Ireland v England rivalry is a nonsense but it’s a good way of tracking the health of Irish racing
Money has changed everything about Irish fortunes at Cheltenham since a winless 1989
Ted Walsh: “There’s no such thing as us against them. It’s my horse against the others, and where they come from or go home to doesn’t enter into it.” Photograph: Lorraine O’Sullivan/Inpho
At the 1989 Cheltenham festival, the Irish knew their fate early on the first day. For the previous two years, Tommy Carmody had ridden Galmoy to win back-to-back Stayers’ Hurdles for John Mulhern, Charlie Hughey’s son-in-law. But in the fourth race on the Tuesday 30 years ago, Galmoy’s attempt at the hat-trick ended 12 lengths behind a Nicky Henderson horse called Rustle.
And that was more or less that. If Galmoy couldn’t do it at Cheltenham, who could?
Mouse Morris had a horse called Trapper John which came from the clouds to finish second in the SunAlliance Hurdle (what would be known as the Ballymore today) but otherwise it was a wash-out. A Cheltenham festival came and went with no Irish-trained winner for the first time since 1947. The worst of it was that nobody was in the least bit surprised.
“It wasn’t a huge shock or anything,” says Ted Walsh. “We had only had one winner the year before, and one the year before that as well. There was all this, ‘what’s wrong with Irish National Hunt racing?’ but that was only lads coming in and realising it after the fact.
“Nobody could see it turning around. Or if they could, nobody could see it turning to this extent. Fellas who were in the game knew it would come around a bit eventually. But you couldn’t have seen it go the way it is now.”
Last year Irish-trained horses won 17 races at the festival. The record for a single year stands at 19, achieved in 2017. Cheltenham’s leading trainer title has gone to either Willie Mullins or Gordon Elliott in seven of the past eight years. The tribulations of 30 years ago are long buried.
For the Prestbury Cup, the makey-uppy competition between the two countries to see who has most winners across the week, the betting stands at Ireland 4/6, Great Britain 13/8. Four days from flag-fall, there are 14 Irish-trained favourites for the week, 11 British jollies and three races with joint-favourites from either side of the water.
All expectations point to another week of resounding Irish success.
The “Irish At Cheltenham” has always been a swizz. It’s a hook, a conceit, an artificial construct tacked on as bait to catch the eye of the floating sports voter. It’s a way of selling horse racing to people who aren’t really into horse racing. Nobody in the game ever gives it a minute’s serious thought.
It’s important to point this out now, just in a quiet minute before we tumble headlong into another festival. In essence, it’s a ginned-up rivalry, invented by and sustained for the press and the bookies and the hospitality industry. The “Irish At Cheltenham” will lead the bulletins every night over the coming week because it’s an easy way of blending a larder of unique stories into one digestible bowl of sports chow. But it’s not a real thing.
Jockeys will hold up a Tricolour if you throw them one on their way down the chute but they’d take riding a British-trained winner ahead of an Irish-trained runner-up every day of the week.
Trainers couldn’t give a flying rooty-toot where their owners come from as long as they come often and with deep pockets.
As for owners, other than maybe wanting to stable their horses within a handy travelling distance of where they live, they couldn’t be less interested in where their charges are fed their hay. We have yet to discover much evidence that the horses care either.
“Gordon Elliott won’t get any more pleasure out of beating Paul Nicholls in a race next week than he will out of beating Willie Mullins,” says Ted Walsh. “It won’t matter a damn to him who comes second – he might not even be able to tell you when you ask him. All he’s looking at is did his horse cross the line first. England-Ireland doesn’t come into it in the slightest.
“Racing is a singular thing. There’s no such thing as us against them. It’s my horse against the others, and where they come from or go home to doesn’t enter into it. You might be delighted for your pal if you don’t have a chance yourself. But other than that, you wouldn’t give it a thought.”
It started as a matter of happenstance anyway. There had been legendary Irish expeditions to Cheltenham by Vincent O’Brien away back in the 1940s and 1950s, but none of them captured the imagination like the Gold Cup between Arkle and Mill House in 1964. The epic drama of that race 55 years ago between a horse trained in north Dublin by Tom Dreaper and another trained in Lambourn by Fulke Walwyn came with a natural Us v Them element baked in.
Yet it could so easily all have been different. Mill House was bred in Kildare, and like any good young horse in Ireland, it was sold to England after winning a maiden hurdle. Arkle was bred in Meath, and would have gone the same way only that Dreaper had the Duchess of Westminster as an owner and was able to bid 1,150 guineas for him in the Dublin Horse Show sale in 1960. Without that (exceptionally rare) level of buying power, Arkle would almost certainly have been sold to England as well.
Had he been the 1964 Gold Cup wouldn’t carry anything like the weight of myth it does now, even allowing for what Arkle went on to achieve. And there’s no guarantee the whole “Irish At Cheltenham” thing would ever have taken off – it never has at Royal Ascot, for example, despite all the Irish success at that meeting.
