18+ | Commercial Content | T&Cs apply | Wagering and T&Cs apply | Play Responsibly | Advertising Disclosure
Vincent Finegan

Vincent Finegan

Irish dominance at Cheltenham causing concern

Willie Mullins & Paul Townend with the Gold Cup which hasn't been touched by a British trainer or jockey since 2018Willie Mullins & Paul Townend with the Gold Cup which hasn't been touched by a British trainer or jockey since 2018
© Photo Healy Racing

Julie Harrington, chief executive of the British Horseracing Authority (BHA) issued a statement in the aftermath of Cheltenham that amounted to a rallying cry to her industry to take urgent steps to address the imbalance of Irish trainers winning 12 of the 14 Grade One races at the Festival.

Here are some extracts from what Harrington said: “I have no doubt that the men and women who train horses here in Britain are more than a match for their Irish counterparts. However, they need the ammunition and at present the balance of power and the best horses are going to our colleagues in Ireland, and in particular one yard.

“The Irish domination of the Grade 1 races this week has illustrated that the issue is becoming more pronounced and more damaging for the sport on both sides of the Irish sea.

“We must do more, more quickly, and in a more coordinated and decisive manner if we are going to restore British Jump racing to the standing at which it belongs.

By doing more, Harrington talks about a strategy to increase prize money for the top races under both codes. “An additional £3.8m in prize money has already been earmarked for investment in 2024 across the top end of the sport in both codes.”

It seems that the BHA have bought into the narrative that British owners have moved en masse to have their horses trained in Ireland, but the recent Cheltenham Festival winners don’t bare that out. Of the 14 Grade One races at Cheltenham, 8 of the 12 winners trained in Ireland are actually owned by Irish people.

Increasing the prize money for the top races is likely to have no significant impact on where these horses are trained. Almost all of these mega-rich owners simply want a Cheltenham Festival winner and the prize money at Cheltenham or elsewhere during the season is largely irrelevant to them.

There is even the possibility that increasing prize money at the top level in Britain could actually backfire by encouraging messrs Mullins, Elliott, de Bromhead and Cromwell to target more British Graded races.

I do agree with Julie Harrington’s assessment that the domination of these Grade One races by less than a handful of Irish trainers is becoming more damaging for the sport on both sides of the Irish sea, but from an Irish perspective it’s the smaller trainers that are fast becoming an endangered species.

Of the 18 Irish-trained winners at Cheltenham last week, 16 were trained by the big four National Hunt stables that are dominating the domestic scene.

Of the 53 Irish-trained horses that finished first, second or third across the week, 48 of them were again trained by the same four trainers. Only three other Irish trainers managed to achieve a podium finish at the entire Festival.

While the British trainers may lose a bit of face by seeing the Irish domination of their Grade One contests at Cheltenham, at least they are largely left alone for the rest of the season. The smaller Irish yards are facing this onslaught day in and day out.

I don’t know what the answer is for British racing, but I’m pretty sure that if something concrete is not done soon to support the smaller Irish jumping yards many will simply disappear.

Harrington also touched on the “need to grow our fanbase by encouraging new fans and retaining existing fans and owners, improve the experience of ownership and attending and viewing racing, and much more besides.”

The decline in attendances at Cheltenham last week is definitely concerning. 280,000 people attended the Festival in 2022 after the end of the Covid Pandemic, but just two years later 50,000 of them have disappeared. That is a huge drop off in such a short space of time.

The cost of living crisis looks to have had little or no impact on corporate and hospitality sales, it is the lower end tickets where the Jockey Club noted the most significant drop. When you hear their chief executive talk about the introduction of ‘staged payment plans’ for people to buy tickets you have to think they are overpriced.

Besides ticket prices, the rip-off hotel prices in the Cheltenham area have to be having a significant negative effect on numbers, but video footage circulating on the internet last week of car park chaos and drunken brawls also won’t do much to encourage new fans, nevermind retain the existing ones.

Julie Harrington also touched on “the risk of the damaging impact of affordability checks.” This is an area where I think horse racing is taking a dubious approach. On the one hand the industry acknowledges that excessive gambling is harmful, but at the same time doesn’t want the Government to put restrictions on punters because it will impact its bottom line.

I also find it morally questionable that racing, including Irish racing, has been so open to letting a social media influencer like Stephen Power, aka Racing Blogger, have a free rein and virtually unlimited access to the sport, while he is continually encouraging his followers to gamble excessively.

Cheltenham is so important to the sport that it’s always going to be scrutinised on every level and it’s positive to see the BHA leading those discussions this time around.

For too many years the success of Cheltenham has papered over the cracks in other areas of the sport. Now that Cheltenham is beginning to show its own blemishes it will be interesting to see how the sport reacts. Despite the Festival's faults I do hope there isn’t too much tinkering with its core product in an attempt to keep that status intact.