Donn's Articles » Irish down

Irish down

Lots of good things happened at Cheltenham’s Open meeting at the weekend. As an appetite-whetter to the season ahead, it was perfect, the potential equine stars emerged, the crowds were up 5%, and the sun even shone on Sunday.

That said, despite the jam-packed over-head compartments on the Birmingham-bound planes, the Irish influence appeared to be weaker this year than usual. In the enclosures during the day and in the bars and restaurants at night, common consensus was that Irish voices were muted. Economic reality bites – they can’t all have been in Estonia.

Of course, the Cheltenham Festival in March has long since been an Irish domain. Ever since Vincent O’Brien began bringing Cottage Rake and Hatton’s Grace over, and taking the Gold Cup and the Champion Hurdle home with him, the relationship between the Irish and the Cheltenham Festival has evolved from one of intense rivalry to one of interdependence. At no point in the history of the Festival was this more in evidence than in 2001, when the outbreak of foot and mouth meant that, for several days it looked like the meeting was going to go ahead without the Irish, several days of anguish, before the Cheltenham lambs intervened.

But the Irish have become an integral part of the November meeting as well. Sponsors Whitbread recognised the Irish angle as far back as 1996 when they changed the name associated with the flagship contest from Mackeson to Murphy’s. Paddy Power recognised the value of the Irishness of the meeting – and, indeed, accentuated it – when they began their current sponsorship in 2003.

But as well as Irish people, Irish horses appear to be getting less prolific at the meeting. Some of the Irish strongholds did remain strong, races like the Cross-Country Chase, in which Irish-trained horses made up half the field this year and filled the first two places, and the Grade 2 novices’ hurdle on the Friday, in which four of the nine horses were Irish and which was won by the Jessica Harrington-trained Steps To Freedom. And the Willie Mullins-trained Dorset Square ran a cracker to land the three-mile handicap hurdle on Saturday, a race that the Irish hadn’t won since Tom Hogan sent Sonnyanjoe over to win it in 2007.

However, there are other races at the meeting in which a strong historical Irish involvement is slipping. Like the very first race on the Friday, the amateur riders’ handicap chase, a race that Irish horses won every year between 2006 and 2008. Last year, there were no Irish runners in the race. This year, the Jim Culloty-trained Barrel Of Laughs ran on well to finish third, but he was one of just two Irish-trained runners among 15 declarations.

In the conditional jockeys’ handicap hurdle on the Friday, a race that the Irish have won twice in the last five years, again there were no Irish-trained runners in the race last year, and just one this year in a field of 23, Kaiser So Say, who was pulled up before the second last flight. Even in the bumper, the final race on the Sunday, a race in which Irish horses have unsurprisingly excelled, there were just three Irish representatives, with none of them reaching the first four.

Prize money has to be an issue. Perhaps it was the case that, in the past, when the Celtic Tiger roared and we lived for today regardless of the cost, the glory and the honour that went along with having a winner at Cheltenham, even if it wasn’t at the Festival, was the most important thing for Irish owners and trainers, and that prize money was merely a secondary consideration. Not any more.

We have to be thankful that prize money levels have held up in Ireland as well as they have, but, despite the fact that Irish trainers continue to plunder some of the smaller prizes at Ffos Las and Perth and their ilk, the discrepancy between levels in the two jurisdictions must have an effect on trainers’ mindsets. Connections of One Term, who landed the bumper at Cheltenham on Sunday, a race that was contested by the collective winners of 13 races, won £6,264. Connections of Formidableopponent, who won the bumper in Navan five minutes earlier, a race for racecourse maidens who had just two point-to-point wins between them, won €5,520.

Noble Prince would have added considerable strength to the Irish Paddy Power Gold Cup team on Saturday had he made the trip, and First Lieutenant would have been a huge player had he been declared for either of the two novices’ chases in which he was entered. Prize money may not have been the primary consideration in keeping those two at home, but Noble Prince was an even money shot for a €24,375 pot at Navan on Sunday (as opposed to a 10/1 shot for the £85,425 Paddy Power Gold Cup on Saturday – do the math). First Lieutenant’s potential winnings were no bigger than £12,512 at Cheltenham. The Drinmore Chase at Fairyhouse on 4th December, his next obvious target, was worth almost four times that last year.

You don’t need a PhD in Maths to figure it out.

© The Racing Post, 15th November 2011