But still, it endures. Down through the decades it has become a reliable trope, a handy bit of shorthand to bring the outside world in by the ear and explain something about Cheltenham to them. You might not be able to tell the difference between a two-mile novice chaser and a three-mile staying hurdler but everyone gets what it means to bloody the nose of the English. Especially on their own turf.
It’s a nonsense. But it’s an easily understood nonsense. And the one upside is that for all its flaws, tracking the number of Irish winners at Cheltenham has been a pretty useful tool for telling the story of what has happened in the game here over the past 30 years.
Three weeks back, at the Cheltenham Tattersalls sales, 10 horses were sold for over £100,000. Of those 10, seven were sold to bidders representing Irish trainers. The priciest was Wide Receiver, bought by bloodstock agent Tom Malone and Gordon Elliott at an eye-watering £410,000. The next two were Ferny Hollow and Deploy The Getaway, bought by Harold Kirk and Willie Mullins for £300,000 and £200,000 respectively.
It’s too early to say definitively whose silks they will end up wearing but it’s not particularly important. The notable thing here is that three horses whose racing experience amounts to a single point-to-point win apiece went for a combined total just north of €1 million – and all three will be trained in Ireland. That would have been unfathomable to anyone involved in Irish racing 30 years ago.
On the Saturday after Cheltenham in 1989, Ted Walsh won the bumper at Naas on a horse called Danny Harrold, owned by his father Ruby. Eleven days later, they combined again to win the Champion Bumper at the Fairyhouse Easter meeting. Those two wins, combined with a couple of point-to-point successes the previous month, were enough to make it known that the Walshes had a huge asset on their hands.
“He became the talking horse of the day,” Walsh says. “Straight away Jenny Pitman bought him, and he went away to England. He cost £200,000 – what would that be in today’s money? You must be talking the guts of a million. Anyway, he went to Jenny Pitman, and he was second in the Supreme Novices the following year.
“That was just what happened. Young stock just disappeared out of the country as soon as it won a point-to-point or a bumper. You’d hardly be back into the parade ring with them before a scout would be over to you from one of the English yards looking to buy it. If you had that horse now, no way would it go to England. An Irish owner would have it bought.
“There was no resentment in it, not at all. You were a trading company, that was the business. And sure for every good one that went, 20 duds went as well. Fellas were getting 10 grand, 20 grand for bumper winners and only the odd one of them would have gone on to be anything. But that’ll tell you the volume of horses that were going over.”
There’s no great magic trick behind what changed over the years. The economy got better through the 1990s, money flowed into racing in the 2000s and enough of it survived through the crash of the 2010s.
JP McManus kept yards going when there was little enough money around, and then Michael O’Leary came along in 2001 and established Gigginstown Stud. Willie Mullins started importing French horses around 2003-04, and found owners for them in the likes of the O’Learys and Rich Ricci.
Meanwhile, the Cheltenham festival expanded. Three days became four, 18 races eventually became 28. Some of the extra races looked tailor-made for Irish horses, and so it proved. There have been 14 mares’ races run at the festival since 2008 – Willie Mullins has won 12 of them and Gordon Elliott has one. Of the 14 cross-country races run since 2005, Irish-trained horses have taken the honours in 12.
And as Cheltenham expanded, so the money that went into Irish racing back home grew to meet it. Gigginstown is a gargantuan operation now, accounting for a conservative estimate of 350-plus horses. They buy around 50 store horses as three-year-olds every year for anywhere between €60,000 to €250,000 apiece. These are horses that have never seen a racetrack or a point-to-point field, and in most cases it will be two years before they earn a cent towards their upkeep.
The O’Learys keep their horses with four trainers – Elliott, Noel Meade, Henry de Bromhead and Joseph O’Brien. Their split from Mullins over a training fees row in 2016 has actually turned out to be a boost for the sport, sending Mullins to court ever-more owners from outside the country to keep their horses with him. Of his seven winners at Cheltenham last year, four were for non-Irish owners.
McManus is famously liberal with his largesse, spreading his horses around dozens of yards in Ireland and the UK. Both his winners at Cheltenham last year were trained in England. Other than Triumph Hurdle favourite Sir Erec – trained by O’Brien – most of his best chances next week will be sent out by English trainers.
Well, kind of. If, say, Minella Rocco wins the Ultima handicap on Tuesday it will be an Irish-bred horse running for an Irish owner in McManus, ridden by an Irish jockey in either Barry Geraghty or Mark Walsh and trained by Castletownroche’s own Jonjo O’Neill. But because O’Neill trains in the Cotswolds, it will go down as a British winner in the “race” for the Prestbury Cup. See? The whole thing’s a nonsense.
No matter. When the roar goes up on Tuesday for the Supreme, the latest check will begin on how high the tide has risen in Irish jumps racing. Now, more than ever, the price of having a boat to float on it will dictate everything.