Another angst-racked winter is over as we look to Cheltenham

Question of lack of competition comes in as best horses confined to certain owners

Horse owner Rich Ricci and trainer Willie Mullins. The colossal investment made by rich owners means the best National Hunt horses will line up at Cheltenham under a fervently embraced “Team Ireland” banner. Photograph: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

Horse owner Rich Ricci and trainer Willie Mullins. The colossal investment made by rich owners means the best National Hunt horses will line up at Cheltenham under a fervently embraced “Team Ireland” banner. Photograph: INPHO/Morgan Treacy

 

Cheltenham’s significance is so overarching that the festival clock never really stops ticking. And with only six weeks to National Hunt racing’s greatest showpiece, 2016’s countdown is on in earnest.

This Saturday Leopardstown hosts four Grade 1 races worth over €400,000, and all of them will be reduced in the popular consciousness to mere trials, clues for the upcoming glut of preview nights and forensic media examination which provides the sport’s annual slot in the sporting spotlight.

That Cheltenham anticipation is drumming with even greater resonance right now will provide some timely, if questionable, reassurance that everything in Ireland’s racing garden is rosy again, another angst-racked winter forgotten as an industry warms up for its spring feel-good payoff.

It has become a cycle within a cycle: anxious introspection about the best horses confined to a tiny ownership elite – most of whom are in thrall to the overwhelmingly dominant trainer Willie Mullins – provoking dire warnings about a lack of competition. This on the back of fall-offs in attendances, betting, ownership and other statistical signposts of the jump game’s supposedly spluttering overall health.

But come Cheltenham the colossal investment made by rich owners such as Michael O’Leary, JP McManus, and American banker Rich Ricci means the best National Hunt horses will line up under a tenuous yet fervently embraced “Team Ireland” banner that allows racing here to pat itself on the back.

The trite old line about the festival being racing’s “Olympics” is correct in the sense that a year effectively gets condensed into what happens during four days in another country, which is the sport’s narrative strongpoint in one sense and is plain stupid in another.

Because it is the greatest “sure thing” of all that next winter will again be dominated by claims the game once acclaimed as the plain man’s sport – different from those sheikhs and tycoons who treat the flat as little more than billionaire breeding backgammon – is on its uppers because of the financial concentration that effectively provides those festival victories the racing public craves.

If it sounds contradictory it’s because it is; almost as contradictory as National Hunt racing’s romantic idea of its past as some egalitarian ideal.

It will be half a century in March since Arkle, the most evocative name Irish racing has ever known, landed the last of his three Gold Cup victories. He faced just four opponents in 1966, started at 1-10 and would have sweated more in a workout at home. Arkle was owned by an aristocrat, not some agricultural caricature.

Even then people knew they’d never see Arkle’s like again, but they could hardly have guessed how racing’s remorselessly fluctuating cycle might veer so dramatically the other way.

Economic picture

Equality came with a paucity of talent that underlined how racing is always a mirror of the general economic picture in which it operates.

It was noteworthy during the Tiger years how so many newly-minted Irish people chose to advertise their wealth through racehorses, often through syndicates. But if the aspiration was romantic it was rooted in the bottom line. You have to afford ideas of owning horses. They’re a dear indulgence, especially in an industry so self-consciously proud about how supposedly hard-nosed it is.

The hard-nosed reality now is there is a new financial aristocracy snapping up the best young talent and operating them in a fashion true to the general economic consensus towards rationalisation and consolidation and other buzz words that effectively mean less jobs, less pay and less security for most. And even more opportunity for the fortunate few.

This small reflection of the wider picture is ultimately why so many of Ireland’s top races this winter have been little more than exclusive bun-fights between a handful of owners and an even tinier clique of trainers headed by Mullins, who has such a depth of talent at his stables that he is favourite to be champion trainer in Britain as well as Ireland.

Green flag

The consequent prestige will be the State pay-off for almost €60 million worth of government funding to racing that has been described as the seed grain for a €1 billion industry at which Ireland can truly claim to be a world leader.

It’s actually a financial safety net that can make racings purely economic arguments sound hollow and effectively makes punter complaints about a lack of competition irrelevant. But it is surely wishful thinking to presume the money comes with an onus on somehow divvying it up more equitably to ease the fall of those now finding it tough, but who when times were flush probably prided themselves on being very hard-nosed indeed.

Given the cyclical nature of such things, the likelihood is that present competition anxieties will ultimately fade. Just as Mullins’s dominance will wane at some stage and owners will leave the scene, leaving behind memories of some wonderful horses and maybe even some unlikely nostalgia to warm those feeling the pinch when the old game splutters again for whatever reasons in the future.

The personalities and the problems change like the seasons. What rarely does is how they are rooted in racing’s economics reflecting the bottom-line reality outside its own little bubble. Complaining about that is futile as believing everyone can have it every which way.

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