19 Cheltenham winners - but the underbelly tells a very different story

It really is one of the great contradictions. The evidence provided by the Cheltenham festival - an unprecedented 19 winners for Ireland - tells us that the National Hunt game in this country is absolutely flying, writes Pat Keane.
19 Cheltenham winners - but the underbelly tells a very different story

In so many ways it is, with great prizemoney, trainers, owners, jockeys and a depth of high-class horses that are basically far in advance of anything we have seen here before.

But beneath appearances there is growing dissatisfaction, with the vast majority of trainers seriously struggling to make a living.

And that, of course, is where the massive contradiction lies. National Hunt racing in Ireland can now be broken down into two categories, the haves and the have-nots.

Top of the haves are a small group of owners, we all know who they are, and a handful of trainers. There are six trainers who are essentially currently living in a different world to the rest, led by Willie Mullins and Gordon Elliott.

They are followed by Henry de Bromhead, Noel Meade, Jessica Harrington and Joseph O’Brien. You can argue that O’Brien, with 36 winners to his credit this season, should not be included in a list headed by Elliott on 176, but that young man, you’d imagine, has some decent financial clout behind him and is just warming up.

After those six, the rest can be regarded as the have-nots. Besides the six mentioned, only three further trainers have managed more than 15 winners this season, Shark Hanlon (20), Tom Mullins (16) and Liz Doyle (16), whose latest success came at Cork on Thursday.

Glance down the line at what is happening to others and it makes for somewhat sad reading. Take Tony Martin, for instance.

He has a big reputation, even more so in Britain, but the loss of the Gigginstown patronage has had a big effect on him. His strike rate is a paltry 4% with eight winners in total.

Mouse Morris, who has successes in the Cheltenham Gold Cup and Aintree Grand National tucked away, sits on 13 winners. Charles Byrnes, who has shown himself on many occasions to be a really good trainer, given the material, has managed 15 winners this campaign.

Then you have the evergreen pair of Michael Hourigan and John Joe Walsh, who have more than stood the test of time, languishing on eight winners apiece. And there are loads more examples as well of trainers with little to show for what is undoubtedly hard graft. Over the last couple of years, the game has lost Charlie Swan, Joanna Morgan and Colm Murphy and a few weeks back Adrian Maguire indicated he may pull the plug, sooner rather than later.

Maguire revealed to Kevin O’Ryan on Attheraces, from Thurles racecourse, on a day when he trained a winner, that he was, amazingly, down to five paying horses.

The departure of Murphy was, arguably, the most surprising of all. In 2006 he won the Champion Hurdle at Cheltenham with Brave Inca and the Champion Chase with Big Zeb in 2010.

Last year, he saddled Empire Of Dirt to land a handicap chase at the Cheltenham Festival and then in September announced he was departing, citing financial reasons.

This week in the Racing Post

, Tony Mullins admitted he is living on borrowed time. Mullins said he has been running his yard at a loss for six or seven years and realises that is simply unsustainable.

Some years back, Eoin Griffin shaped as a trainer who might be going places, until literally disappearing off the racing map.

On March 12 at Naas, he finally enjoyed a welcome turn when Rathpatrick, owned by JP McManus, won a competitive handicap hurdle and a prize of just under €16,000.

It represented badly needed oxygen, because it was a first winner for Griffin in 13 months. Afterwards, the Post quoted him as saying: “It’s no secret it’s tough, but it’s been tough for a while and it’s a question of keeping the head down and tipping away.’’

At Limerick last Sunday, Niall Madden trained Fit To Be Tied, also owned by McManus, to win a novice hurdle. In the wake of that Madden said: “Without JP, I would be out of a job, without a doubt.’’

What most Irish trainers are facing then, considering the manner in which racing has evolved, are literally insurmountable odds.

Cheltenham was a prime example of Irish juggernauts just bulldozing the might of the British empire into submission.

Only the admirable Nicky Henderson, with three winners, proved capable of holding his own. Both Paul Nicholls and Philip Hobbs had a solitary success.

None of the other seven leading trainers in Britain, the likes of Colin Tizzard, Alan King, Dan Skelton and Nigel Twiston-Davies had a winner.

What those guys were subjected to at Cheltenham is what Irish trainers have to deal with endlessly at home.

At the moment, Nicholls is battling hard to overhaul Henderson in the British trainers’ championship. It’s a fair effort on his part, on the basis you would be hard-pressed to name a genuine Grade One horse in his care.

This from the man who treated us to such as Kauto Star, Denman and Big Buck’s and who is a quite brilliant trainer. But where he’s at sums up just how the power base has changed so dramatically in the last number of years. The bottom line is that if Nicholls was training the horses he now has, in Ireland, he wouldn’t be mapped.

Ireland has a major problem, more casualties seem inevitable and, perhaps, not much can be done about it. Racing is a microcosm of life, it is dog eat dog and survival of the fittest.

But we have to try, so here is a suggestion that might help. How about a couple of races a week that are confined to trainers, the vast majority, who haven’t had more than 10 winners at the time of entry? That could be extended out to 15 winners, as the campaign progressed.

It would mean that each week a number of races, let’s say three for the sake of argument, would be guaranteed to go to those who need them the most.

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