Ireland’s Cheltenham fortunes are at an all-time high but a grim picture has been painted of the difficulties facing the majority of this country’s racehorse trainers.
The power of Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott in particular has propelled success levels at Cheltenham to last year's record haul of 19 Irish-trained winners at the National Hunt festival.
However with three weeks to the start of Cheltenham 2018, the Irish Racehorse Trainers Association claimed on Tuesday that big trainers are getting bigger but middle-ranking colleagues are being squeezed out of business.
The claim came on the back of the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board’s statistical report for 2017 which saw a 10.5 per cent decrease in numbers holding full National Hunt training licenses and a 13 per cent slide in those holding restricted licenses.
The IHRB chief executive Denis Egan described the double-digit falls as "very worrying" and said the numbers are at their lowest in many years.
“The total number (flat and jumps) of trainers’ licenses has fallen from 805 in 2007 to 578 in 2017 and is falling each year. This is an area that will have to be addressed,” he said. “Some trainers are struggling and we have to see if something can be done.”
The Trainers Association chief executive, Michael Grassick, said a number of steps could be taken to help trainers, such as minimum training fee levels and a payment system, akin to jockeys, through Horse Racing Ireland that might help with bad debts.
“What we’ve lost, both in National Hunt and on the flat, is the middle tier. I’m talking about trainers with 40, 60, 70 horses. That was the backbone of the industry. Those people are either gone from the game or are down to 20 horses,” said Grassick, himself a former Group One-winning trainer.
“When I was training I felt I had to have a minimum of 35 horses to be viable. And that’s gone. Now we have the big trainers getting bigger and the middle tier has dropped down.
“Trainers are losing money and it’s simply not viable to stay in business. Everyone is looking for the one good horse to rescue them and unfortunately that’s not going to happen for 99 per cent of people,” Grassick added.
Figures from the IHRB – formerly the Turf Club – reveal there were 359 licensed trainers across both codes in Ireland in 2017. There were 219 restricted licenses whereby people are permitted to train their own horses.
“There are a lot of small things that need to be done. Trainers have to be in a position to charge a reasonable amount. I would say the vast majority are supplementing owners to keep a horse in training.
“There should be a recommended level of what a trainer should expect from a horse in training, no matter who he is. You have to get a reasonable amount if you want a trainer to be viable,” said Grassick who pointed to the pressing problem of bad debt.
“Getting paid through HRI has to happen. The vast majority of trainers more than likely aren’t charging enough, and then they’re not getting paid that. Eventually it ends up in people having to go because they can’t afford to train a horse for what they’re receiving,” he added.
Wednesday’s Punchestown action features the Quevega Hurdle which sees Willie Mullins doubly represented as he tries to win this Listed contest for a fourth time in five years.
Meri Devie's career progress has to be regarded as disappointing while Pravalaguna hasn't run since June and has raced keenly in the past. In the circumstances Alletrix could upset the official ratings.
Defy de Mee, a French winner last summer, makes his Irish debut for Mullins in the opening maiden hurdle while the newcomer Von Humboldt could be another bumper scorer for the in-form Charles Byrnes.
The combination of owner Philip Reynolds and trainer Pat Kelly have won the Cheltenham Pertemps Final for the last two years.
Considering 137 was the bottom mark in last year's final, their latest potential contender, Eagle Lion, could require an impressive performance in the Punchestown qualifier to make it into the Cheltenham race next month.