Kevin Blake

What does the future hold for the Dublin Racing Festival?

  • Monday 03 February
  • Blog
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Dublin Racing Festival has all the potential to be even greater

The third Dublin Racing Festival has just concluded and there is much to discuss. While this space could be filled many times over with reviews of the wonderful action over the two days, I’m going to focus on the bigger picture of the Dublin Racing Festival’s place in the National Hunt racing calendar and the potential for it to grow even further.

Prior to the meeting, there were some calls in the press for the Dublin Racing Festival to be split up and its assets spread over a number of separate meetings as was the case in the past. In my opinion, that thought couldn’t be more wrong.

Make no mistake, the Dublin Racing Festival has all the potential to be the crown jewel of Irish National Hunt racing. There is no disputing that the Cheltenham Festival is the pinnacle of National Hunt racing and that isn’t going to change any time soon. However, the way the world of jumps racing is moving, there is scope there for the Dublin Racing Festival to not only establish itself as the leading Irish National Hunt meeting, but to make inroads into the long lead that the Cheltenham Festival currently holds at the top of the sport.

As has been discussed to death in recent months, the Cheltenham Festival sacrificed some of its magic at the altar of commercial gain when extending from three days to four days. The seeds for a fifth day have very much been planted of late and it seems painfully likely that they will germinate at some stage. What will be seen by racing purists as a calamity will present a great opportunity to the Dublin Racing Festival in particular.

What the Dublin Racing Festival has shown is that it is perfectly achievable to have a proper National Hunt championship that caters to all of the best horses in training in the space of just two action-packed days. The best novices, high-class handicappers and open-class performers over both hurdles and fences can be catered for with one option each at the minimum and a longer trip, with juvenile hurdlers and bumper horses also being accommodated. That is all that is needed to bring the best of the best together in one place.

This structure represents the antithesis to the depressing dilution of the Cheltenham Festival. No mares-only cop-outs over jumps, no mid-range options enabling ducking and diving, no ambiguity over multiple targets. This is what a championship should be, creating a stage for the best to face off against the best.

When one thinks about it, the potential that the Dublin Racing Festival has to be the highlight of the Irish National Hunt season is crystal clear. Position is everything and the Dublin Racing Festival is ideally located in terms of the gap between the Christmas racing and the Cheltenham Festival. Just as importantly, the fundamental advantage that it has over all the other spring festivals is that it comes first. Being the first to stage the big clashes of the spring puts the Dublin Racing Festival in pole position to stage a riveting line up of races.

The likes of the Aintree, Fairyhouse and Punchestown Festivals routinely suffer as spectacles as the really big Grade 1 clashes have already happened at the Cheltenham Festival. The Dublin Racing Festival is perfectly positioned to stage these clashes and that advantage must be pressed home for all its worth.

The National Hunt Pattern Committee in Ireland should be absolutely ruthless in unapologetically trying to make the Dublin Racing Festival everything that the Cheltenham Festival used to be. It is already most of the way there in terms of its programme, but there is scope for refinements and minor improvements.

Personally, I would remove the mares’ handicap hurdle on Sunday and replace it with a Grade 1 hurdle over 2m 6f or so. This would close the only gap that remains at a championship level at the Dublin Racing Festival. It may require some adjustment within the existing programme given the current positions of the Galmoy Hurdle at Gowran Park in late-January and the Boyne Hurdle at Navan in mid-February, though given that both of those contests tend to be run on much more testing ground than the Dublin Racing Festival, it could be argued that there is a place for them all.

If one of those races was seen as being surplus to requirements, the track that loses out could receive the mares’ handicap hurdle as well as the Grade 2 mares’ bumper from the Dublin Racing Festival. As has been stated in this space before, I am very much fully behind the expansion of the mares’ National Hunt programme, just not at championship meetings. The very best mares are more than capable of competing against and beating geldings in receipt of the mares’ allowance and this competition between the sexes should be encouraged. We have seen plenty examples of this in bumpers over the years, so staging just one Grade 2 bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival makes sense to me.

