ONEAfter a humiliating 23-5 by the Irish at Cheltenham Festival last year, the good news for the UK jump races after the weekend’s action is that the first race of the 2022 festival, the Supreme Novice Hurdle on March 15th, is like a banker looks for the home team.
Constitution Hill was deeply impressive as he won the Tolworth Hurdle at Sandown on Saturday by a clear bridle and is now a worthy 9-4 favorite; his biggest rival is likely to be Jonbon (3-1), a stable mate with Nicky Henderson. The bad news, however, is that the remainder of the meeting threatens to become a case of what the late Yogi Berra called “another déjà vu”.
There are 19 non-handicapped races at the festival and Ireland-trained runners currently lead the market in 17. Henderson’s Shishkin in the Queen Mother Champion Chase is the UK’s only other ante post favorite. The nine handicaps are much more open and UK yards will be the majority of the runners – but they had two-thirds of the handicaps last time around and Ireland still went home with seven out of nine wins.
With this clearly hopeless backdrop, Ruth Quinn, director of international racing and racing development for the British Horseracing Authority, released details last week of what the BHA intends to do to “ensure”. [Irish] Raid parties will face even tougher resistance in the years to come ”.
Quinn headed the BHA’s Quality Jump Racing Review Group, formed in May after the Cheltenham blows, and a Grand National at Aintree that trained 10 of the first 11 homes in Ireland. The group has formulated five goals and two recommendations, neither of which will make a difference this season, but which they hope could start to restore a bit of parity from 2023 onwards.
The goals include “Britain’s best horses competing more regularly outside the festival”, “Encouraging more of the sport’s highest investing owners to train their horses in the UK” and “Prize money in return for owners when making decisions.” whether a horse will be trained in Great Britain or Ireland ”.
To this end, the recommendations are that the UK should “encourage greater competition between the leading horses of the sport in all divisions through a significant change in the jumping pattern and program listed” and “a significant increase in the prize money” for jumping at increased minimum levels by the Encourage owners to run their horses outside of the big festivals.
These are sensible ambitions and suggest that British racing is becoming aware of the possibility that these things are not “always cyclical” and will spin fast enough, as has often been claimed in the past.
The crux of the problem, however, as the Review Group seems to appreciate, is the regularity with which Ireland has outperformed its Cheltenham representation for nearly a decade. This suggests that while the UK has many more show jumpers – with 33,000 starts over jumps in 2021 compared to just under 20,000 in Ireland – a significant and constant majority of the very best of them are on the other side of the Irish Sea.
Even a “substantial” increase in the amount of money on offer in Great Britain can do little to counteract this imbalance, because Ireland’s attraction for the super-rich owners, who are increasingly dominating the Winter Games, is more than just the money offered. The rewards for high profile show jumpers are certainly attractive and deliberately focused on breeds rather than handicaps, but this reflects a top-down appreciation of the importance of racing and breeding to the Irish economy as a whole, and the rural economy in particular.
Racing in Ireland receives its funding direct from the government as part of a levy on all betting sales, including money gambled away under the much larger UK program. The rate doubled from 1% to 2% in 2019 after lobbying the horse and greyhound racing industry. Covid had an impact on funding in Ireland, as well as prize money in the UK last year, but the foundations of the Irish model are solid and the continued success of Irish horses in the UK and elsewhere is increasing betting turnover and, consequently, the tax burden.
It’s a positive cycle that UK industry is unlikely to ever hit, and while the festival has set a very high bar last year, the latest odds point to 19 or 20 winners as Ireland’s most likely return, with 23 or more out of just 12 – 1. Amazing as it might seem a decade ago, this might not be the worst price of the week.