PAT KEANE: After Mullins and Elliott, the rest are just also rans

So, that’s the National Hunt season done and dusted then and, on the back of Punchestown, it has just been a case of most ensuring they are onside, as the mutual admiration society hit top gear, writes Pat Keane.

There is no denying just how successful Punchestown was, with great crowds throughout and to get almost 36,000 through the gates last Saturday was simply phenomenal.

But studying the statistics for what happened over the entire season, with special emphasis on Punchestown, tells us the vast majority of National Hunt trainers in this country cannot possibly be making any sort of a decent living.

The amount of prizemoney that is on offer in Ireland is quite extraordinary, but the way the game’s gone has ensured so much of it ends up in the bank accounts of a tiny minority.

It’s mind-boggling to think that Willie Mullins had won almost €6m for his owners at the close of play on Saturday.

Gordon Elliott, an honourable second in the trainers’ championship, won over €5m, while Joseph O’Brien, Henry de Bromhead, Jessica Harrington and Noel Meade all won in excess of €1m each.

Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown House Stud was the leading owner, grabbing just under €4.5m for its trouble.

Contrast those figures with Britain. Nicky Henderson was again leading trainer, with a little short of £3.5m. You wouldn’t blame him if he gazed rather enviously across the Irish Sea at what Mullins and Elliott got for their season’s work.

J P McManus was the leading owner in Britain, but had to settle for a paltry £1.84m! I mean is it any wonder so many high-profile owners want their horses trained in this country?

Punchestown revealed so much as to what is great about Irish racing, but also what should be deeply worrying going forward.

We can dress it up anyway we want, but it cannot be good for the game to see Willie Mullins dominating the festival to such an extent.

He won 18 of the 37 races and the bare facts are even more stark than that. Five of those 37 contests were hunter chases and they are races Mullins does not target at all.

On top of that Mullins saddled 12 seconds and basically just blew every other trainer in Ireland, including the somewhat unfortunate Elliott, clean out of the water.

British trainers, of course, essentially stayed at home from Punchestown, knowing full well they would have been arriving with a peashooter to fire at a tank.

From a punting point of view, I suppose Punchestown more than served its purpose, if impossible to solve handicaps and desperately difficult conditions races were what was wanted. You’d imagine the smaller, casual-type punter had no problem with that.

For those who take their punting seriously, however, the meeting was a nightmare from start to finish and here’s one who did very little wagering.

Indeed, despite massive attendances, on-course betting with the bookmakers was way down on last year’s less than impressive figures, indicating the hard-core punters did not bet anywhere near as much as might have been anticipated.

I hardly played because I was never confident about any possible outcome, the situation being exacerbated by the madness of the battle between Mullins and Elliott to be crowned champion trainer.

Take the Grade 1 Stayers’ Hurdle on the Thursday, a contest plenty of us would normally feel we had a decent shot at solving.

But with Mullins saddling seven of the twelve runners it became a total puzzle. That he managed to win the race with the apparently finished Faugheen was only a mild surprise.

Friday then saw Mullins act a bit out character when asking Getabird to race three days after he had run a shocker at the meeting.

Watch the way Mullins trains his horses through the winter and he nearly always gives them plenty of time between races. But, with the bloody championship at stake, it seems that all bets were off, if only temporarily.

The Grade 1 Mares’ Champion Hurdle on the Saturday gave a further indication of the change in the Mullins thinking.

The runners had to be declared on Thursday morning, when the championship was still, arguably, in the balance.

And so Mullins declared no less than seven of the 12 possibilities, four of them having already run at the meeting.

By Saturday, however, the championship was won and so the four, Asthuria, Lagostovegas, Pravalaguna and Redhotfillypeppers, didn’t meet the engagement, all of them reported to be stiff.

The other Grade 1 on Saturday, the Champion four-year-old Hurdle, was almost comical, contested by seven horses, five of them representing Mullins and two of Elliott’s.

Attempting to find the winner was as tricky as it gets and when Mullins took it with his fourth choice, at least as far as the betting was concerned - 10-1 chance Saldier, then we could only smile and be grateful we had given punting a rest, if only for a few days.

And then came the icing on the cake and the richly endowed €59,000 to the winner, the rather innocuous Ballymore Handicap Hurdle on Saturday.

On what was a savage show of strength by Mullins, he declared a whopping 16 horses, two of them reserves.

In the end he had 13 runners and you really would have had to be some optimist to think you might back the first home in this 24-runner affair.

I mean there was no way of unravelling the Mullins baker’s dozen alone, but it was long odds-on he would win the race and he did so with 14-1 chance, Meri Devi. There are trainers in this country who don’t even have 16 horses.

If Mullins acted a trifle out of character then so did Elliott. How else could you explain Samcro turning up in the Punchestown Champion Hurdle on the Friday, rather than remaining in novice company. Not in a million years would that have been on, except for that infernal championship.

You will hear people say if Elliott can come from literally nowhere then it is there for everyone else to do so as well.

In theory yes, but that is a long way removed from reality. Elliott’s rapid rise through the ranks is almost freakish and he is a massive exception to the rule. Have no doubt there are numerous others who have tried and, perfectly understandably, failed.

Finally, have a look at the number of winners trained by highly respected people during the season just gone and tell us there isn’t a major problem in National Hunt racing.

Here are a sample: Mouse Morris (13), Tony Martin (6), Paul Nolan (13), Robert Tyner (13), Edward O’Grady (8), Michael Hourigan (2), Adrian Maguire (3) and Tom Taaffe (2). Then there are two former Aintree Grand National winning trainers in Jimmy Mangan (4) and Ted Walsh (3).

Just how many trainers will have given up on the unequal fight come next year’s Punchestown festival?


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