The growth of the super-trainer in Irish National Hunt racing
In recent weeks, this column has sought to shine a light on the serious problems that have been allowed to develop in National Hunt racing in Britain and Ireland over the last two decades.
Two of the main causes of these issues that have been focused on are the substantial inflation of the Graded race programme and the ever-growing proportion of the best horses being controlled by a small number of powerful hands. The consequences of these two factors are particularly stark in Ireland and how the sport has changed there in the last 20 years will be the focus this week.
The growth in the number of Graded races in Ireland has been relentless. Despite the number of National Hunt runners in Ireland being almost half that of Britain, Ireland has more non-handicap Graded races in their calendar than Britain. Read that again and let it sink in.
The vast proliferation of Graded races in Ireland has coincided with the emergence of two dominant training forces in the sport in Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott. The increasingly top-heavy programme book has served to accelerate the creation of a vast gap between the biggest trainers in the country and the rest.
This is illustrated to a shocking extent in this dynamic graph which illustrates how top heavy Irish National Hunt racing has become. It charts the progress of the top 10 trainers based on prize money each season from 2001/2 up to the most recent full National Hunt campaign in 2018/19 (the latest season being omitted due to the cancellation of valuable festivals at Fairyhouse and Punchestown in the Spring).
The sheer extent to which Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott have come to dominate the sport is eye-opening when expressed in this style. What is also stark is how the number of individual trainers earning at least €500,000 in prize money in a season has reduced from a high of 13 in 2004/5 and 2007/8 to just six from the 2016/17 season onwards. This is despite total prize money levels having grown by almost 50% in that time. Read that again and let it sink in.
To further illustrate just how much the gap between the top trainers and the rest has widened in the last 20 years, the dynamic chart below divides the prize money earned by the top 100 National Hunt trainers in Ireland each season into two groups, the top five and the rest. The change over time has been quite extraordinary.
It goes without saying that these graphs undoubtedly reflect the brilliance of the Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott teams. They don’t owe an apology to anyone for scaling their businesses to the extent that they have and raising the bar of achievement to previously unheard-of levels.
However, the way the National Hunt race programme in Ireland has changed in the last 20 years has undoubtedly favoured those with the horse power to compete in Graded races. Mullins and Elliott have ruthlessly capitalised on these changes and those that cannot compete at those levels have been fighting for what has become a progressively smaller piece of the prize money pie. It has never been more difficult for a trainer or owner with relatively limited resources to make an impact and that has served to and will continue to accelerate the reduction in variety of the sport.
The result of all this is that in terms of character the sport has changed beyond recognition. For decades Flat racing was considered a business dominated by a select few powerful operations while the National Hunt game was much more of the racing code of the ordinary man.
Danoli, Doran’s Pride, Brave Inca, all legendary horses owned and trained by people that could have been anyone. The dream seemed achievable. All that has changed now. National Hunt racing has become dominated by a small number of powerful players who have been aided and abetted by a race programme that has evolved to favour them at the expense of less powerful trainers and owners. The top of National Hunt racing has never been less reachable and the game has suffered for it.
Ultimately, National Hunt racing has to ask what it wants for itself. It goes without saying that we all love the sport, but this love seems to blind many from seeing just how far it has fallen as a consistently competitive and engaging spectacle.
The top end of the sport has become saturated with small-field, uncompetitive Graded races. Once proud and prestigious races have become diminished to the status of glorified Cheltenham Festival trials. Yet, despite spending the whole season building to the Cheltenham Festival, that meeting has become so bloated that it now regularly fails to deliver the clashes that National Hunt followers spend all season yearning to see. The sport now primarily involves the same faces winning races with odds-on shots over and over again. It is hardly riveting and engaging to those that already love the sport, so how can we expect it to attract the next generation of followers?
We as a sport have the ability to change all of this. The potential solutions have been put forward in more detail in this space on a number of occasions in recent years, but in a nutshell, the number of Grade 1 races needs to be slashed, the lesser Graded races have to be converted into handicaps and the programme of the Cheltenham Festival has to be reduced significantly. The aim will be to funnel the best horses in training either into races against each other at level weights or to take on lesser horses on fair terms in handicaps, providing much more engaging and meaningful races on a regular basis, and the Cheltenham Festival can once again become a proper Championship for our sport.
An increase in high-end handicaps will also serve to give connections of mid-range horses a chance to run in valuable races more often without fear of incurring an increased handicap mark for little gain. One only has to look at the example of Marracudja incurring an 11lb rise for finishing third in a slowly-run renewal of the Clarence House Chase at Ascot earlier this year to see why connections of lower-rated horses are so reluctant to run them in level-weights Graded races, which is a big factor in those races routinely attracting small fields.
As drastic as such changes may seem, they are unlikely to fundamentally change the pecking order in the sport, with Mullins, Elliott, Henderson and Nicholls still all-but certain to lead the way. What it will do is rebalance the opportunities amongst all trainers, jockeys and owners to earn a bigger slice of the prize money pie. This can only serve to make National Hunt racing more viable and attractive to participants of all sizes, as well as producing much more engaging races for the racing public to enjoy.
Make no mistake, tougher days are coming. Racecourses are facing severe threats to their viability. The biggest threat of all may come in the form of the move of wider society against betting, most imminently in the shape of the Gambling Act review in the UK, which poses a huge threat to the finances of horse racing. We as a sport cannot afford to sleepwalk into a crisis and should be doing everything we can to make our racing product as attractive as possible to as big an audience as possible.
Right now, National Hunt racing is only delivering a fraction of the potential it has to produce competitive and engaging action throughout the season. Will those with the power to make changes be brave enough to take action and tackle the monster that the Graded race programme has become? For the greater good of the sport, I sincerely hope that they do.