The astonishing success of Irish-trained horses has thrown up serious questions for British racing.
There were sighs of relief at Cheltenham’s ‘number two’ fixture of the jumps season, the three-day November Meeting, as success for Irish raiders proved notable but nowhere near levels of rampancy witnessed at the showpiece Festival.
That said, a momentary double-take at the Sunday event which I was attending, away from the Cotswolds, when a friend reported excitedly that “West Cork won the Greatwood [Hurdle]” soon gave way to the realisation that, geographically-speaking, the victory in the final-afternoon feature was actually down to Warwickshire and Alcester-based trainer Dan Skelton with the eponymous seven-year-old.
In all, Euro conversion was carried out on winning prize money for just a trio of the overseas challengers – from Counties Waterford, Limerick and Wicklow as it happens – unlike the Festival when they inflicted a record 5-23 rout of the home team, numbers with which the British horseracing psyche is now scarred.
Aintree’s Spring Festival was at first glance not quite so wretched except that Ireland’s Minella Times and jockey Rachael Blackmore led home a 1-2-3-4-5 for their homeland in the Grand National, with Skelton’s Blaklion best of the British in sixth, and he one of only three Brits amongst fifteen finishers.
Reaction in British racing to these humbling events has been mixed.
Many believe it is all simply cyclical and recall the years – a long time ago now, in the late 1980s – when the visitors had only a single or indeed, one year, zero success at Cheltenham; others blame uncompetitive parts of the race programme which hardly encourage contenders to raise their games; then there is the handicapping system, often seen as overly harsh on British hopes; plus, there is a degree of finger-pointing towards wealthy British-based owners who choose to have expensively-assembled strings housed in Ireland – cue more tut-tutting about levels of prize money.
No one is suggesting any set of trainers is more talented than the other.
Of course, there is a big element here of national pride and bruised reputation, and it is a fair argument to claim that those following the sport’s premier national hunt racing event principally want to enjoy the best against the best, not caring where they are prepared.
But there is another worrying element.
The fact is that it takes really quite a lot of effort during the rest of the year to keep an eye on a significant proportion of the runners that will seek to strut their stuff at Cheltenham and to a lesser extent at Aintree.
Although, clearly, everything is possible via the internet, arrangements with bookmakers and technology in high street betting shops - an arrangement that contributes to the £350m a year the betting and gaming industry gives to racing - a subscription is required for the specialist television channel holding the rights to daily Irish racing, with only a smattering making it onto terrestrial TV. Coverage of Ireland in the mainstream racing media is at best limited and the trade newspaper is out of reach to most.
So there is a concern that those running an eager finger down the runners and riders for the major festivals will encounter a list of fancied names of which many they have little or no knowledge leading to the very real prospect of lost interest and no bets.
Personally, had I been at the helm of the British Horseracing Authority post Cheltenham and Aintree I would have gathered everyone together not so much to offer a ‘silver bullet’ solution (there probably isn’t one, though the many ideas should be examined), but at least to reassure the jump racing community that I cared and shared their disappointments.
Little has been articulated publicly by the Authority – though hopefully the situation has been well-debated in private – but it has been acknowledged that some British-trained horses have become over-rated in the weights by the handicapping department compared to their Irish counterparts, a reaction some say to previous similar claims from Ireland. However, that makes no difference to the non-handicap races.
No one should desire a violent swing back in the other direction – that would be just as potentially damaging – but something more akin to the traditional toe-to-toe would be best for the whole industry.
Though, that said, the thought of a horse named ‘West Warwickshire’ (after the location of Skelton’s HQ) causing Irish alarm at Punchestown is rather a delicious one.