Pony Racing on the sands of the Emerald Isle

Pony racing on the Irish coast
Pony racing on the Irish coast

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Story highlights

  • Pony racing takes place annually on the Irish coast
  • Many famous jockeys made their names on Doolough strand

Watch the latest episode of CNN Winning Post to find out more about Irish horse racing.

Doolough, County Mayo, Ireland (CNN)Most people go to the seaside to sit back, relax and get away from the rush of everyday life.

But those who head to a three-mile stretch of coastline in County Mayo, Ireland every August are there for another reason entirely.
For 25 years, spectators have been heading to the Geesala Festival to watch ponies gallop at full speed across the sand.
    The Doolough Races have kick-started the careers of numerous internationally-acclaimed Irish jockeys, from Chris Hayes to Colin Keane.
    "We're here in a very unique place, right out on the west coast of Ireland," Gerry Coyle, chairman of the Geesala Festival Committee, tells CNN.
    "All the famous [Irish] jockeys you see around the world now started their careers here.
    "Kids love it, the jockeys love it and the trainers love it, because it's such a unique place."
    September: Racing on the Emerald Isle
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    Starting young

    The jockeys' weighing room might just be a horse trailer with some bathroom scales, but don't think the lack of top-class facilities detracts from the sweetness of riding a winner.
    Many children in Ireland develop a passion for horses at an early age and pony racing provides an outlet and an avenue to succeed.
    A Pony is classified as such due to its height. Anything standing over 14 hands and 2 inches is considered a horse. A hand is a measurement used in horse racing and is equivalent to four inches.
    "I've been racing since I was 10," aspiring jockey Mikey McGuane tells CNN ahead of this year's event. "I've had almost 100 rides and 13 winners. I'd love to be like Colin Keane who started his career in Geesala."
    With his father John and older brother David both acclaimed jockeys, one youngster with a lot to live up to is 15-year-old Phillip Egan.
    "It's about the grassroots and this is where we all start," Egan tells CNN. "All everybody wants is a winner!"
    The importance of horse racing to Ireland
    The importance of horse racing to Ireland

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    'It gives everyone a chance'

    The prize for first place at Doolough Strand is hundreds, rather than thousands, of dollars but bookmakers bellow odds and hawkers sell their wares just as they do at the world's most prestigious events.
    "I've been going here for 20 years and it's the best pony racing in Ireland," bookmaker Ray Ruane tells CNN.
    "Many people in Ireland keep a horse on their farm and this gives the small farmer a chance to win a small race, rather than taking on the likes of Willie Mullins.
    "They go pony racing, it gives their son a child a chance to learn, and the best education is on the beach."

    Post-race swim

    Pony racing is good for the animals, too.
    The sand is soft underfoot and has more "give" than turf, reducing impact on tendons and the likelihood of jarring.
    Meanwhile the salt water allows the ponies to cool down, cleaning any cuts and loosening muscles.
    Why do race horses love the beach?
    Why do race horses love the beach?

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    Trainer Gai Waterhouse, known as the first lady of Australian racing, compares it to professional athletes in a hydrotherapy pool, with joints supported by the water.
    "Playing in the sea and sand lets horses relax," says Waterhouse. "It's playtime as well as good exercise."