Some Real Cheltenham Rivalry

Mon 13th Mar 2017, 08:33

Irish Jockeys wearing 'the green'
©Healy Racing Photos

Brian O'Connor's Weekly Blog
Cheltenham's Anglo-Irish rivalry carries some edge this week on the back of those 'post-Brexit' spats with the BHA handicapper. However the curio that means Irish racing's most high-profile festival is run in England means flag-waving is mostly an affectation: caring what winner is trained where is a luxury for most punters. What's notable about this festival is how some proper home-grown rivalries are going to be transplanted to Gloucestershire and in all likelihood dominate the week.

Just as he likes it, Michael O'Leary will be a central figure. Both he and Willie Mullins have mostly tried to play down ill-feeling arising from their split last September but Cheltenham results were always going to be the ultimate test of who has come off second best. Should Outlander win the Gold Cup, or Petit Mouchoir the Champion Hurdle, the narrative will write itself: the same will apply any time Mullins beats a Gigginstown runner, especially one he used to train.

Neither man would be human not to get caught up in that and it was notable on the back of O'Leary's clash with Phil Smith how Mullins revealed a chink of feeling when quizzed about his own attitude to Irish horses being treated in British handicaps. If his words indicated that fighting handicappers is futile then the tone suggested more than a little distaste. And since no one could ignore the context of those quotes it's hard to believe they just happened to enter his head.

That split has reverberated through the central theme of this season's action in Ireland with Gordon Elliott's attempts to wrestle the trainers championship off Mullins.

Characterising it as a struggle between quantity and quality is lazy, but as lazy generalisations go, not completely ridiculous. Elliott has after all had more than twice the number of runners that his rival has had. But even with so many leading lights missing, Mullins isn't odds-on to be leading trainer again this week by chance. He is expected to shine. If he doesn't, and Elliott prospers, then a changing-of-the-guard vibe will be unavoidable.

The potential impact of their struggle will be stamped all over the race to be leading jockey where Ruby Walsh is once again an obvious favourite although whether he should be odds-on, given the ammunition available in particular to the young pretender, Bryan Cooper, is debatable.

Owners have their own award for the first time this year which, given the increasingly powerful role a handful of very rich men have, is probably only an acknowledgement of reality. JP McManus is favourite to win, which, given his base is Anglo-Irish, is probably only right. But the depth of Gigginstown's squad is such that McManus's odds look very skinny and then there's the plucky 'underdog' Rich Ricci.

Such private contests between the very wealthy hardly grab the public imagination but given the concentration of talent in their possession, they are likely to underpin so much of what happens this week. McManus V O'Leary hardly has the romance of Kauto Star V Denman, or indeed Ireland V Britain. But like flag-waving, you've got to be able to afford your romance.

Much of the last week has been spent pinning various people down to their festival forecasts so it would be impolite not to pin some colours to the mast with the same questions too. So, here goes:

'Bet of the Meeting' - It was The Storyteller for the Martin Pipe but that's gone. If he was something of a festival talking horse then it's remarkable how under the radar Sub Lieutenant's Ryanair chance continues to fly.

With Empire of Dirt there he might not even be Gigginstown's No.1 and Un De Sceaux is a clear favourite. But this is a horse that beat Outlander in the autumn and then finished just behind him and Djakadam in the John Durkan. And how bad does his run behind Sizing John look now?

It looks like the Ryanair trip will be ideal for this fine jumper and will Un De Sceaux be the same horse on quicker going?

'Lay of the Meeting' - It had been Finian's Oscar in the Neptune but now it's Neon Wolf. If Melon's Supreme odds are based on reputation alone, then I've seen nothing form-wise to justify Neon Wolf being so short.

'Number of Irish Winners' - Let's go with a dozen. And if that seems conservative then that says a lot about how well Irish trained horses have done in recent years. .

'Leading Jockey' - According to the betting, Bryan Cooper has only the fourth best book of rides to look forward to: that just seems off-beam.

'Most Looking Forward To' - It mightn't happen but Michael O'Leary presenting the Ryanair prize to Willie Mullins would get the camera guys shoving!"

'What Would Improve The Festival' - That's the simplest, and the most unlikely. Cutting it back to three days will invariably be portrayed as knuckle-dragging but there's only so much quality butter to be spread and right now it's being spread too thin.

Just some housework to point out before it all kicks off though: on Saturday at Gowran we had a four-horse race that produced three finishers and the second and third got done under the new 'non-trier' rules. That's half the field, and two-thirds of the finishers, who, according to the stewards, weren't at it. Is that a record?

More importantly when are riders, and everyone else, going to click that at least being seen to make some sort of effort is now required: this was the seventh such Rule 212 case since the new regulations came into force on January 21. They were introduced because they were necessary. Pleading ignorance doesn't cut it at this stage.

Then the following day the ultimate example of how cheering Cheltenham glory on the back of a concentration of talent in just a few hands impacts in much more mundane circumstances. That said, a Naas Grade 3 is hardly mundane. But a four-runner field made up entirely of horses from the one owner is a stark example of the on-the-ground reality in so many other weeks of the year.

Finally, last week also saw the Dail's Agriculture Committee grilling Brian Kavanagh for a few hours in what had been billed as some dramatic showdown. Dramatic it wasn't, but at the end of it all, the lasting impression was of how not a glove landed on the HRI chief executive. Whatever your view on his controversial reappointment, there was no denying Kavanagh's impressive performance.

Perhaps the most notable comment though came from the TD, Clare Daly, who said something along the lines of she has never seen such discontent from so many in a single industry as she has in racing. She clearly has to learn it's like that all the time.

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