National Hunt foal population still recovering from recession
Combining opportunity with competition for top horses a balancing act, says Jason Morris
Willie Mullins: with the full might of Mullins’s all-conquering team set to be unleashed the issue of competition in the top pattern events is likely to produce further debate. Photograph: Ryan Byrne/Inpho
Fears that Don Cossack’s short-odds rout of only three opponents in the National Hunt season’s opening Grade One may be a sign of things to come this winter are at least partly a result of the recession’s lingering impact on the jumping game in Ireland.
Horse Racing Ireland’s director of racing Jason Morris has described the task of combining opportunity with competition for elite horses in this country as a “balancing act” and insisted there is no “magic wand that can suddenly address the problem overnight”.
Don Cossack enjoyed little more than a lucrative exercise spin in Saturday’s €140,000 JNwine Champion Chase at Down Royal, winning at 2-11 against just three opponents in a hark back to 2013 when charges of a lack of competition in this country’s top-flight events were widespread.
With a dozen Grade One races to be run before the new year, including the upcoming reappearance of Faugheen in Punchestown’s Morgiana Hurdle on Sunday week, there is likely to be close examination again of the competitive element to some of the top races here.
In 2013, Hurricane Fly won the Morgiana at prohibitive odds of 1-16. Just a few weeks afterwards Arvika Ligeonniere landed a three-runner John Durkan Chase while something of a nadir was reached just before Christmas of that year when Briar Hill had only Azorian to beat in a two-runner Grade One Navan Novice Hurdle.
“It’s something we’re very conscious of, the need for a consistent programme which allows the top horses who the public wants to see the chance to race here, while making sure they run in the best black type races rather than avoiding each other,” he said.
Morris suggested the decline in foal numbers due to the recession, and a consequent drop in ownership levels, could be a factor in small field sizes for the some of the top races, although the average field size for the dozen Grade One races due to be run before the end of this year was just over seven in 2014.
“The flat has recovered quicker because there’s a quicker purchase period and the foal population recovers quicker than is the case in National Hunt racing. We’re seeing the effects of the decline in the National Hunt foal population, and the decline in ownership, due to the recession and that will take time to recover,” Morris said.
He stressed however that struggling races are always under review from the National Hunt Pattern Committee and that race conditions and dates can be changed when necessary. “There was a Grade Three novice chase at Naas in February that used to average about three runners and we changed that last season into a novice handicap which produced a double figure field.
“. . . We have also turned weight for age races into Grade B handicaps on occasion.
“But we also have to make sure there are opportunities for the top horses to race in Ireland. It’s a balancing act but every year we try to improve it even though there’s no magic wand that can suddenly address the problem overnight,” he said.