It is still two months before the clocks go back and the National Hunt campaign begins in earnest, but the memory of British jumping's 23-5 humiliation by the Irish at Cheltenham in March is still painfully raw.
As a result, even the vaguest of rumours last week about a possible new two-day meeting at Newbury in early February was greeted, in some quarters at least, as a possible turning point in Britain’s struggle to reassert itself at National Hunt’s showpiece event.
The idea is apparently one of the first to emerge from an advisory group set up after Ireland’s astonishing romp through the four-day meeting five months ago, and an attempt to replicate the success of the Dublin Racing Festival at Leopardstown in early February in teeing up horses for Cheltenham the following month.
Newbury, which already stages several Cheltenham trials on its Betfair Hurdle card in mid-February, would be the most obvious place to stage the new meeting. To no one’s great surprise, it was reported to be “eager to discuss” the possibility last week.
The Cheltenham Festival’s significance for British jumping – and racing as a whole – is difficult to overstate. The dream of simply having a runner, never mind a winner, at the festival is what tempts many owners into the sport in the first place, and all that goes before – from Cheltenham’s Open meeting in November onwards – points directly towards the four days in March. If many more campaigns conclude with a greenwash to match the last one, British owners may well start to ask themselves why they bother.
On that basis, it makes sense to consider what British jumping might do to redress the balance and the immediate success of the Dublin Racing Festival, both as an event in its own right and as a springboard for Cheltenham, certainly catches the eye. Whether recreating it will do anything to reduce Ireland’s dominance in March, however, is another question entirely.
Some trainers feel that Irish dominance in March is all part of a cycle, and that the wheel will turn soon enough. Others suggest 23 Irish winners from 28 races will prove to be an “outlier” that their trainers and jockeys may struggle to approach in future.
Yet there is plenty of evidence which implies that while 23 winners was very much at the upper limit of Irish expectation, it was not the unforeseeable, Leicester City-style freak that some on the British side might like to think. Nor is there any sign of a cycle that is slowing down, never mind starting to turn in the opposite direction.
It is not so much the number of Irish-trained Cheltenham winners that is significant in recent years, as the extent to which Ireland has outperformed its representation at the meeting. In the early part of the century, Ireland’s share of the Cheltenham spoils corresponded broadly to its share of the runners. In 2003, 25 per cent of festival runners were Irish-trained and they picked up six of the 20 races (30 per cent). In 2010, 27 per cent of the runners won 27 per cent of the races.
In each of the past nine seasons, however, Ireland has outperformed its representation at the festival by a significant margin. In 2013, when Irish trainers landed more races than their British counterparts for the first time, they did so despite fielding just 23 per cent of the runners. That is, in its way, every bit as impressive as this year’s performance, when 40 per cent of the runners were from Ireland and they went home with 82 per cent of the wins.
One possible conclusion to draw from this is that while British stables house a lot more National Hunt horses, a significant – and increasing – majority of the best horses are trained in Ireland. It is interesting too that the number of Irish-bred runners at the festival has varied only slightly over the last two decades, between a low of 47 per cent in 2004 and a peak of 55 per cent in 2014.
This suggests in turn that British racing only gets to see the horses that are left when Irish owners have had their pick of the best prospects. It makes economic sense too, as the prize funds in Irish jumping are much higher. Many British-based owners are following the example of Rich Ricci, a long-time mainstay of the Willie Mullins operation, and sending their horses across the sea.
A new two-day February meeting is unlikely to make a whit of difference to any of these trends, all of which contributed to Ireland’s memorable festival this year. It is even tempting to wonder how long it might be before Willie Mullins or Henry de Bromhead begin to send second-strings to plunder the most valuable events.
Unless or until Britain’s prize money can compete across the season as a whole, Ireland’s dominance in National Hunt racing will continue. – Guardian