After a humiliating 23-5 for the Irish at last year’s Cheltenham Festival, the good news for UK jump races after the weekend’s action is that the 2022 festival’s first race, the Supreme Novice Hurdle on the 15th March, looks like a banker for the home team.
Constitution Hill was deeply impressive as he clearly grabbed the bridle to win the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown on Saturday and is now a worthy 9-4 favorite; his biggest rival could well be Jonbon (3-1), a stable companion at the Nicky Henderson yard. The bad news, however, is that the rest of the reunion threatens to be a case of what the late Yogi Berra described as “again déjà vu”.
There are 19 handicap-free races at the Festival and runners trained in Ireland currently lead the market in 17. Henderson’s Shishkin, in the Queen Mother Champion Chase, is the only other ante-post favorite in Britain. The nine handicaps are much more open and the UK yards will account for the majority of the riders – but they had two-thirds of the riders with a handicap last time around, and Ireland have still come home with seven wins out of nine.
It was against this less promising backdrop that Ruth Quinn, director of international racing and racing development for the British Horseracing Authority, last week released details on what the BHA plans to do to “ensure [Irish] raids in the years to come will meet with even stronger opposition ”.
Quinn chaired the BHA’s Quality Jump Racing Review Group, which was formed in May following the beating at Cheltenham, and a Grand National at Aintree in which 10 of the first 11 outbreaks were trained in Ireland. The group have offered five goals and two recommendations, none of which will make a difference this season but could, they hope, start to restore parity a bit from 2023.
The goals include seeing ‘Britain’s best horses compete more regularly outside of the Festival’, ‘encouraging more of the sport’s most dedicated owners to have their horses trained in Britain’, and ‘ neutralize prize money for owners’ consideration when decisions are made as to whether a horse is trained in Britain or Ireland ”.
To this end, the recommendations are that Britain should “encourage greater competition between the sport’s leading horses in all divisions by implementing significant changes in the jumping pattern and the listed program”, and “Offer a significant increase in prize money” for show jumping, with an increase in minimum levels to encourage owners to race their horses outside of major festivals.
These are reasonable ambitions, and suggest that British racing realizes the possibility that these things are not ‘always cyclical’ and should turn around soon enough, as has often been claimed in the past.
The crux of the matter, however, as the Review Group seems to appreciate, is the consistency with which Ireland has outperformed its representation in Cheltenham for most of a decade. This suggests that while Britain has many more show jumping horses – with 33,000 jump starts in 2021 compared to just under 20,000 in Ireland – a significant and consistent majority of the best of them are to be found across the Irish Sea.
Even a “significant” increase in the cash prizes offered in Britain may not help remedy this imbalance, as Ireland’s appeal to the super-rich homeowners who increasingly dominate the gambling game. winter is not limited to the money offered. The rewards for top class show jumping horses are certainly attractive and deliberately geared towards ranked races rather than handicaps, but this reflects a top-down appreciation of the importance of racing and breeding to the Irish economy in its together, and its rural economy in particular.
Racing in Ireland is funded directly by the government, as a levy on all betting income, including money wagered on the much larger UK program. The rate doubled from 1% to 2% in 2019, following lobbying from the horse and greyhound racing industries. Covid has had an impact on funding in Ireland as it did on cash prizes in the UK last year, but the fundamentals of the Irish model are strong and the continued success of Irish horses in Britain and elsewhere increases the turnover of bets and, consequently, the taking of taxes as well.
It’s a virtuous circle that UK industry is unlikely to match and although last year’s Festival set the bar very high, the latest odds suggest 19 or 20 winners are the most returning likely from Ireland, with 23 or more on offer at just 12-1. As surprising as it might sound just a decade ago, this might not be the worst price of the week.