Kevin Blake

The week after the Cheltenham Festival, Kevin Blake discusses yet more Irish domination at Prestbury Park, success that raises questions about the home challenge.

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Another Irish domination of Cheltenham raises tough questions

The Cheltenham Festival has come and gone for another year and as usual amongst all the highs, lows and drama, there are an abundance of talking points to sort through, none more so than what was another dominant performance by Irish-trained horses at the meeting.

Irish-trained horses have been faring exceptionally well at the meeting for well over a decade now, but since the Festival was increased to 28 races in races in 2016, their tallies of 15, 19 and last week’s 17 winners have seemed to have led to increasing discontent within British racing.

In fact, it has seemingly got to the point where those in charge of British racing may even consider protectionist measures in an effort to reduce Irish-trained success at the meeting, with the Guardian fanning the flames with an article headlined “British Horseracing Authority may use barriers to keep Irish raiders in check.” While the headline attracted plenty of attention and comment online, the article itself merely passed on summaries of what are likely to have been off-the-cuff and ill-considered remarks from unnamed BHA officials.

Indeed, had those unnamed BHA officials put more thought into their comments, they are unlikely to have expressed “renewed disquiet about the relative handicapping of English and Irish horses, the impression being that some Irish runners are getting into English races with less weight than they should be carrying.”

The reason being that the British handicapping team have maintained their own ratings for Irish racing for over a decade which they apply when Irish-trained horses race in Britain. The Irish ratings do not form any part of their calculations. So, if there is a problem, it is of their own creation.

However, the evidence suggests that there isn’t a problem. While Irish-trained horses won five of the nine handicaps they had runners in at the meeting, given that there were 53 Irish-trained runners in those races, that only represents a win strike-rate of 9.4%. This is lower than the overall 11% win strike-rate of Irish-trained horses in British National Hunt handicaps which the BHA expressed satisfaction with as being fair in a statement they released in the aftermath of the controversy after the announcement of the Grand National weights last year.

Thus, those within the BHA looking to point the finger at handicap ratings as a factor in the Irish success at Cheltenham are very much barking up the wrong tree on a number of fronts.

The other point mentioned in the piece was that the BHA will seek to put pressure on the Irish Horseracing Regulatory Board to bring their drug testing up to the standard of its own. While choosing to make this suggestion in the aftermath of great Irish-trained success is rather lacking in class given what it insinuates, it is a somewhat more legitimate concern to express given that the IHRB has thus far failed to implement the recommendations made in a report by the Anti-Doping Task Force over two years ago.

What is likely to be even more concerning for the BHA is that the IHRB recently terminated its links with the laboratory that it had used for over 22 years following a false positive as well as ongoing concerns that they were not adequately equipped to test samples as rigorously as the IHRB desired them to be.

Seemingly in response to these concerns, the BHA took the quite remarkable step of sending their drug testers over to Ireland to conduct unannounced tests on horses entered to run at Cheltenham by a number of top trainers, which included both Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins.

While these actions represent quite a damning indictment of the BHAs regard for the IHRBs ability to police its own sport, the clean tests offer welcome evidence to counter any cynics that wish to cast nefarious aspersions on the success of those Irish yards at Cheltenham.

Rather than being related to any handicapping or doping matters as suggested by those unnamed BHA officials, the origins of the remarkable Irish success at Cheltenham are likely to be more merit-based.

While there may be a gap between the training skills and quality of staff between the most successful yards in Britain and Ireland, it is unlikely to be large enough to be the real root of the Irish domination. However, where there does appear to be a significant gap is in the ability of those yards to source equine talent.

Gordon Elliott celebrates with Samcro
It was another memorable Cheltenham for Gordon Elliott

During and in the aftermath of the Cheltenham Festival, the Irish success was characterised by many as being a result of wealthy owners associated with Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott essentially buying up all the best young talent in the sport and thus starving British trainers of the best raw material. This is simply not the case.

While Gordon Elliott and his main patron Gigginstown House Stud as well as Willie Mullins’ main agents Harold Kirk and Pierre Boulard spend plenty of money in pursuit of equine talent, they are generally not the ones buying at the very top of the market. Yet, their percentage of Graded-class performers to purchases seems to be on a different level.

This is very clear when one analyses the profiles and background of the winners those teams produced last week, which reveals only a handful of them came from the top end of the market and many of them were sold at public auction for very reasonable amounts where they were there for anyone to buy.

Gordon Elliott 
Samcro – Bought by Elliott for £335,000 at public auction after winning a point-to-point.
Tiger Roll– Bought by Mags O’Toole for £80,000 at public auction after winning a juvenile hurdle.
Veneer Of Charm – Bought by Mouse O’Ryan/Gordon Elliott for 16,000gns off the Flat at the horses-in-training sales.
Shattered Love – Bought for €50,000 at public auction as an unraced store horse.
Delta Work – Sourced privately in France after winning a minor Flat race.
The Storyteller – Bought for €67,000 at public auction as an unraced store horse.
Farclas – Sourced privately in France after winning a minor Flat race.
Blow By Blow – Bought by Harold Kirk and Willie Mullins for €130,000 at public auction as an unraced store horse.

Willie Mullins
Footpad – Sourced privately from France after running well without winning in two hurdle races.
Benie Des Dieux – Sourced privately from France after being Grade 3-placed over hurdles.
Rathvinden – Bought for €100,000 at a horses-in-training sale after winning a bumper in Ireland.
Bleu Berry – Sourced privately from France after winning an AQPS Flat race.
Relegate – Bought for €35,000 at public auction as an unraced store horse.
Penhill – Bought by Stephen Hillen for 230,000gns off the Flat at the horses-in-training sales.
Laurina – Sourced privately from France after finishing second in her second start over hurdles.

Rather than it being a case of those connections buying up all the talent, it seems that they are simply better at identifying and securing it when it becomes available at all levels of the market. Thus, rather than pointing the finger at external factors or looking for other explanations for the success of the top Irish trainers, perhaps British trainers and the agents that source horses for them would be best served by looking in the mirror and asking themselves are they working as hard and as well as they can to acquire the equine talent that will allow them to compete. At this time, it seems that the answer to that is clear.

As proud as I am as an Irishman to witness the levels of success that Irish trainers are currently enjoying, the friendly rivalry between Britain and Ireland is one of the things that makes Cheltenham and indeed National Hunt racing as a whole so great.

Right now, that contest is too one-sided to be considered a meaningful rivalry. One can only hope for their own sake and for the sake of National Hunt racing that British trainers can up their game and make the rivalry great again. Failing that, they may have to rely on the implications of Brexit for some respite from the green side of the Irish Sea.

Kevin Blake
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