Saddle up for race through history - looking back at the world’s first steeplechase

It is safe to say that, even allowing for 265 years of inflation, the prize fund of €500,000 for this year’s Irish Grand National is somewhat more than the value of the hogshead or cask of wine that two Corkmen competed for in the world’s first steeplechase.

A re-enactment of the world's first steeplechase from Doneraile, north Co Cork, as part of 'The Irish Grand National — Chasing a Dream'

It was a wager made in 1752 by huntsmen Edmund Blake and Cornelius O’Callaghan to see which of their horses would gallop fastest the four miles between the steeples of St John’s Church in Buttevant and the Church of St Leger in Doneraile.

History does not record who won the bet but an account of the race was made and went viral in an 18th century way — so much so, that the account of the steeplechase made its way to the library of the O’Briens of Dromoland Castle.

In the land of the famous Duhallow hunt, other huntsmen and women soon abandoned riding to hounds for the thrill of this form of point-to-point racing. It had the added advantage that, by keeping the steeple of the church in sight (steeplechasing), both riders could see their finishing point.

The drama of steeplechasing, which quickly spread to England, France, and the US, is featured in an RTÉ television documentary on Easter Monday, the day of the 2017 Irish Grand National at Fairyhouse, now the richest jumps’ race in the country.

The programme examines how this thrilling and dramatic sport came to be and how far it has evolved around the world.

The Irish Grand National — Chasing a Dream also chronicles the Irish Grand National, telling the story of one of Ireland’s greatest sporting traditions since 1870.

The event was established that year and the inaugural race at Fairyhouse was won by a horse called Sir Robert Peel, with a winner’s prize money of 167 gold sovereigns.

The feature length documentary which includes never seen before archive footage and images, relates the fascinating history of this historic race, contextualising it with relevant transformative events in Irish history. Known as the ‘peoples race’, its emotional stories will capture the hearts of all viewers, not just horseracing fans.

Revealing and intimate accounts come from those most associated with this iconic race, including members of the generations of racing families who helped make it what it is today, such as the Carberrys, Dreapers, Hughes, Moores, Mullins, Taaffes, Walshs, and Woods.

Other contributors, including David Elsworth, Jenny Pitman, Mouse Morris, and Richard Dunwoody, tell their own intriguing stories of their participation in one of the nation’s best-loved sporting events.

Expert insight comes from commentator Dessie Scahill, Guy Williams, senior national hunt handicapper Noel O’ Brien, Robert Hall, and Ted Walsh.

It features racehorses that have taken their place in sports folklore such as Desert Orchid , who had movie star status and was stabled in a secret location before the race; the great Arkle , who won in 1964; and Brown Lad , the most successful horse in the history of Fairyhouse.

Part of the allure of the race is you don’t have to be a celebrity racehorse to win it and longshots such as 50-1 shot Liberty Counsel in 2013 have proved this.

The Irish Grand National – Chasing a Dream will be broadcast on RTÉ One this Monday at 6.30pm.


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