The Cheltenham Festival has been run 19 times, and on 14 occasions the winner has been a horse trained in Ireland. Six of those winners have been trained by Willie Mullins. But there are good reasons for thinking that the bumper is no longer a banker for the Irish.
In the last two runnings of the race the best they have managed is a single third place. Two things have changed in the Irish approach to the race which have contributed to this and which are likely to continue to reduce their dominance.
First, leading owners the Gigginstown House Stud, which has often supplied several of their entries, has decided not to run any of its horses in the bumper. Although both Don Cossack and Un Atout were entered for the race and were towards the head of the market, Don Cossack has already been scratched, and the owners have said that Un Atout will not run.
Explaining the decision, Eddie O’Leary, racing manager for Gigginstown, said, "The Cheltenham bumper is too tough for younger horses. The Irish have a great record in the race and they want to win it, and any race that the Irish win at the Festival is a great race. But it's a race we don't particularly like as we think it can ruin a good young horse."
As for Willie Mullins, it's a change in where his horses are coming from that has reduced his strength in the race. Mullins says that his owners are buying fewer of their horses in Ireland as they have become too expensive there. In looking particularly to France many of the new entrants to his stable have already run on the flat or in jumps races and so are ineligible for the bumper.
Mullins said, "I buy a significant number of horses every year from France, so I suppose I wouldn't train as many bumper types as I would have previously. It's not a case of changing priorities or anything like that; it's just that some of the horses coming from France wouldn't be eligible to run in the Cheltenham bumper."