Don’t lament lack of British entries for the Dublin Racing Festival
The inaugural Dublin Racing Festival is less than a fortnight away and excitement is already growing. No matter what transpires on and off the track over the weekend, the creation of the meeting is all-but sure to be considered a great success. Indeed, the concept is so simple, yet makes so much sense, that one expects those with the power to make such things happen are wondering why they didn’t think of it earlier.
Comparisons with the similarly well-conceived Irish Champions Weekend are inevitable, but such comparisons aren’t necessarily fair. The Flat and National Hunt seasons are fundamentally different. The Flat has any number of focus points around the world during the year, one of which is now the well-positioned Irish Champions Weekend.
In contrast, whether one likes it or not, the National Hunt season is split into pre-Cheltenham and post-Cheltenham. No matter how prestigious or valuable the races, no matter whether it is in Britain or Ireland, every contest prior to March will be considered as being part of the build-up to the Cheltenham Festival.
This is a source of frustration for some, with the view that such focus on Prestbury Park in March is unhealthy for the discipline as a whole, but it is a reality that is hard to see changing any time soon.
Indeed, it is this reality that made it inevitable that British trainers would not support the Dublin Racing Festival as some hoped they would. Only eight British-trained horses have been entered in the early-closing races over the two-day meeting and it seems likely that very few of those will be declared to run. It is expected to be a similar story in the handicaps and bumpers.
The reason it was so inevitable is that the Cheltenham Festival is what matters most on both sides of the Irish Sea. For British trainers, the notion of sending a stable star across to Ireland for a Grade 1 just five weeks before Cheltenham is one that is never likely to hold too much appeal regardless of how good a job Leopardstown do and how much prize money is on offer there.
As well as that and as much as anything else, one suspects that the vast majority of British trainers wouldn’t even consider coming across the Irish Sea with anything bar their very best representatives for the very simple reason that they likely feel they can’t compete.
While it will be a tough truth for some to swallow, Ireland is where the power lies in National Hunt racing right now. Remember, we are less than two years removed from Willie Mullins coming within a whisker of claiming the title of Champion National Hunt Trainer in Britain despite only making a concerted effort to do so in the late stages of the campaign.
Perhaps an even starker illustration of how far British National Hunt racing has slipped relative to Ireland has been the performance of Irish-trained horses at the Cheltenham Festival, the meeting that the majority of British trainers aim to have their most talented horses at fever pitch for throughout the season.
As the following table shows, despite the disadvantage of having to travel cross-channel to get to Cheltenham, Irish-trained horses have won over 40% of the races at the Cheltenham Festival in six of the last seven years, culminating in a record-breaking tally of 19 of the 28 races last year.
While the National Hunt game has grown accustomed to such success rates from the raiding party, when one sits back and takes it in, it really is staggering just how much inroads the Irish have managed to make into such a prestigious meeting on foreign soil.
When one considers this reality, it should be no surprise that the British trainers are unwilling to travel across the Irish Sea with their best horses considering they struggle to beat them on the days that matter most when they are in their own backyard.
Regardless, even if British trainers were more willing to cross the Irish Sea with their best horses, there are arguably only three horses trained in Britain that would truly enhance the Dublin Racing Festival, Buveur D’Air, Might Bite and Altior.
Given that all three of those stars are trained by Nicky Henderson, a man who has a well-earned reputation for being ultra-cautious with his best horses, he will always be the least likely of any of the top British trainers to run his best horses in a competitive contest five weeks before the Cheltenham Festival.
Thus, while some have bemoaned and belittled the British for not better supporting the Dublin Racing Festival, it really is a non-issue. The firepower in National Hunt racing is on the island of Ireland and there is more than enough of it to create a season full of enthralling action staged primarily at home.
The creation of the Dublin Racing Festival creates a natural programme of progression from Leopardstown’s Christmas meeting to the Dublin Racing Festival to the Cheltenham Festival and onto the Punchestown Festival. There are some fine meetings and races around those focus points, but the authorities have already worked on the Irish National Hunt programme in a way that funnels the best horses around into these meetings and that is a policy that should be continued.
While British contenders would be more than welcome and would add to the Dublin Racing Festival, the meeting certainly doesn’t need them for it to be one of the highlights of the National Hunt season. Irish National Hunt racing should be very proud of the position it has worked itself into in the sport and the likes of the Dublin Racing Festival should be a celebration of that, with or without international competitors.