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Monday Musings: So Many Questions

As one trainer told me on Saturday morning: “It’s just a question of money”, as he explained his view of the Irish domination of the 2021 Cheltenham Festival, writes Tony Stafford. They’ve dominated a few but never like this.

Just a quick look at the last two years reveals that the home team had ten wins and 36 places (up to fourth) last year and a paltry five wins and 41 places last week. So there was a similar number in the principal placings year on year, still making for an inglorious 41% especially as we comprised 60% of the runners, 238 to Ireland’s 163 over the four days.

The win figures are obviously much more worrying with 82% of the first prizes going back across the Irish Sea. Of course the proceeds of a fair number of these, such as the trio of Cheveley Park Stud winners, will be crossing back into their UK coffers.

But my concerned informant on Saturday was not only regarding the money owners are prepared to pay to buy the best stores. As he said, “usually everyone knows well beforehand which the most promising horses are. They are lined up to win a point impressively and then go to the sales immediately afterwards generally going for hundreds of thousands of Euro”.

He was even more irritated that owners who have stayed with their UK trainers get such a poor reward for winning races. He said: “If an owner wins three 0-100 races in a season with a horse, he cannot get back much more than half a year’s training fees. That mustn’t be allowed to continue,” he said.

“A comparable level of race in Ireland is usually worth roughly double and even more so in France. It’s getting to the stage that more and more of what we thought of as good middle-of-the-road and very loyal owners are either packing up altogether or jumping ship and sending their horses to Ireland.”

When Cheveley Park, who for so long have been the biggest domestic owner-breeders in the UK for Flat racing, decided to target jumping, that aspect was stark enough. Their blueprint was to pay to access the most admired stock and send those horses to the best Irish trainers, targeting the lucrative top end of the market where, even in the UK, Grade 1 jump races are worth winning.

Gordon Elliott had been their principal trainer, but Henry De Bromhead and Willie Mullins were also on their team so when that picture was released onto the internet, it was easy to understand Mrs Thompson’s actions. She after all owned a Grand National winner [Party Politics] and is a noted horse-lover.

Whereas Envoi Allen fell last week, thereby losing his career 100% record, Quilixios (De Bromhead) and the bumper horse Sir Gerhard (Mullins) duly won for their new trainers. They each showcased the talents of Rachael Blackmore, no longer merely the best woman rider the sport has seen but champion rider at Cheltenham 2021 with the additional accolade of being the first female jockey to ride a Champion Hurdle winner.

And what a winner! Honeysuckle’s demolition of her field, including the dethroning of Epatante was one of several exceptional performances, usually for Irish horses. Then again if you win 23 of 28 it’s a fair bet that the most impressive winners will have been in your team.

Quilixios, so dominant in the Triumph Hurdle, beat his former stablemate and the race favourite Zanahiyr into a disappointing fourth. Denise Foster did get her name on three Cheltenham winners including the peerless Tiger Roll, who was collecting his fifth Cheltenham Festival race when turning over last year’s winner Easysland in the Cross-Country.

Given the way he won, owner Michael O’Leary would be excused for wishing he hadn’t withdrawn his dual Grand National winner from this year’s race. It seems to me his irrational complaint at the handicapper’s idea of his horse’s ability was shown to be misguided by a superb performance.

Grand National handicapper Martin Greenwood had given Tiger Roll a rating of 170 (including a small premium for his Aintree excellence) in this year’s race.  After his 18-length demolition of the French favourite, who has a UK mark of 167, Greenwood could have argued Tiger Roll to be thrown in on 170.

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The Sneezy Foster issue is causing the Irish racecourse experts on Racing TV some delicate problems. I’m sure I heard the other day that the “Denise Foster stable has won this race <can’t remember the number> many times.” She amassed 13 winners in a fortnight home and away also including the ridiculously easy handicap scorer Mount Ida who was tailed off to halfway, hardly jumped a fence properly yet won the Kim Muir by six lengths in a canter.

