Donn's Articles » The Irish

The Irish

So where did the Irish thing start? With Vincent O’Brien, that’s where. Where most Irish things started.

It was in 1948 that Vincent O’Brien sent his first horse to Cheltenham. Cottage Rake went over on the boat with Phonsie O’Brien, lodged with the cattle and the stevedores on the way over, and stopped with Gerard Balding (Ian and Toby’s father) for a few days before heading on to Cheltenham and winning the Gold Cup.

The following year, Vincent decided that he would fly Cottage Rake over, and that he would send two horses with him, Hatton’s Grace and Castledermot. Cottage Rake won the Gold Cup again, Hatton’s Grace won the first of his three Champion Hurdles and Castledermot won the National Hunt Chase, and the rivalry was on.

There have been great Irish/British rivalries down through the Cheltenham ages. Arkle/Mill House, Monksfield/Sea Pigeon, Viking Flagship/Klairon Davis. However, the Irish have never been able to match the British numerically. Or they hadn’t until recently.

It got close in 2011 when, 13-13 going into the finale, the Grand Annual, the Robert Tyner-trained 11-year-old 50/1 shot, the only Irish-trained representative in the race, moved threateningly around the home turn, but just could not withstand the finishing surge of Oiseau De Nuit.

After a return to a more accepted five winners in 2012, bizarrely, last year was a carbon copy of 2011. 13-13 going into the Grand Annual, Alderwood the sole Irish representative in the race. The difference last year was that AP McCoy delivered on the Tom Mullins-trained gelding. 13-14: away win.

It was a long way from the 1s and 2s of the mid-1980s, when the John Mulhern-trained Galmoy twice, in 1987 and 1988, single-handedly resisted a whitewash. 1989 was the blank year, when not even Galmoy could get on the board.

What has happened since? There are more races at the Cheltenham Festival these days, more opportunities, more winners, but that isn’t it. It is the dramatic increase in the proportion of Irish winners that is noteworthy, not just in the absolute numbers.

Interestingly, here have always been Irish-bred winners at Cheltenham. Even during the barren years, when British-trained horses were keeping the big prizes at home, they were doing so with horses who had been bred in Ireland. If you were an Irishman with a point-to-point winner in those days, or a promising bumper horse, you bowed to the might of the British cheque book.

These days, there are enough Irish-based owners with resources to match their passion for National Hunt racing. People like JP McManus, Rich Ricci, Alan Potts, Michael O’Leary and Barry Connell want their horses to race in Ireland. The net result is that, when these horses race at Cheltenham, they race for Irish trainers.

Willie Mullins was top trainer at the Cheltenham Festival last year for the second time in three years with five winners. Until Mullins was top trainer in 2011, no Irish trainer had achieved the award since Edward O’Grady tied with Ferdy Murphy and Martin Pipe with two winners in 1996. But the most encouraging element to last year’s Irish haul was that, while Mullins was dominant, nine different Irish trainers led their horses into the winner’s enclosure.

This year, an Irish-trained horse is either favourite or second favourite for 18 of the 27 races. It couldn’t happen again, could it?

© The Sunday Times, 9th March 2014