Things We Learned » Some Festival

Some Festival

Cheltenham week was some week.  It always is.  Even a week after the last race has been run and the last presentation has been made, it still resonates.  In truth, the Cheltenham Festival resonates until long after the last race has been run.  For years after.  For decades after.  It leaves an indelible mark. 

There were heroic performances, human and equine.  It was Cheltenham after all.  It’s the greatest stage, everyone is trained to the minute, human and equine.  (See above.)  You are probably going to need to put up a heroic performance if you are going to prevail.  From Summerville Boy and Footpad and Buveur D’Air through Samcro and Presenting Percy and Altior and Balko Des Flos and Laurina all the way to Farclas and Native River.  

Gordon Elliott had his team in sparkling form again.  From no winners on the first day to eight winners by the time the curtain came down, and top trainer at Cheltenham for the second year running.  Willie Mullins shone, as he usually does.  Who would have thought that you could ever train seven winners at a Cheltenham Festival and not be crowned leading trainer?  Even so, it was another fantastic week for Closutton, and Laurina’s win in the Mares’ Novices’ Hurdle took Ireland’s champion trainer’s Cheltenham Festival tally to 61, past Nicky Henderson as the winning-most trainer in the history of the event.

Davy Russell excelled again, top rider at the Cheltenham Festival for the first time and one of the few remaining gaps on his CV now filled.  Jack Kennedy matched Russell’s total of four, and Barry Geraghty, Ruby Walsh and Paul Townend had two each.  Five riders rode more than one winner at the Festival, and all five are Irish and Irish-based.

You have to feel for Ruby Walsh, whose festival run was cut short after the second race on the second day.  You saw his talent showcased again on day one though, two winners from five rides, two superb and very different winning rides.  Hopefully he will be back for Punchestown.

The girls came to the fore too.  Lizzie Kelly and Katie Walsh and Bridget Andrews, but Harriet Tucker’s achievement in riding Pacha Du Polder to victory in the Foxhunter, her shoulder dislocated on the run-in, must be a leading contender for achievement of the week.  And the competition for that accolade is intense.

It’s a Cheltenham thing

The Irish/British thing was centre stage again, as it usually is at Cheltenham.  It was centre-stage even in the late 1980s and early 1990s, although it wasn’t much of a competition then, unless you think that Manchester City v Accrington Stanley is competition, with Manchester City playing at home. 

Back then, you never really thought that we would ever get to a point at which there would be as many Irish-trained winners as British-trained winners at the Cheltenham Festival.  Even in 2006, when Irish-trained horses won 10 of the 24 races, it was surely a blip, and that hypothesis was proved when there were just five in 2007.

It was only in 2011 that the realisation dawned that there could be a year in which there would be as many Irish winners as British winners.  That year, Irish-trained horses won 13 of the first 26 races, and the Robert Tyner-trained Askthemaster, the sole Irish representative in the final race, the Grand Annual, a 50/1 shot, challenged between the final two fences before giving best to the 40/1 shot Oiseau De Nuit.

Just five Irish winners in 2012 suggested that that might have been a blip as well, but then the trend took hold: 14 Irish winners out of 27 races in 2013, 12 out of 27 in 2014, 13 out of 27 in 2015, 15 out of 28 in 2016, 19 out of 28 last year, 17 out of 28 this year.

Now it’s a competition.  In four of the last six years, there have been more Irish-trained winners than British-trained winners at the Cheltenham Festival.  It is also true that, in four of the last 66 years, there have been more Irish-trained winners than British-trained winners at the Cheltenham Festival.

In the last seven years, there have been 95 Irish-trained winners and 97 British-trained winners.

Talk of an Irish domination is mis-placed, and talk of protectionism is surely just knee-jerk-reaction talk.  Maybe somebody was talking about Brexit and somebody else just overheard.

And the argument that Irish horses are leniently handicapped does not stand up.  There were 10 handicaps run last week, five were won by an Irish-trained horse and five were won by a British-trained horse.  Fair, you think.  50-50.  Not, however, when you consider that 12 of the 18 non-handicaps were won by an Irish-trained horse. 

