THE 2021 Cheltenham Festival was expected to be different. No crowds, zero atmosphere, and extreme protocols.
Despite rigorous testing, the mood among the Irish team was bullish. After some monster performances at the Dublin Racing Festival, the Irish team crossed the Irish Sea with confidence.
Totting up the numbers on the Monday evening pre-festival, I genuinely believed that Irish-trained horses could break 20 winners for the first time ever — considering there are 28 races run over the four days, I was quickly told off for making such a ridiculous suggestion.
By Friday evening, Irish-trained horses accounted for 23 of the 28 winners — including all four of the Championship races! Irish-bred horses were responsible for winning 20 races at the meeting and 25 owners cheered home winners, ensuring a healthy spread of success across the ownership board.
Naturally, the headlines were dominated by Rachael Blackmore who stole the show and single-handedly restored the industry’s reputation with her masterclasses on and off the track — taking home the top jockey title into the bargain.
Blackmore’s exploits partially overshadowed the awesome training performance of Henry de Bromhead, who became the first trainer to win the Champion Hurdle, Champion Chase, and Gold Cup in one week.
While the Irish basked in the green theme of Prestbury Park — the inquest into Britain’s dismal performance on home turf began in earnest. Five winners for UK-based horses on home turf. That’s one less than Blackmore, de Bromhead and Willie Mullins who each scored six.
So what happened? Did they simply not have the equine talent or is there a wider issue within the British industry?
I have been pondering these questions for the past week and can only conclude that it’s definitely a combination of factors.
Firstly, 20 of the 28 winners were offered at public auction, available to the highest bidder and fair game for any talent hunter. Secondly, many of the Irish-trained winners were in fact owned by British clients which suggests Britain’s dismal prizemoney levels must be a potent factor.
For example, Cheveley Park Stud bought Sir Gerhard after winning his Irish point-to-point in Boulta — paying a mouthwatering £400,000 to acquire him.
After winning the Grade 1 Weatherby’s Champion Bumper at Cheltenham, he had re-cooped just £30,000 of that price tag.
On the day, he beat his stablemate Kilcruit who had won a Grade 2 bumper at the Dublin Racing Festival on route to Cheltenham.
Kilcruit had won €59,000 for his emphatic display in the Grade 2 bumper at Leopardstown — almost double that of the Champions version at Cheltenham.
In an ideal world, we’ll see that pair battle again at Punchestown in the Irish version of the Champion bumper where they will compete for an €80,000 purse. See where I’m going with this?
Metier and Appreciate It both won Grade 1 Novice Hurdles on route to the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle at Cheltenham. Metier picked up £20,000 for winning the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown while the latter bagged €74,000 for winning the Chanelle Pharma Novice Hurdle at Leopardstown.
There are many spectrums for the British to examine, but I’m happy to bask in the glory of Ireland’s spellbinding performance. Let’s look at the bare numbers: the population of Ireland is 4.9m compared to 66.6m in the UK. Yet, each year this country produces almost 5,000 foals — double that of our UK comrades.
Ireland excels in many sports but never have we dominated an away game quite like what was witnessed at Cheltenham last week.
Rachael Blackmore emerged as Katie Taylor, de Bromhead somewhat reminiscent of Eddie O’Sullivan.
I don’t remember the days of Danoli or Arkle. When winners at Cheltenham were dreams rather than reality of the emerald green team, but thanks to the vision of those trailblazers and the foresight of the modern-day trainer, Cheltenham has become a home away from home for the Irish.
It’s five years since we first won the Prestbury Cup (winning more races than British trainers) and since that week in 2016, this result has been brewing. The excellence we witnessed at the Dublin Racing Festival was breathtaking and the proof in that pudding is that 11 horses who competed at the DRF won last week.
Barry Geraghty, Ruby Walsh, Noel Fehily, and Tony McCoy may be gone but Blackmore, Townend, Kennedy, and Coleman have proven they’re up to the task.
This is a new age for Irish racing. We often brag about being the best in the world, but when you dominate at the highest level like we did last week, it’s an undeniable fact. The quality of horse racing has never been higher in this country and what a way to prove it!