Donn's Articles » The competition is the driver

The competition is the driver

Every Tuesday these days, the Jockey Club publishes the latest lists of entries for a clutch of races at the 2022 Cheltenham Festival. Three weeks ago it was the Gold Cup, the Champion Chase and the Ryanair Chase. Two weeks ago it was the Champion Hurdle, the Stayers’ Hurdle and the Mares’ Hurdle.  Last week it was the novice chasers. This week it will be the novice hurdlers. 

The entries for 10 races are in so far, there are a total of 335 entries, and 176 of them are trained in Ireland.  That’s 52.5% of the Cheltenham entries so far that are trained in Ireland. 

Of course, they are only entries, we are a long way from final fields and, ultimately, winners and places, but even the entries are a reflection of the continuing trend in National Hunt racing, the movement of the balance of power towards Irish-trained horses. 

It was in 2013 that, for the first time ever, there were more Irish-trained winners than British-trained winners at the Cheltenham Festival.  There were 27 races at the 2013 Cheltenham Festival and, before the last race, 13 had been won by Irish-trained horses and 13 had been won by British-trained horses.  There was just one Irish-trained horse in the final race, the Grand Annual, Alderwood, trained by Tom Mullins and owned by JP McManus, and AP McCoy duly booted him up the hill, over three lengths clear of Kid Cassidy.

It was a situation that you couldn’t have imagined not so long ago.  At both the 1987 and the 1988 Cheltenham Festivals, Galmoy’s Stayers’ Hurdle win was the only win recorded by an Irish-trained horse.  And when Galmoy was beaten by Rustle in the 1989 Stayers’ Hurdle, there were no Irish trained winners at the Cheltenham Festival. 

Back then, an Irish-trained winner at Cheltenham was to be cherished and celebrated.  Just two in 1991, Destrier and Lovely Citizen.  Two more in 1992, My View and Montelado.  Only three in 2000, Sausalito Bay and Joe Cullen and Istabraq.  Even as recently as 2012, there were just five Irish-trained winners.

It’s very different now.  At every Cheltenham Festival since 2013, the number of Irish-trained winners has reached double figures.  And at every Festival since 2016, including 2016, the number of Irish-trained winners has either equalled or bettered the number of British-trained winners.  It’s not a blip any more, it’s not an anomaly.  It’s a trend, and signs are that it is deep-rooted and still gaining momentum.

The graph reached a new high at last year’s Festival.  Twenty-three of the 28 races were won by Irish-trained horses.  That’s 82%.  Not only that, but Irish-trained horses won the five marquee races, the Gold Cup, the Champion Hurdle, the Champion Chase, the Stayers’ Hurdle and the Ryanair Chase.  And there was depth: the 1-2-3 in the Gold Cup, the 1-2-3 in the Ryanair Chase, the 1-2-4 in the Champion Hurdle, the 1-2-4-5 in the Stayers’ Hurdle. 

Henry de Bromhead and Rachael Blackmore stole the headlines of course, but there were other great Irish stories.  Paul Hennessy and Peter Fahey both trained their first Cheltenham Festival winners.  Danny Mullins and Jordan Gainford and Kevin Sexton and Sean Flanagan and Sean O’Keeffe all rode their first Cheltenham Festival winners.

Willie Mullins was crowned leading trainer at Cheltenham again.  It was the seventh time that Willie Mullins had been leading trainer, and it was the ninth time in 10 years that an Irish trainer – Willie Mullins or Gordon Elliott – had claimed the title.

Interestingly, at the acceptance stage for the six non-novice Grade 1 races last season, just 73 of the 176 entries were Irish-trained.  That’s just over 41%.  Obviously, the quality of the entries is key and, ominously, as things stand now, in the ante post markets for the 2022 Festival, an Irish-trained horse is either clear favourite or disputing favouritism in 24 of the 28 races.

None of this happened overnight, it has been a process, a gradual shift, and there have been many factors at play.  Prize money, race planning and programming, cyclical shifts.  Even random variables.  Like, if Richard Thompson of Cheveley Park Stud hadn’t been drawn beside Willie Mullins at the Sir Peter O’Sullevan awards lunch in 2017, who knows, but those high-class Cheveley Park Stud National Hunt horses – Allaho, Ferny Hollow, Sir Gerhard, A Plus Tard, Envoi Allen, Quilixios, Ontheropes, En Beton – might now be in training in Britain.

These things do tend to be cyclical though.  You can be sure that the wheel will turn again.  Like, it’s not so long ago that you couldn’t imagine a time when the All Blacks wouldn’t beat Ireland, or Dublin wouldn’t win the All-Ireland, or La Liga wouldn’t be won by Barcelona or Real Madrid, or Oxford wouldn’t win the Boat Race.

British-trained horses used to plunder the big Irish National Hunt prizes with regular abandon.  Eight of the first nine renewals of the Irish Gold Cup, for example, were won by British-trained horses.  Back then, you couldn’t imagine a time when Irish-trained horses would be able to even hold their own against the strength of the British challenge.

While Irish sporting achievement is obviously to be celebrated, it is important too that British National Hunt racing remains strong.  To that end, it was good to see the Paul Nicholls duo, Clan Des Obeaux and Frodon, among the entries for the Paddy Power Irish Gold Cup, set to be run at Leopardstown in two weeks’ time, a race that hasn’t been won by a British-trained horse since Ruby Walsh won it in 2009 on Neptune Collonges, who was also trained by Nicholls.

National Hunt racing, as we understand it, exists only in this corner of the world, and Irish and British National Hunt racing are interdependent, not just on the racecourse, but also in the breeding shed, in the sales ring, in the point-to-point field.  Irish National Hunt racing needs the British to be competitive just as much as British National Hunt racing needs the Irish to be competitive.  It is the competition that is the driver.

© The Sunday Times, 23rd January 2022