Now that the dust has settled on an incredible week at Cheltenham, the inquest can begin on just why the British were battered in their own backyard.
But first, after a turbulent twelve months for horse racing, let us round up on the positives from the biggest four days in the sport.
The obvious place to start is with the animals themselves. Blissfully unaware of the pandemic, Brexit complications and the European equine herpes outbreak that could have caused chaos at Cheltenham, they duly arrived and delivered exhilarating sport at the highest level.
The effortless hurdling and turn of foot from Honeysuckle, the tenaciousness up the hill from Put The Kettle On, the showing of seemingly endless stamina by Flooring Porter, or the all-round attributes required to win a Gold Cup, shown by Minella Indo. These are the true heroes of the sport, appreciated by millions who tuned in to see them in action.
The horses are closely followed by the incredible Rachael Blackmore, grabbing the headlines for her six winners that clinched the top jockey award. After a steady flow of winners in the middle of the last decade, her career blossomed in 2018/19 when she finished second in the Irish Jump Jockeys title race and landed her first two Cheltenham winners with A Plus Tard and Minella Indo. That leads us onto last week where those pair finished 1-2 in the Gold Cup, the only surprise being that Blackmore was on the runner-up behind another rising star of the saddle Jack Kennedy.
The ascent of Blackmore is of no surprise to those within this sport, her talent noticed by ‘Shark’ Hanlon and latterly Henry De Bromhead, who supplied her with the ammunition for last week's successes. No matter where she finds herself in a race, her tactical riding brain always seems to get the best from her partner. She made all on Sir Gerhard, Allaho and Quilixios, tracked the pace on Honeysuckle and Bob Ollinger while holding up Tellmesomethingirl. Very different rides all ending in the same result.
Only Ruby Walsh has ridden more Cheltenham winners in a week than Blackmore in the last 40 years and comparisons were obviously drawn about one of the masters of his profession on the biggest stage and Blackmores exploits in the shadow of Cleeve Hill.
Blackmore was back in action on Saturday as she and Paul Townend battle it out for the Irish Jump Jockeys title which ends in May. Victory in that would be as momentous as last week at Prestbury Park.
Although it was very different off the track, the racing on it was still as competitive from the jockey’s viewpoint, as Nick Scholfield told me. He said, “The actual racing part of it has been no different. It’s every bit as competitive as previous years, there is no inch given while the Irish are all here and the best horses are competing.
“Although it’s surreal driving in, no traffic, no boxes, no owners to celebrate with, no cheering but take that away and every jockey that has ridden a winner will still tell you it’s a special feeling. I don’t think I’ve ever had so many texts in all my life (after riding Sky Pirate to victory) as there is so many people watching. It’s great that racing is on the front foot and ITV are doing a great job and it promoted racing in such a great way. People sat at home are appreciating the horses instead of in the Guinness village getting very drunk which is no bad thing and hopefully it brings the sport forward.”
Viewing figures for ITV rose from last year too, up 23% on average and with a high on Friday of 1.9m who watched the Gold Cup, the biggest number since Denman v Kauto Star in 2008.
All of these, and there are plenty more, are positives to take from the week, but we must address the glaring problem facing British racing. The Irish domination of the sport continued as they won the Prestbury Cup, the competition between the two countries for number of winners trained at the meeting, by a massive 23 races to five. Even allowing for the argument that some owners and trainers are waiting for the possibility of a return for owners to the racetrack in time for Aintree, the numbers do not make pretty reading.
Britain only have a 14-14 draw to their name since 2015 when they were narrow 14-13 winners, and the gap has been widening ever since.
The stats from last week are also concerning. There were 402 runners at Cheltenham over the four days with just 37 (9%) of those British trained having an SP of less than 10/1, while their Irish counterparts had 65 (16%). Not only was it just the winners that dominated for Ireland either but also those that hit the frame. Of the 91 places up for grabs, Britain filled jut 36 of them (39%) with the Irish taking up 54 (59%) from 40% representation, with Easysland (2nd) the sole representative from France.
Plenty of ideas have been thrown around as to why this is the case, including the money in the game in Ireland.
The big spending owners are based in Ireland. Although JP McManus and the Donnelly’s did have success with Nicky Henderson last week, their main strings are trained on the Emerald Isle, adding to the spending power of Rich Ricci, the Morans and Brian Acheson’s Robcour racing banner.
The Irish point-to-point scene is such a fiercely competitive one that horses are regularly sold on for six figures and up to €500,000, compared to the British point-to-point scene which for years has predominantly catered for those towards the ends of their careers.
Another idea floated is that the best flat horses are now going abroad to continue their career, so the recruits from the level are not rated as high on average, but they still acquire similar jumps ratings due to the pattern system.
The pattern system is a series of graded races, the holy grail for top performers, and horses who win these are, on average, still being rated in the same sphere as they were ten to fifteen years ago despite the landscape changing.
There are more graded jumps races now in Britain than ever before, and a high number of them are extremely uncompetitive, especially when it comes to novice chasers.
Now I know Britain did take two of the three novice chase contests, one courtesy of a potential superstar in the making in Shishkin, and the other maybe fortunate with the fall of another with high aspirations in Envoi Allen, but the races that they had taken part in to get there were extremely uncompetitive.
They were: -
Shishkin – faced nine rivals in three chases prior to Cheltenham.
Eldorado Allen – he faced the most in nineteen rivals across four races.
Chantry House – raced against nine rivals in three races en route to Marsh Chase success.
Fusil Raffles – just ten opponents in his three races before last week
Fiddlerontheroof – fifteen in five races
The Big Breakaway – thirteen in three races, including a grade 1 at Kempton on Boxing Day which had eight runners.
So, the best of British novice chasers last week as faced a total of seventy-five rivals in 21 races, an average of 3.5 rivals per race. Then they are expected to run at Championship pace against more battle-hardened rivals from Ireland who will trade blows against their best throughout the year, namely at Leopardstown both over Christmas and during the Dublin Racing Festival.
Is it a coincidence that the Irish have increased the dominance over Britain since the introduction of those two fantastic days at Foxrock in February? Is there an argument for developing the Winter Festival at Newbury, or at Kempton over Christmas into top class meetings to attract the best versus the best?
Reducing these graded contests and funnelling the better horses to meet each other throughout the season may have to happen to bring Britain back to its competitive best.
Even looking at the Champion Hurdle, Epatante faced just nine rivals in the only two grade 1 two-mile hurdles before Cheltenham and with the greatest respect to the opposition, only Silver Streak, who was sent off at 25/1 on Tuesday, had any hope of genuine top-class success over timber. They appear to be Grade 1s in name only, with only arguably the King George VI Chase on Boxing Day producing a field worthy of its name this season in Britain in terms of numbers and quality.
Throughout the year, Irish trainers target British prizes. The Shunter, for example, has won three races on these shores this season despite all the Covid complications and Brexit barriers. It’s a sure sign that if they do travel, they aim to take back the prize money.
Conversely, the British raiders to Ireland have dwindled year on year, be that trips to Leopardstown over Christmas, the DRF in February or even to Punchestown in May. Perhaps trainers perceive it a fruitless exercise against the better horses? But there seems no willingness to have a shot.
We have done away with top class handicaps, like the Clarence House Chase and replaced them as generally uncompetitive Grade 1s, seemingly detrimental to the quality and development of the horses.
Maybe it is swings and roundabouts? In the late 90’s the Irish were happy with a single winner at Cheltenham, then we had the golden eras of Best Mate and Kauto Star v Denman.
But without doubt, the current stars wear green, white and gold and there are no signs of this changing anytime soon.