Mullins points to impact of programme book for number of quality horses in Ireland

British racing continues to licks its wounds after losing out 19-9 to the Irish in Cheltenham’s ‘BetBright Cup’

Ruby Walsh on Yorkhill and trainer Willie Mullins celebrate winning the 1.30 JLT Novices’  Chase Action at Cheltenham. Photograph: Reuters

Ruby Walsh on Yorkhill and trainer Willie Mullins celebrate winning the 1.30 JLT Novices’ Chase Action at Cheltenham. Photograph: Reuters

 

Irish racing’s reputation is at an all-time high after a record-breaking 19 winners at last week’s Cheltenham festival but a stark warning has come from the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association which says 85 per cent of its members are struggling to make ends meet.

As British racing continues to licks its wounds after losing out 19-9 to the Irish in Cheltenham’s “BetBright Cup” Ireland’s champion trainer Willie Mullins pointed to Ireland’s programme book as one potential explanation for the concentration of equine talent in this country.

“Are people favouring having a good horse in training in Ireland, where good horses are rewarded?” Mullins queried over the weekend. “In Britain, the best prize money is all for the handicaps. But no one sets out to buy a handicapper. We have the big handicaps in Ireland as well but our prize money is for our good novices and the graded horses,” he added.

If the impact of that programme seemed to be written in spectacular style all over racing’s most high-profile week, it is the concentration of quality horses in the hands of a comparatively few top owners and trainers which concerns others on many other weeks.

High-profile figures

In recent years, some high-profile figures have either quit the sport or outlined the difficulty of competing against the likes of Mullins and Gordon Elliott who train for the most powerful owners such as Michael O’Leary, Rich Ricci and JP McManus.

“Apart from the very wealthy people, ordinary owners don’t have the money to invest. They are still recovering from the recession. On average it costs €18,000 to €20,000 a year to have a horse in training, and that’s before even buying the horse,” the IRTA spokesman Michael Grassick said on Sunday.

“I would say 85 per cent of trainers are struggling, particularly in National Hunt. The horses just aren’t there.

“You see races being divided on the flat in Dundalk but that doesn’t happen in National Hunt. There were something like 19 days in January, 17 in February, and 16 in March, when there was no National Hunt racing yet there were very few balloted out and I don’t think there were any divides. The horses aren’t there,” he added.

Grassick agreed that Ireland’s prize money attracts wealthy cross-channel based owners to put horses in training here but pointed out how those horses end up with a select number of trainers.

Others have argued there is an imbalance in the programme book with too much emphasis put on small-field Graded races.

“It’s a huge problem. We have a few ideas kicking around with HRI (Horse Racing Ireland) but it’s not easy to balance out and be fair to everyone,” Grassick said.

Steps

HRI’s chief executive Brian Kavanagh pointed to a number of steps that racing’s ruling body has taken to try to help middle to low ranking trainers but stressed the emphasis must be kept on quality.

“I never thought I’d see the day when there would be 19 Irish winners at Cheltenham, especially when there were so many absences.

“It just shows how competitive it is here. Irish success internationally – not just at Cheltenham – is important, for the investment that goes into the industry by government, owners, and everyone else,” he said.

“Our programme is small in comparison to the UK and France and that reduces flexibility. But we are trying to help smaller trainers.

“One step is to provide decent prizemoney at all levels. We have also set up a small ownership department to help trainers market and promote themselves. And longer term we are looking at HRI possibly collecting training fees for trainers.

“But we have to keep our emphasis on quality. Some question whether there are too many trainers licences and too many competing for a small pot. It is a very competitive environment. We also have to keep in mind the majority of horses are slow. But we can’t dumb down the programme,” Kavanagh added.

Just seven trainers contributed to the Irish Cheltenham tally of 19 winners with Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott saddling half a dozen each. Jessica Harrington had three while Henry De Bromhead, Noel Meade, Pat Kelly and Alan Fleming had one each.

The Ryanair boss, Michael O’Leary, was top owner with four winners.

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