You’d have to have been living in a desert these past 12 months, not to have been party to the debate about the lack of impact British horses, or at least, British Trained horses, made in the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, with the majority of commentators then going on to exclaim how terrible this all was.
Personally, as a punter, I don’t care where a horse is trained. A 5/1 winner trained in Lambourn is the same as a 5/1 winner trained in Mayo is the same as 5/1 winner trained in the French Provinces. I’ve never bought into the idea of bringing a metaphorical or a real flag with me to the racecourse, believing it is – or should be – all about us…..racing folk…..taking time out from the stresses and strains of the real world, versus them….the unconverted …..who have yet to discover the joys of horse racing and the life-affirming firmament that surrounds it.
Nonetheless, I am aware I’m probably in a minority here and there’s plenty who hum and whirr about the result of The Prestbury Cup (the competition that celebrates the so-called friendly rivalry between Britain and Ireland) won by the country where the most Cheltenham Festival winners are trained.
Certainly there’s plenty of racing professionals – trainers, owners, racing journalists – who are vexed about the current Irish dominance of the sport. Tune into social media and it’s also a view that has traction with the Twitterati and Facebookers of the world, in fact this posting was prompted by a tweet I read recently.
It was from the Racing TV presenter and social media commentator Frankie Foster, who I follow on Twitter. He simply posted “Why are the Irish horse so much better than the British?” a question to which I replied, “Money in a word, but it’s a whole essay after that, touching on fashion, culture, trainer skill, prize money and cojones of connections when it comes to running them”.
Acknowledging then I’ve no real skin in this game it’s a fun question for the WRAP to have a stab at answering, in the hope that if the notional ‘Team UK’ takes another pasting at the forthcoming Festival, then WRAP listeners and readers can maybe have some understanding as to why?
The simple one word explanation of ‘money’ isn’t my being flippant. Owners buy racehorses either privately or at auction. Like footballers or the IPL in cricket, the best players (or horses) cost the most money and right now, it’s owners having their horses trained by Irish trainers, that are spending the most money on their charges.
Largely these horses come from two sources: Irish point-to-points and young French-bred horses that have proven themselves in races in the French provinces or at their main track at Auteil. Bloodstock agents like Anthony Bromley are all over the latter, with many of the stellar purchases heading to Willie Mullins’ yard to continue his conveyor-belt of high-achievers for his owners.
To a degree, this is down to fashion. Twenty years ago and British trainers would be raiding Ireland for top-class point to pointers and store horses (bred for the National Hunt game but unraced and, as legend has it, left to mature in a field until the English connections turned up to ask ‘How much?’).
Maybe some of these horses would be tried in a Bumper (National Hunt flat race) to prove they had four legs and an aptitude to race, but it was largely Britain plundering the fruits of Irish breeding, resulting in several years of minimal Irish winners at the Cheltenham Festival.
…..and this was important too. I remember crowds mithering away that the Irish hadn’t had a winner after the first two days of the (then, three day) Festival and the craic….the roar….the atmosphere just wasn’t the same without an Irish winner or two.
Oh how times have changed.
Well, we’re back to ‘money’ again.
There is less racing in Ireland, greater emphasis on quality rather than quantity, the best horses race each other on a more regular basis and therefore the economic model on which it is built – specifically relating to the prize-money returned to successful owners – is way more sustainable and enticing to owners with their horses trained in Ireland.
Why don’t British trainers have a tilt at these bigger prize pots with their better horses?
Certainly admin complexities bought on by Brexit cannot help. Ditto the cost of transporting horses overseas, all of which has to be borne by the Owner.
However, a few examples aside (Paul Nicholls, take a bow) the connections of British-trained horses lack the straight-up minerals to go and take on the Irish in their own back yard.
On a deeper level – and you can only really get a sense of what I’m talking about here if you go racing in Ireland and talk to the racing people in that country – I’m convinced Ireland is the spiritual home of Jumps racing.
Esoteric – definitely.
Contentious – probably
…but it’s a country whose pulse quickens when you talk racing with the citizens. Who instinctively understand and are interested in the sport and, leaving aside the trainers for a second, has nurtured the talents in the saddle of Richard Dunwoody, Ruby Walsh, AP McCoy, Mick Fitzgerald, Rachel Blackmore, the Carberry’s and whilst for sure there are excellent British jockeys worthy of inclusion in that list, for a small nation, they’re punching well above their weight when it comes to artists in the saddle……and that’s before we even turn our attention to owners like the great JP McManus.
What am I saying here?
Well, I suppose in sense it’s right that island of Ireland has predominance in our sport. They have invested financially, but also culturally and emotionally in our sport, to a far greater extent than we have on this side of the Irish Sea.
I’m not for one minute dissing the love and care and passion we in our sport have for our horses and our industry (I wouldn’t be writing this article or highlighting this issue if this wasn’t the case). But we inhabit a very small world in the (Jumps) racing game – and it’s a tough gig to get it to resonate with the wider world and compete for their leisure £ and column inches / bandwidth in the media, without this almost osmosis-like immersion in and understanding of our sport like, I would argue, the Irish have.
Like I said, I’ve no real desire to change things. I’m first and foremost a punter and a racegoer. The horses will always run. The bets will always be laid. The sense of fun and adrenaline and life-affirmation of a day at the races will be with me until I weigh in, hopefully in the far future.
But if you do take the Prestbury Cup seriously then I hope you have a word with yourself and lose the Nationalism, but more importantly, I hope you understand why Ireland is likely to best Britain once again in few weeks time at Cheltenham