving force of jumps racing. Held in March over four days out in the Cotswolds near the Gloucestershire town, the testing and undulating nature of the track is the reason why this racecourse is home to the UK’s championship hurdle and chase contests. There are divisions based on distance or whether horses are novices over one type of obstacle or another.
Many trials for the Cheltenham Festival championship races are held both at the course and many others around the UK. All top National Hunt races are graded either 1, 2 or 3. The lower the number, then the higher the grade. This is also the same for the class of race. While Cheltenham is the holy grail of the jumps, the Grand National at Aintree is the ultimate test of horse and jockey. Thoroughbreds who contest this race in April must have proven endurance to get its marathon trip and clear unique obstacles, many of which are larger than the standard fences cleared in other steeplechases.
Tell me more about the Flat
While National Hunt racing is all about the ability to hurdle well or get over fences, the Flat has races over shorter distances in general. A 5f sprint isn’t something you’ll see over jumps, but on the level or all-weather it makes for a thrilling minute of end-to-end galloping. That’s just one type of Flat race of course. Horses start racing on the level at an even younger age (juveniles are two-year-olds in this sphere rather than from the age of three over jumps).
The British Flat racing calendar has built up around five races in particular; the Classics. These are for three-year-old colts and fillies only and are indicators of elite thoroughbreds for subsequent careers as stallions and broodmares once their racing days are done. The oldest of the British Classics is the St Leger, run at Doncaster, but it is the latest in the year. Before that, the 1000 and 2000 Guineas happen on the Rowley Mile at Newmarket, while horses that look like staying further contest the Epsom Oaks and The Derby about a month later.
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A rarely attempted feat these days is the Triple Crown; winning each of the 1000 Guineas and The Oaks, or the 2000 Guineas and the Epsom Derby, and then the St Leger. This requires a thoroughbred racehorse to have sufficient turn of foot to win over a mile, but go on to stay well over one-and-three-quarter miles. In-between Epsom’s Derby meeting and the Leger are three big Flat horse racing galas over the summer in Royal Ascot, Glorious Goodwood and the Ebor Festival at York.
Like the July Festival at Newmarket, which is known as the headquarters of British Flat racing, these events are highlights in the calendar which celebrate horses of all ages performing on the level. The UK Flat season officially ends on British Champions Day back at Ascot in October and, like the jumps finale equivalent at Sandown in April, there are still events held in this sphere beyond the climax of the campaign, like the old Racing Post Trophy.
Famous horse races in Ireland
It’s often said that the best racehorses are bred and trained in Ireland, so the form of the events that take place in the Emerald Isle have to be treated with the utmost respect. You only have to look at the recent dominance of Irish riders at the Cheltenham Festival to know this old saying is true. While British horses are sometimes targeted at races in Ireland, there somehow seems to be more success the other way round.
As in the UK, the Republic of Ireland has both a lively National Hunt and Flat horse racing scene. The dominance in the British Isles of the likes of training trio Aidan O’Brien, Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott comes across both spheres. More modest horse racing operations like Jessica Harrington’s yard have also enjoyed considerable success over jumps and on the level too.
The Irish horse racing year follows pretty much the same pattern as the British calendar. National Hunt is at its best during the winter months, while the Flat takes centre stage during the summer. While jumps action has a pretty healthy splits between Ireland’s premier racecourses at the highest level, the Flat scene is dominated by The Curragh.
Curragh Classics and Irish Champions Weekend
All five of the Irish Classics are held at The Curragh and this concentration of elite races at one track can be viewed two ways. It certainly gives course specialists an advantage, but the rest of Ireland with the exception of Leopardstown that hosts one day of their Champions Weekend and regular group action on summer evenings is a little starved.
As noted above, the Irish racing calendar draws on the British. That means three-year-old colts and fillies contest the Irish Guineas first; 1000 for the females and 2000 for the boys. One notable difference from British Classics, however, is the Irish Derby and Irish Oaks are not held on the same day, but at different times. The Irish St Leger, meanwhile, is open to horses older than three, who must give weight-for-age away to the Classic generation.
With The Curragh hosting the vast majority of Group 1 Flat races in Ireland, Leopardstown is often the track used as trials for the Classics. That is one of several dual-purpose horse racing venues in Ireland, though predominantly used for jumps actions which we’ll touch on shortly. Naas, Navan, Listowel, Limerick, Galway, Gowran Park, Down Royal, Tipperary, Killarney and Cork are similar, alongside Fairyhouse. Dundalk, which is an all-weather venue, is Flat only like The Curragh.
National Hunt horse racing festivals in Ireland
Some of the big horse racing events in the Emerald Isle are mixed like the Galway Festival or the Harvest Festival at Listowel. Come the winter months, however, it’s all about jumps racing and this great sport has some of its most famous horse races. Fairyhouse is home to the Irish Grand National, the centrepiece staying handicap chase of the three-day Easter Festival. Earlier in the National Hunt season, however, it is home to the Winter Festival at the start of December.
Leopardstown, meanwhile, has two huge events. The Christmas Festival starts on Boxing Day, called St Stephen’s Day in Ireland as that is the Catholic Church’s designated feast day for the saint, and goes on for four days. The Christmas Chase, that in the past had attracted some of the biggest outside sponsors to horse racing, and Christmas Hurdle are among the Grade 1 races ran here. A newer innovation also at Leopardstown is the Dublin Racing Festival in early February; this was only inaugurated in 2018, but now groups a lot of Irish trials for the Cheltenham Festival in the UK all together for one stellar weekend of jumps action,
That just leaves Punchestown and their five-day end-of-season festival to highlight. Jumps racing in Ireland reaches a thrilling climax with this huge gala at the end of April. There are many Irish equivalents of the Cheltenham Festival championship races, although the Irish Gold Cup and Irish Champion Hurdle are held at Leopardstown during the aforementioned Dublin Racing Festival. Valuable prizes galore are on offer for National Hunt horses here.
The main international horse races
Major horse races aren’t confined to the British Isles. Far from it. Across the Channel in France, there is a very lively Flat scene that culminates in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in Paris. There’s also French jumps racing to enjoy with Auteuil, and the French Champion Hurdle is a race that UK and Irish trainers have done well in. British Isles raiders in general have a decent record in these main horse racing events in France.
A short trip over the Channel is one thing, but there are great international horse races across the Atlantic in the USA and even further afield. The Kentucky Derby is undoubtedly the East Coast of America’s biggest Flat race. Unlike the British and Irish Classic equivalents, it’s open to geldings as well as three-year-old colts and fillies. Churchill Downs is a dirt track – racing on this instead of turf is popular in the States – in the city of Lexington.
Across the other side of America, meanwhile, in California, the Breeders’ Cup is held with Group 1 races on both turf and dirt in November. There are various divisions with events for juveniles, fillies and mares only, and at various distances. The Breeders’ Cup is after the end of the regular Flat season in the British Isles, but is still targeted by UK and Irish racehorses and their connections for the valuable prizes on offer on America’s West Coast.
No mention of horse racing on international scale would be complete without the Melbourne Cup. Australia’s race that stops a nation is one of the most valuable staying handicaps in the world. No British trained horse has ever scooped success Down Under, but that could easily change one day as Irish horses have won it. Owners are prepares to send their thoroughbreds from all around the world in search of the prize pot.