Kevin Blake

Leading racing writer Kevin Blake argues that the domination of Irish National Hunt racing by its powerful operations isn’t an issue and outlines how smaller trainers to gain an edge by offering a service that those with more horses cannot.

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Is the rise of dominant trainers and owners bad for Irish National Hunt Racing?

The domination of Irish National Hunt racing by Willie Mullins, Gordon Elliott, Gigginstown House Stud and JP McManus has been a regular subject of conversation in recent seasons, but it is has become increasingly prominent of late.

Mullins and Elliott are both set to train over 200 winners this season, breaking the previous record of 193 that they shared. Meanwhile Gigginstown and McManus are dominating the owner’s championship, with them both having individually secured more prize money than the other eight owners in the top 10 combined.

The on-the-ground ramifications of this situation were starkly illustrated at the Fairyhouse Easter Festival, with Mullins and Elliott being responsible for all nine of the runners in the Ryanair Gold Cup and 17 of the 30 runners in the Irish Grand National. It isn’t just on the big days either, with Elliott and Mullins casting a long shadow over all levels of the sport in Ireland, often in combination with the Gigginstown and McManus silks.

There has been a lot of comment publicly, privately and in the racing media expressing dissatisfaction with this situation and this is somewhat understandable. Of course, in an ideal world there would be a wide spread of equine talent amongst the trainer and owner ranks to add as much variety and colour to the scene as possible. However, while most of the dissatisfaction is purely that of a “wouldn’t it be nice if…” variety, others have campaigned for action from the racing authorities to remedy it such as restricting the numbers of runners an owner can have in a race or creating races confined to trainers that have saddled less than a certain number of winners that season.

Now, I would never wish to run down any trainer. I have worked with and spent significant time with enough of them at all levels to know well just how brutally tough a game it is. However, that doesn’t mean I can agree with those that wish to paint the current dominance of Mullins/Elliott and McManus/Gigginstown as being bad for the sport. I especially can’t agree with those that call for measures to be introduced to stifle the success of those operations.

To first deal with the subject of the Mullins/Elliott domination, it is important to remember that this situation has come about organically. Willie Mullins had 20 years under his belt as a successful trainer until a combination of him aggressively expanding at a time when other trainers in the country were tightening their belts after being hit hard by the recession saw him surge to all-new levels of success and it snowballed from there.

In Gordon Elliott’s case, he started from the bottom not much more than a decade ago and despite the early stages of his career coinciding with the recession, he has risen to the top of the sport on nothing but his merits and relentless ambition. He is the only example that is ever needed to counter the view that a young trainer can’t make the breakthrough to the top level in Irish National racing without a helping hand.

As much as anything though, the rise of Mullins and Elliott has been aided by what has been one of the major changes in the game in the last 15 years. While in the past it might have been considered poor form for a successful trainer to poach horses from less successful handlers, Mullins and Elliott amongst others have made a concerted effort to acquire such horses in recent years. The vast amounts of improvement that they have extracted from such horses on so many occasions has served to ruthlessly expose the ability gap between trainers as being far wider that it might once have been thought to be.

Not only has it become clearer just how much better the top trainers are than the average handlers, the recruiting of horses from lesser trainers is only one part of a wider buying policy that has helped to take Mullins and Elliott to the next level. Long gone are the days of horse recruitment being confined to the trainer strolling down to Goffs or Fairyhouse to the store horse sales to try and buy what they like, the top trainers and owners now have talented teams of agents and scouts that are leaving no stone unturned all over Europe in search of equine talent on a full-time basis.

As a consequence, the once common attitude of “ah sure Johnny down the road can find and train a horse for me the same as anyone else and for half the training fees” has long started to evaporate. With the likes of Mullins and Elliott charging fees that are not too far out of line with what an average trainer charges, is it any wonder that so many owners are voting with their horses and sending them to the most successful trainers rather than elsewhere?

The notion that those trainers that have taken the standard of their trade to previously unheard of levels should be in anyway curtailed or restricted to give those that have failed to raise their own standards a better chance is frankly ludicrous. Many people may not like to see a proliferation of the same trainer’s names in big races, but whether they like it or not, those trainers have earned it.

Even more ludicrous is the suggestion that owners should be restricted from having multiple runners in races. The likes of Gigginstown and JP McManus are colossal supporters of the sport and owners that are willing to invest in racing to the level that they do are very hard to come by. As well as that, they spread that investment across the industry in Ireland. McManus alone has had runners with 45 individual Irish-based trainers this season and one can be sure that more than a few of those rely on his patronage to keep their show on the road.