So 67% of the non-handicaps were won by an Irish horse, as against just 50% of the handicaps. 

Also, Irish-trained horses filled 16 of the 36 places that were available in the non-handicaps (second and third in each of the 18 races), and British-trained horses filled 19 (including a dead-heat between two British-trained horses in the Foxhunter) and a French-trained horse, Urgent De Gregaine, finished second in the Cross-Country Chase.  

That’s 44% of the places in non-handicaps filled by Irish-trained horses.

Compare that with the handicaps, in which Irish-trained horses filled just eight of the 30 places available (second to fourth in each of the 10 races) and British-trained horses filled 22.  That’s less that 27% of the places filled by Irish-trained horses.  That’s 17 percentage points lower than that which you would expect given their performance in non-handicaps.

These are small sample sizes, 28 races is not a lot of races in the broad scheme of things, despite the fact that little else seems to matter when you are in the thick of them.  Four days is not long enough to be the long run.

And, if Irish-trained horses seem to have the upper hand now, you know that these things tend to be cyclical.  We should enjoy the competition, celebrate the success.

Elliott and Mullins push the bar higher

Much was made of the dominance of Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins last week.  Again, it is to be celebrated.  Two trainers, two Irish trainers, scaling peaks that appeared to be insurmountable less than a decade ago.  And the duel is good.  They push each other to go higher and, in so doing, they push the bar higher.  They push others to stretch.

They have both got there on their own too.  Willie Mullins may be the son of the legendary Paddy Mullins, but he still built his training operation up from the bottom.  It is just over 20 years since Tourist Attraction and Wither Or Which.  There were no golden spoons, no fast tracks to the top.

Same with Gordon Elliott, only different and more recent.  It is only 11 years since Silver Birch.  Difficult to believe now – even though it is well-documented, it is still difficult to believe – that he hadn’t had a winner in Ireland then.

And if there is dominance, it is no different to how it is in just about every other walk of competitive life.  In sport, in politics, in business.  Not everybody can be the best.  Not everybody can be President.  Not everybody can be CEO.  There is a pyramid.

Since the Premier League was founded in 1992/93, only five clubs have been champions more than once.  And in the last decade, only seven different clubs have been represented in the first three in the final standings at the end of a season.  All 30 places have been filled by some combination of three from just seven clubs. 

There have been just five different All-Ireland Senior Football champions since 2004, and just seven different counties have contested all finals.  There have been just five different All-Ireland Senior Hurling Champions since 2001, with, again, just seven different finalists.  The bar continues to gain altitude in the pursuit of excellence. 

Neat fit

Any fears that horses could have left their Cheltenham Festivals behind at Leopardstown were ultimately unfounded.  On the contrary, the Dublin Racing Festival horses excelled.

Footpad won the Arkle, Rathvinden won the National Hunt Chase, Samcro won the Ballymore Hurdle, Bleu Berry won the Coral Cup, Relegate won the Champion Bumper, Delta Work won the Pertemps Final, The Storyteller won the Brown Advisory Plate, Farclas won the Triumph Hurdle.  The Dublin Racing Festival produced eight of the 28 Cheltenham Festival winners. 

The 1-2 from the Spring Juvenile Hurdle finished first and second (in reverse order) in the Triumph Hurdle.  The 1-2 from the Frank Ward Arkle finished first and third in the Arkle.  Min finished second in the Champion Chase, Supasundae finished second in the Stayers’ Hurdle, Barra finished third in the Coral Cup, Monalee finished second in the RSA Chase.  Early signs are that the new Dublin Racing Festival is fitting very neatly into the National Hunt programme.

Lucky 15 for 2019

Next Destination, RSA Chase (Best odds 14/1)

Summerville Boy, Champion Hurdle (20/1)

Supasundae, Stayers’ Hurdle (14/1)

Balko Des Flos, Gold Cup (25/1)

© The Irish Field, 24th March 2018