Anglo-Irish racing rivalry to be brought into focus again at Punchestown

It’s been a fine season for Irish racing, but the sport needs competition on both sides of the sea

Rachael Blackmore celebrates her Grand National win on Minella Times. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty

Rachael Blackmore celebrates her Grand National win on Minella Times. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty

 

The most successful season in the history of Irish jumps racing finishes at Punchestown this week. It’s been a unique campaign, not least in the context of a pandemic. But a final twist is an unaccustomed groundswell of goodwill towards the small team of British raiders making the trip to Kildare.

It’s understandable too. If racing’s Anglo-Irish rivalry is to remain relevant it’s in everyone’s interests for the visitors to put up a fight. Rivalry after all presumes on competition and a record breaking Cheltenham festival, as well as a singular Grand National outcome, smacks only of a rout.

Irish trained horses dominated the Cheltenham score-line 23-5. Rachael Blackmore’s pioneering victory at Aintree deflected attention from an embarrassing National outcome that saw just three home horses among the 15 finishers. The best of them was sixth.

Such overwhelming Irish dominance hasn’t come out of the blue either. Ireland ‘won’ Cheltenham for the first time in 2016 with 15 winners. A year later it was 19. Then came 17, 14 and 17 again before last month’s hopelessly one-sided outcome.

It underlines what an unparalleled era of excellence this is for Irish racing. In terms of trainers, riders, and those moulding the young talent they work with, this is without precedent. And some people are enjoying it with a relish only seasoned by cross-channel angst.

Such savouring is the counterpoint to those who dismiss totting up Cheltenham winners under national flags as fake.

Irish embarrassment

It is convoluted. But the mortification expressed by English trainers such as Nick Skelton in recent weeks corresponds to Irish embarrassment back in the day when Cheltenham winners for the visitors could be counted on a single digit of one hand, or famously none at all in 1989.

That stung in a country where horses figure in the public consciousness more than most anywhere else, more than cerebral considerations about good horses being appreciated by everyone, wherever they’re trained, might allow.

That’s not ignoring how National Hunt racing’s narrow world means Ireland and Britain are basically both sides of the one coin. The two are inextricably linked. Cheltenham is proof of that. Ireland’s biggest race meeting of the year takes place in Gloucestershire.

Honeysuckle en-route to victory in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty
Honeysuckle en-route to victory in the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham. Photograph: Michael Steele/Getty

It makes racing a less than natural fit for wrapping in any green flag.

Perhaps the most popular horse in training, the unbeaten Champion Hurdle winner, Honeysuckle, is owned by a Scot. The best British trained Cheltenham winner, Shishkin, is owned by Joe Donnelly from Cork. And for most punters, the horse they back can be from Mongolia as long as it wins.

Pinning nationality onto it can seem a very arbitrary indulgence.

When Co Antrim’s finest, Tony McCoy, finally broke his Aintree Grand National duck on the Irish bred Don’t Push It, owned by JP McManus from Limerick and trained by Cork’s Jonjo O’Neill, it didn’t feel a very British coup. But where the horse’s stable is located is accepted as the identity formula.

Which means the last six weeks have seen British racing scourging itself in an introspective crisis of confidence that’s the cherry on top of a special season for those in Ireland fond of the old line about it not being enough just to succeed.

Inevitably there’s a lot more bound up in that sort of Anglo-Irish rivalry than simply the order in which horses pass a finish line.

But even in its own context the cross-channel element is much more relevant than some like to pretend, enough to make the fortunes of next week’s cross-channel runners at Punchestown of real interest on this side of the Irish Sea too.

Goodwill is all well and good but it can smack of pity and no rivalry can survive that. To prosper it needs real competitive tension.

It’s why in Gaelic football Meath and Dublin are now rivals in name only. Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova were supposed to have a tennis rivalry but just two wins in 22 for the Russian meant it quickly became too one-sided to be taken seriously.

A similar scenario isn’t good for jump racing. Beating up the weak quickly becomes a bad watch.

Underdog

Much of the satisfaction of winning at Cheltenham in particular used to be a sense of the underdog getting one over on the big dog’s patch. It’s not that long since success was rare enough for it to prompt the home team into the sort of condescension that they’re now having to swallow.

But it’s not a healthy situation in the overall context, for either side. If it’s too easy then where’s the value in it. Nobody takes a picture of the fish that jumps into the boat. And Irish racing’s hull is bursting uncomfortably with pickings that seem just that bit too easy.

The process of trying to reverse that has begun, including an examination by the British Horseracing Authority of the Cheltenham results in particular with a view to the long-term outlook for the sport there.

Nube Negra is among the raiding party at Punchestown this week. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty
Nube Negra is among the raiding party at Punchestown this week. Photograph: Alan Crowhurst/Getty

Reassurance has been sought in an idea that success levels are cyclical and it’s only a matter of time before balance is restored. It might be true but not enough to presume on it when British and other overseas owners appear to be falling over themselves to have horses trained here.

Professionals inevitably attribute much of that to better prizemoney, not surprising since they get a slice of it. Yet how relevant can prizemoney really be to powerful owners already wealthy enough to invest in a mostly loss-making exercise.

Amidst a glut of complicated theories perhaps some of it is simply to do with how fickle and trendy this most self-consciously tough of sports actually is. Success breeds success and everyone loves a winner.

In an overall perspective though even the greenest of punters might admit that a win for Nube Negra or First Flow in Tuesday’s big race, the William Hill Champion Chase, might begin to restore some vital competitive edge to a fine old rivalry.

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