In terms of what else can be done, the ground is something that needs to be sorted. Leopardstown is quite literally one of the best racecourses anywhere in the world. As a staging ground for a championships of National Hunt racing, it is a far superior and fairer track than Cheltenham. However, it has been a victim of its own excellent drainage on a number of occasions in the last year and this cannot be allowed to happen again on a stage such as the Dublin Racing Festival.

Any reasonable person understands the difficulty of the job of judging how much water to put on a track in times of uncertain weather, but given what we’ve seen at Leopardstown in the last year, no one will complain if a safety-first policy of watering results in soft ground. It is National Hunt racing in early-February and soft ground is far more desirable to the majority than good ground if a happy middle ground cannot be achieved.

What also needs to be worked on is the crowd. A meeting of this quality should be a sell-out on both days. It was encouraging to see that the crowd figures increased this weekend on what this was only year three of the meeting, but the drive has to be there to fill Leopardstown both days. The meeting takes place on the doorstep of one of Europe’s great cities at a track that is well served by public transport and easily accessible to those travelling from outside the capital. There is absolutely no reason why it shouldn’t be a sell out and that has to be goal in the short rather than the long term.

There is also still work to be done at Leopardstown for the racegoers. While it is fun to see members of the public climbing on top of the picnic tables around the parade ring to get a glimpse of the likes of Faugheen returning to the winner’s enclosure, it shows that the viewing facilities are not what they need to be around the parade ring.

The best viewing parade rings in the world are sunken to allow for terraced steps around them, but in the absence of such an option at Leopardstown, there really should be some investment made in adding temporary terraced viewing facilities on the biggest days. Irish racing has one of the most passionate followings anywhere in the racing world and those that have paid to come to see the action should be able to get a good view of the parade ring without having to pitch a tent at the front all day or climb onto a picnic table.

The final piece of the puzzle for the Dublin Racing Festival is British-trained runners. Last weekend showed that the meeting doesn’t need them to be great given the strength of the Irish-based horses, but having them would unquestionably add to the meeting. The balance of power in National Hunt racing may have switched to the west side of the Irish Sea in the last decade, but the notion that British trainers don’t send their horses to the Dublin Racing Festival because they don’t think they can beat the Irish horses in their own back garden is embarrassingly defeatist.

One suspects that there are more than a few British-trained runners that would be well able to compete with and beat their Irish rivals at this meeting if given the chance. As well as that, the notion that running in competitive races at Leopardstown at the beginning of February is detrimental to Cheltenham Festival prospects has also been proven to be wrong on endless occasions over the decades.

The prize money at the Dublin Racing Festival stands up very well against the Cheltenham Festival itself, never mind when compared to the alternative options in Britain in January and February. A vivid example of the latter comparison came last weekend where the winner of the Flogas Novice Chase at Leopardstown earned €88,500 while the winner of the very similar Scilly Isles Novice Chase at Sandown a day earlier only took home £31,300. The only area that the Dublin Racing Festival falls short compared to the Cheltenham Festival in prize money terms is the pots for the biggest Grade 1s of the meeting. If more money can be found from the sponsors of those races, it will make it even harder for British-trained runners to ignore them.

International competition is a big part of what makes these National Hunt festivals so special. If Irish trainers had taken the same attitude to competing in Britain in decades past when Irish-trained winners at the Cheltenham Festival were a rare commodity that British trainers currently take to the Dublin Racing Festival, the Cheltenham Festival would never have grown into the success that it is today. British trainers shouldn’t get a free pass for shunning the meeting as they have by many.

All told, as good as the first three years of the Dublin Racing Festival have been, it has the potential to grow into something even greater. With the distinct possibility that the Cheltenham Festival will be extended to five days in direct defiance of the wishes of the vast majority of passionate supporters of National Hunt racing, the Dublin Racing Festival can seize this opportunity to establish itself as the leading Irish National Hunt meeting and a major player in the overall scheme of National Hunt racing.

 

48-Hour declarations add to DRF's success

There were 48-hour declarations for both days of the Dublin Racing Festival. No one died. In fact, racing’s corner on social media was buzzing with chat about Saturday’s racing on Thursday evening.

Switching to 48-hour declarations in Ireland has been an ongoing no-brainer for well over a decade, yet still Irish racing persists with 24-hour declarations in the main. Give us patience, for common (and commercial) sense clearly isn’t very common.

Kevin Blake
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