Things We Learned » How many Irish winners?

How many Irish winners?

So how many Irish-trained winners will there be next week?  More than 10?  More than 12?  Any chance we could have more winners than the British again?

Haven’t times changed?

The late 1980s aren’t that long ago, when Galmoy flew the Irish flag ina aonar and then finally succumbed to the inevitable, John Mulhern’s horse’s defeat to Rustle in 1989 leaving the Irish toothless and at the mercy of the domestic gale.

At least the addition of the Champion Bumper in 1992 meant that we were insulated against an Irish blank, but even so, seven winners in 1996 was monstrous.

The Irish could always train racehorses, the difficulty back then was in getting the horses to train, or in keeping the horses to train.  Most talented young Irish National Hunt horses who won a bumper or a point-to-point back then were defenceless in the face of foreign buyers waving willing cheque books.  So when they raced at the Cheltenham Festival, they raced for British trainers, even if they raced for Irish breeders.

The temptation to get complacent, however, should be avoided.  True, there were 12 Irish-trained winners last year and there were 14 in 2013 and there were 13 in 2011, and if Askthemaster had finished first instead of second in the finale, in the Grand Annual, there would have been more Irish winners than British winners at Cheltenham for the first time then, instead of two years later.

However, there were only five Irish-trained winners in 2012.  And last year, going into the final day, in a year in which the Irish challenge appeared to be front-loaded, there were just six Irish winners to the British 14.  That was before Gold Cup day last year, a truly surreal day, with six of the seven races going to Irish-trained horses, and if Arctic Fire had won by a half-length instead of getting beaten by a half-length, there would have been an Irish clean sweep.

How many favourites?

There are four horses at the Festival priced up at less than 2/1 in the ante post markets.  All four are set to run on the first day of the meeting, and all four are trained by Willie Mullins and will be presumably ridden by Ruby Walsh.  At best odds, it’s 15/1 that all four win, and those odds will be attractive to lots of punters.  There could be singing in the streets on Tuesday night.

Could be magic week for Meade

Noel Meade would be within his rights to be more excited about next week than he has ever been about a Cheltenham Festival before in his life.

The Meathman has a long and checkered relationship with the Festival.  Remember Heist?  Remember Harbour Pilot?  Remember Hill Society?  How could you forget Hill Society.

It didn’t matter that Meade’s horse’s head was front a stride before the line and a stride after the line, nor that the photo went on until the runners were going out for the Champion Hurdle, the record book shows that Champleve won the 1998 Arkle, not Hill Society, and that that’s just the way it is.

It didn’t all end either when Sausalito Bay beat Best Mate to land the 2000 Supreme Novices’ Hurdle.  The very next day, Native Dara went five lengths clear over the final flight in the Coral Cup, and somehow conspired to get caught on the line by What’s Up Boys.  Meade said that, if Sausalito Bay hadn’t won the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, if he hadn’t broken his Cheltenham maiden the previous day, he probably would have climbed up to the top of the stands, and jumped.

Last year, then, was a welcome change in Cheltenham fortune.  The trainer can’t have gone to the 2014 Cheltenham Festival with the bar of expectation set too high, and it would have been lowered considerably even from its low level when Very Wood was found to be lame on the eve of the Albert Bartlett Hurdle.  Through-the-night attention from the trainer and his team meant that, not only was the Gigginstown House horse able to run in the Albert Bartlett, he was able to spring a 33/1 shock in it.

This year, Meade has assembled as strong a Cheltenham team as he has ever assembled.  Road To Riches has a genuine chance of winning the Gold Cup, Very Wood is a worthy favourite for the National Hunt Chase, Wounded Warrior is under the radar in the RSA Chase, Apache Stronghold is a big player in the JLT Chase, Ned Buntline looks well-handicapped in the Grand Annual and Monksland is not without a chance in the World Hurdle.  Add in other potentials like Snow Falcon and Ipsos Du Berlais and Waxies Dargle and Rich Coast and Bose Ikard, and the fact that the trainer has had his horses in sparkling form all season (his strike rate in February was 26%), you just never know.  This week could be one of the good weeks.

Ned could be hottest handicap favourite ever (all things being equal)

Speaking of Ned Buntline (he’s in there, honestly), all thing being equal he will line up in the Grand Annual Handicap Chase.  It is, after all, his only entry.

This year, the Festival finale will be known as the AP McCoy Grand Annual Handicap Chase, not the Johnny Henderson Grand Annual Challenge Cup.  It’s a good move.  All things being equal, it will be the last Cheltenham Festival race in which AP McCoy will ride.  It is only fitting that the occasion should be marked.

The champ will probably ride Ned Buntline in the finale.  JP McManus has six other entries in the race, but Ned Buntline is by far the most likely. The Refuse To Bend gelding has an awful lot in his favour too. He is a free-going sort who is ideally suited by the fast pace that the Grand Annual invariably generates.  He proved as much in the race last year, when he beat everything except Savello in a race which, you presume, would have been won by whatever Davy Russell had ridden, on the day that was in it.  (Midas touch, Gold Cup day.)

It appears that Noel Meade has been training Ned Buntline for just one day this season.  His only run this term to date was in a handicap hurdle at Leopardstown’s Christmas Festival, and you can be sure that he will be primed to the minute on Friday. He is still only seven and he has run just five times over fences in his life, so he still has buckets of scope for progression.  He will race off a mark of 142 on Friday, just 4lb higher than last year’s rating.  He has a fantastic chance.

Add the McCoy factor, the weight of money that will surely come for the last favourite on the last day of the Festival, AP’s last, in the race named in his honour, the depth of emotion that that will generate, the historical occasion, the desire to be a part of it.

Unsinkable Boxer was sent off the 5/2 favourite when he won the 24-runner Gold Card Final in 1998 (led on bit approaching two out, canter) and Blowing Wind was sent off the 15/8 favourite when he landed the 27-runner County Hurdle two days later.  (Guess who rode those two.)  Ned Buntline’s SP could get close to those two, he could go off one of the shortest-priced favourites for a Cheltenham Festival handicap in history.  He could win too.

Quiz time again

Which of these races will be run at the Festival next week and which ones will not?

  1. Ultima Business Solutions Handicap Chase
  2. Rewards4Racing Novices’ Handicap Chase
  3. Byrne Group Plate
  4. CHAPS Restaurant Barbados Novices’ Handicap Chase
  5. JLT Specialty Handicap Chase
  6. Brown Advisory and Merriebelle Stable Plate
  7. Baylis & Harding Affordable Luxury Handicap Chase
  8. Ryanair Chase


© The Irish Field, 7th March 2015