While Gigginstown have a reputation for being more results-based in how distribute their horses, they have given horses to 34 individual Irish trainers since coming into racing in 2001. As recently as the 2014/15 season, they had 16 trainers on their roster and while that has dwindled to six trainers this season, it can never be said that they didn’t spread opportunities around and give an array of trainers the chance to earn a place on the team.

To suggest that the participation of such incredible supporters of Irish racing should be anyway restricted is frankly shameful. Sadly, it seems likely that those making such suggestions wouldn’t realise the error of their ways until those owners pulled out of racing or moved their interests to another racing jurisdiction. If that happened, then the entire Irish National Hunt industry really would have a problem.

All told, while there is no question that the current top-heavy structure of Irish National Hunt racing may look discouraging for trainers or owners looking to make inroads into the game, this is still the same system within which Gordon Elliott rose up from the very bottom to the top in less than a decade. He is the living proof that it can be done regardless of circumstances or background.

The racing authorities have resisted calls to bring in anti-competitive races that restrict based on trainer success. What they have introduced is a wide variety of new races aimed at giving lesser horses more opportunities to win outside of handicap company such as rated novice hurdles and rated novice chases, maiden-under-all-rules maiden hurdles and maiden chases confined to horses that were rated no higher than 102, 109 or 116 over hurdles. Perhaps most significantly, this season saw the introduction of a series of eight auction maiden hurdles (restricted to horses that were purchased for less than €30,000 as an unraced store horse) that appeal as being the right stimulus on a number of levels.

With the support of the Irish European Breeders Fund, next season will see the expansion of this to 14 such maiden and novice hurdles for horses purchased for €45,000 or less (€30,000 or less at Grade 2 tracks) with weight allowances given to those that were notably cheaper as well as the addition of a valuable end-of-season final for those that ran in the series throughout the campaign. The race conditions will also state that any horse that is eligible per the above criteria that subsequently sells again for more than the ceiling price allowed in the race will lose their eligibility for it. This will remove the possibility of store horse purchases that go on to win a point-to-point and change hands for big sums getting into the races.

Not only does this series offer more opportunities to horses bought for lesser amounts, it also stimulates more activity at that end of the market at the sales which will be of benefit to the breeders and pin hookers. The weight allowance system which will see those in the €45,000 auction races receiving 3lb if purchased for less than €30,000 and 6lb if purchased for less than €15,000 should act as a great incentive for bargain hunters too.

In terms of what existing or up-and-coming trainers can do to compete with the biggest trainers if they want to attract new owners to run in these and other races, there are any amount of options. Rather than negatively viewing the domination of Mullins and Elliott as a barrier, it could readily be viewed as an opportunity. That they now have such huge numbers of horses opens the door for smaller trainers to gain an edge on them by offering a tailored ownership service and level of attention that those with more horses cannot offer. Smartphones make it quick and easy for trainers to communicate with owners and those that put in the extra effort to make what they offer a bit different and inclusive will give themselves a great chance to make inroads on an ownership experience level.

While training winners used to be the only way for up-and-coming trainers to get attention, social media and the internet also offer endless opportunities for trainers to showcase themselves and what they have to offer to a worldwide audience. With the economy on the up and up again, the popularity of syndicates and racing clubs is growing once again and those that embrace such concepts are likely to benefit from them. Ultimately, being a good trainer of a racehorse isn’t enough anymore, trainers have to get out of their comfort zones and be more proactive when it comes to recruiting and retaining owners.

If a trainer’s response to such suggestions is one of “sure what do I know about any of that?”, well that is their problem right there. If they aren’t savvy about these things, they need to find someone that is and start working with them. For example, Willie Mullins doesn’t pay the Supreme Racing Club anything, but getting them involved with his yard has resulted in them recruiting and managing syndicates made up of mostly small-staking shareholders that have upwards of 30 horses in training with him at any one time.

At the end of the day, competitive sport stands still for no one. Trainers cannot naively expect that what worked for them 20 or even 10 years ago should still work for them now. With the tide of standards in every aspect of Irish National Hunt horse racing continuing to rise and the intense rivalry between Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott only being likely to see them push each other to even higher levels of excellence, their rival trainers need to learn how to swim in these deeper waters or resign themselves to slowly drowning. That may sound harsh, but that is the reality.

Kevin Blake
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