Volume 6, Number 1

March 2008

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Horses and Horseracing: An Irish passion in Nineteenth-Century Río de la Plata

By Edmundo Murray 


A horse race
(Emeric Essex Vidal, 1820)

In cuadreras, no consideration was given to the horses’ weight or age or to the riders’ weight or height. They ‘ride without saddle, whip, or spur, having only a bridle without a bit; and thus the spirit and speed of the animals have fair play’ (Essex Vidal 1820: 113). Frequently, the cancha (course) was a common plain or road, and only three or four races were performed in an entire afternoon, ‘which tire the patience of any person accustomed to English racing’ (113).

Inextricably associated with gambling in Britain and in Argentina, ‘great sums of money [were] often staked on these matches’ (113). Essex Vidal adds that spectators were numerous, including friars who were ‘remarked as great betters’. These and other persons from all walks of life were constant spectators at cuadreras. However women were not allowed to attend this exclusively male entertainment. In Buenos Aires, there were frequent races at the Beach Road (the present-day motorway to La Plata), Calle Larga (Montes de Oca Avenue), and the low grounds of Recoleta and Retiro. 

Horse Racing a la inglesa

In 1826, the Buenos Ayres Race Club was founded by a group of British and Irish merchants of that city. On 6 November 1826, the first races a la inglesa (English-style, that is, on a circular course), were held in Barracas. The winner was Thomas Whitfield’s Shamrock, who won by many lengths, followed by Baron and Teazle in the first race, and St George and Integrity in the second one. Later, in 1835, races were organised with fifteen or more horses and betting was considerable: ‘the first [race] will be for 100 dollar Stakes, and the second for 50’ (The British Packet, 3 January 1835 cited in: Hanon, 2005: 52). Another novelty of the English-style races was that women were present among the audience, some of them in carriages and others on horseback. Races were also very popular in Recoleta. 

By the mid-1840s, there were races a la inglesa organised in Barracas, Recoleta and Belgrano. On 31 October 1844, a ‘picnic party’ on James White’s property in Belgrano attracted prominent spectators as well as ‘respectable criollo and foreign families’ (The British Packet, 31 October 1844 cited in: Hanon, 2005: 53). The afternoon races included for the first time several gentlemen sporting the jockey attire. In 1849 White opened a new course ‘stretching along the base of a semi-circular inclined plane’ (53). It was twenty-six metres wide and covered fifteen cuadras, with a straight of 150 metres before the starting line. The following year, the Foreign Amateurs Racing Society was established, and its members organised races in springtime and autumn. They met in the rooms of the Strangers Club of Buenos Aires, and supported the importation of thoroughbred horses.

In 1853, local mares began to be bred with imported stallions, like the bay Azael, and James White’s Belgrano. Their contemporary Tam O’Shanter was the great favourite in all races. The Racing Society, dominated by the British and Irish merchants of Buenos Aires, organised races until 1855, when local meetings in Capilla del Señor, Carmen de Areco, Pergamino and other towns of Buenos Aires province attracted the attention of the English-speaking and local public resident in the camp.

Irish on Horseback

Having been tenant farmers in Ireland, the Irish dreamt of becoming landlords in the Río de la Plata. Their use of horses as farming devices at home developed into a major interest in races and breeding as external symbols of landownership in the Pampas.

Early nineteenth-century races in Ireland were predominantly organised and attended by landlords or their associates, and followed the patterns of English racing. In County Westmeath, the famous Kilbeggan races were held for the first time in 1840. A group of landlords, professionals and administrators launched a Challenge Cup valued at forty guineas, with ten pounds added by the stewards. Racing was held in several locations around Kilbeggan, including the present site at Loughnagore (Kilbeggan Races).

When the Irish went to Argentina and Uruguay, they largely settled in rural areas and were partially responsible for the cultural transfer that converted the local cuadreras into English-style races. Most of them learnt or perfected their basic riding skills brought from Ireland upon their arrival to Buenos Aires. In a few years they would be able riders and expert horse breeders.

In 1847, the Revista del Plata reported a discovery by an Irish settler in Monte of a new method of castrating horses. ‘The method in question was rather an introduction than a discovery, for according to the description of the performance of the operation it was nothing more or less than the form of castration in common practice in Ireland in such cases’ (Murray 1919: 214). Other stories were told of the ability of certain Irish immigrants to ‘set’ the bones of both horses and humans.

A story in Monte illustrates the accentuated learning curve in horse-riding experienced by some of the new Irish immigrants:

A native attacked an old Englishman, named Davy, trying to ride him down. Davy struck the native’s horse with his stick, the rider jumped off and stabbed the old man several times. A young Irishman named John Gilligan, attracted by the shouts of the old man, rode up to the scene and dashed between the native and his victim; the native at once turned on him; Gilligan rode his horse against him, knocking him down and then jumped off to assist the old man who was dying; while thus engaged, and entirely unarmed, the native got to his feet, ran at Gilligan and stabbed him in the stomack [sic], causing almost immediate death (Murray 1919: 215).


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Copyright © Society for Irish Latin American Studies, 2008 

Online published: 12 March 2008
Edited: 07 May 2009

Murray, Edmundo, 'Horses and Horseracing: an Irish passion in Nineteenth-Century Río de la Plata'
in "Irish Migration Studies in Latin America" 6:1 (March 2008), pp. 59-66. Available online  (www.irlandeses.org/imsla0803.htm), accessed .


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