Wrap The Green Flag Round Me Boys

Mon 20th Mar 2017, 08:53

Jamie Codd after scoring on Fayonagh
©Healy Racing Photos

Brian O'Connor's Weekly Blog
The median between wrapping the green flag round Cheltenham's 19-9 scoreline and Michael O'Leary dismissing the British-Irish bit as a "f---ing load of nonsense" is probably the safest point on the festival spectrum. O'Leary has logic on his side. The flag-waving really is an affectation. But it's relatively harmless and provides something other than punting for the public to hang its hat on. And it all means too much to too many for it be just about betting. It's vital though that Irish routs don't become a habit.

Just as the Ryder Cup only really works if Europe is the plucky outsider putting it up to the ugly American, then Cheltenham's Anglo-Irish rivalry depends on a strong home team. Beating up the bully once in a while is fun. More than that and it starts to get boring. And if there can be unanimity on one thing it is that the Brits are better than us at the superior shtick. So they really need to pull their socks up.

It's actually the idea that much of the cross-channel racing establishment is quietly and decorously seething at last week's 'Green-Wash' which makes it impossible to dismiss the whole rivalry thing as nonsense. The flag waving may be indulgent and irrational but logic has a long history of being trumped by what people choose to indulge in: just look at the very ugly American in the White House pondering who to bully next.

Plenty will no doubt use this unprecedented level of Cheltenham success as evidence that all is right in the Irish racing world. But we've been here many times. Spring festival success by a small group of trainers and owners becomes a brochure friendly rebuttal to months of winter grumbling about too little competition, too much elitism and a concentration of talent in too few hands.

The Racehorse Trainers Association reckons 85 per cent of its members are struggling, citing the lack of owners and horses in the National Hunt sphere in particular. Try telling them that Messrs Mullins and Elliott cleaning up at Cheltenham resonates as national sporting success in the manner of Ireland's rugby victory over England. And try arguing to prospective owners who are merely wealthy that they can compete with those mega-rich rivals routinely buying up the best young talent around.

HRI insists its emphasis will continue on encouraging quality. It will no doubt be accused of elitism as a result but it's difficult to argue for more money and resources for bad horses. That's a race to the bottom. And there's something incongruous about large elements of an otherwise self-consciously conservative free-market industry arguing for what are effectively artificial subsidies.

Perhaps then the most notable post-Cheltenham contribution is Brian Kavanagh's comment about some querying whether there are actually too many trainers licences being issued, and consequently too many people competing for a slice of what is a relatively small pie. That's the sort of free-market talk which is presumably music to Michael O'Leary's ears even if it isn't very sentimental.

Separately, everyone seems determined to forget after the event how some sentiment got out of hand before the festival in relation to the British Horseracing Authority's handicapping of Irish trained horses.

There's a legitimate argument to be made for the BHA to publish its list of ratings for Irish horses. However that got rather lost in some rather hysterical claims of anti-Irish bias and a prejudice in favour of home based runners. It hardly panned out like that at Cheltenham.

Handicappers by definition are supposed to be unpopular. But the green flag got wrapped around this and a consequence was some ugly personalised stuff.

There's one rivalry which is now indisputable and that's the one between Gordon Elliott and Willie Mullins. Threatening to dethrone Mullins as champion trainer with massive amounts of runners is one thing. But Cheltenham has been Mullins's elite patch and Elliott has basically driven a tank on to it by winning the festival's top trainer award. There's a resonance to it that speaks volumes for the future.

As for the trainers title here, everyone agrees the outcome of the Irish National may have a decisive bearing but with six winners on Sunday - including a Navan five-timer - there is a real sense of momentum with Elliott which may make Mullins's task all but impossible even if he does win a first National.

That apparently mundane Beginners Chase at Gowran nine days ago, where the second and third in the three-finisher race won by General Principle got done under the new 'Non-Trier' regulation, is threatening to become significant.

The connections of Cloudy Morning and Theturnofthesun are appealing the penalties amid a widespread view that the stewards over-reacted. And an appeal could see the definition tested of what is or isn't a "reasonable and informed member of the racing public," that vital element to the new Rule 212 relating to jockeys being seen to make every effort.

Of course everyone believes themselves to be reasonable, and rare is the racegoer who doesn't think they're informed. And a consensus seems to be growing that because General Principle was odds-on and the two behind were 25-1 that everyone knew the score and there was no chance of the winner being beaten anyway.

And that might very well be so. And General Principle might indeed have been messing around in front and generally looking less than straightforward.

But it's hard to argue the two others were asked to burst a gut to go after him. If the counter argument might be that doing so would have been futile, then the obvious reply is that we'll never know. Maybe General Principle would have run on, and maybe he'd have spat it out and not wanted to know if pressurised.

Rules by definition are black and white and rarely subtle. The new rules were set up for a reason because the old ones were so subtly open to interpretation that they became unworkable. But the new regulations vitally acknowledge that perception matters. It's not enough to just presume the score anymore and carry on regardless.

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