The same was true of The Shunter who never really looked to be galloping or jumping properly yet just as comfortably collected a £100,000 bonus for Emmet Mullins after adding the Paddy Power Plate to his Kelso Graded hurdle win 12 days earlier.

That was a shrewd piece of work by Mullins as had The Shunter won a chase in the lead up to the Festival, of course he would have incurred a penalty [not that that would have necessarily stopped him, Ed.].

Nine of the 28 races at the meeting are handicaps. On the first day only two Irish runners lined up for the Ultima Chase and neither got in the placings in a 16-runner affair left to the home team and won by Sue Smith’s veteran Vintage Clouds at 28-1.

Half the 22-runner Boodles Handicap Hurdle were Irish, including the 80-1 Noel Meade-trained winner Jeff Kidder. Another big-priced success was the all-the-way five-length Coral Cup victory of 33-1 chance Heaven Help Us, the understandable sentiment for trainers of the 19 UK runners in a 26-horse field who toiled in vain from the off.

The Johnny Henderson Chase brought a brief respite from the handicap onslaught when Entoucas, one of seven invaders in a field of 19, could manage only second to Jonjo O’Neill’s Sky Pirate after horlicksing the second last. Maybe Joseph O’Brien should ask for some respite if his horse travels over for Aintree!

There were five Irish among 21 contesting the three-mile Pertemps Handicap Hurdle on Thursday. Three of them made the first four with Mrs Milner another to brush away the opposition ahead of Mrs Foster’s The Bosses Oscar. That was just the aperitif to the dominant displays later that day of Mount Ida and The Shunter, both of whom were backed as if defeat was unimaginable. So it proved each time.

Day four we had two of the most difficult races, the County Hurdle where 16 of the 25 were Irish-trained. The Belfast Bullet (33-1) led home yet another one-two ahead of Petit Mouchoir, Peter Fahy getting the better of the ex-Gordon Elliott runner.

Finally we had the Martin Pipe Conditional Jockeys’ Handicap Hurdle. Willie Mullins, second-best to De Bromhead all week when his rival added a Gold Cup 1-2 with Minella Indo and A Plus Tard to his Champion Hurdle success, needed to win to wrest the leading trainer at the meeting title from him.

All week I’d been waiting for Gentleman De Mee for this race.  A French import with scant and questionable form, Mullins had only allowed him one winning run and the guess was there would be plenty more to come. A glance at this horse’s ownership – a certain J P McManus – was the deal clincher and as he set off at the head of his field the 4-1 favourite had to be the one.

But was it? Most of the way round as the leader looked less than comfortable, a certain Galopin Des Champs, trained by, oh dear, Willie Mullins!, was tracking him going so smoothly. That morning I’d had a call from my friend Steve Gilbey saying he met an Irishman the day before. “He gets some good stuff and he says that Mullins will win the last, but not with the favourite”, which I’d already told him I thought would win.

He said: “it ran behind Appreciate It last time and would have been much nearer than he finished but for making a mistake two hurdles out.” Appreciate It, blimey, I wish I had.

As Gentleman De Mee dropped away, there on the inside was Galopin Des Champs, who cantered into the lead up the hill. As well as denying Henry De B, he also foiled the week’s second attempted bonus by Dan Skelton’s Langer Dan, the brave runner-up.

Steve was straight on the phone afterwards: “Hope you backed it!”  In the immortal words of punters who don’t listen to pearls of wisdom from random Irishmen at Cheltenham-time: “Only small”.

Seriously though, seven winners from nine handicaps suggests that something is going wrong somewhere. They don’t just win, they win pulling carts. Great if like Steve you hear about the right one. I’m sure the top trainers over here will be asking some questions about what seems almost like a series of very valuable open goals.

When their horses win ordinary handicaps, say in heavy ground, here they can often be raised by 10lb or even more. It seems the idea of handicapping in the UK is to be punitive in the hope of preventing multiple wins. That reality, coupled with that very obvious lack of prizemoney makes it all so soul-destroying.

Then you get the Irish coming to Cheltenham and many of their handicappers are getting in with what are obviously much more competitive marks.

Something clearly needs to be done.