There’s a top and a bottom in every sport, and to suggest the top is killing the bottom in jump racing is, in my opinion, off the mark, writes Ruby Walsh.
The Punchestown Festival provided a fitting climax to a brilliant season and, to me, the real positive to be taken from it is the position National Hunt racing in Ireland is in.
The Irish success at Cheltenham was monumental.
And Noel Fehily being Irish, we had a clean sweep of the championship races.
To train 19 winners is some healthy position to be in, but not one Ireland will always be in. The British will reinvest, and the wheel will turn, so it’s something to be enjoyed.
As a result of that success, we had an unbelievably competitive Punchestown.
You had Fox Norton and Un De Sceaux, Sizing John, Djakadam and Coneygree, Unowhatimeanharry and Nichols Canyon, Wicklow Brave, a Leger winner, seeing off My Tent Or Yours — brilliant racing right throughout the week. And that is the result of the dominance of Irish racing.
For me, personally, the highlight was definitely the Thursday of Cheltenham.
Numerically, I had a very good year. I would have preferred to have been hitting the target more often than the crossbar at Punchestown, but it was great to be crowned champion jockey again.
This year, it was a bit different, though. To watch the pride in my daughters’ faces, they were bursting with excitement, so happy and, I think, proud. That was an emotion I had never felt before. It was special.
And I thought Rachael Blackmore’s achievements were incredible. She’s an unbelievable professional, and deserves every success she gets.
Jamie Codd was a deserved winner of the amateur riders’ championship, and himself and Patrick Mullins provided some great entertainment.
And there’s no way the National Hunt season would have had the climax it had without Gordon Elliott.
Willie Mullins was the winner, and I’m extremely proud of that achievement, and delighted to be part of it, but we mustn’t forget Gordon Elliott was a huge part of making it such a great season.
To do what he has done in the period of time he has been training is phenomenal. They went toe to toe in the trainers’ championship, and there was just one good race in it at the end.
And, what a spring for Jessie Harrington and Puppy Power.
With Sizing John in the Irish and Cheltenham Gold Cups, and then the success Puppy had at Aintree, and then to come back and win the Irish National, and add to that all the success they had at Punchestown — it was phenomenal.
And we shouldn’t forget what a great winter Henry De Bromhead had, with Valseur Lido winning up north, Special Tiara winning the Champion Chase, and Petit Mouchoir winning the Ryanair Hurdle and the Irish Champion Hurdle.
On the flip side, a number of trainers have retired this season.
Of course, that’s an unfortunate situation, but I think people are way off the mark when they say it is due to the success of the trainers at the top.
Going back to my childhood, I remember Ireland having four winners at Cheltenham in 1986, but the following year was a very poor one. I remember sitting on my couch at home, wondering would Ireland have any winner there. I was cheering on every Irish horse, and when Galmoy stuck his head in front to win a Stayers’ Hurdle in 1987, it was our only winner of the week.
In 2017, there were 19 Irish winners. But, also back in the 80s, Ireland didn’t compete in the Classics, or globally in Flat racing. I can just about remember Vincent O’Brien, who was nearing the end of his training career when my memory comes into play.
Sporadically, Dermot Weld would have a global winner, like Go And Go, in the 1990 Belmont Stakes. And, I can remember St Jovite finishing second in and Epsom Derby and winning the King George, and then Jet Ski Lady winning the Epsom Oaks at 50-1.
But, Ireland, at that time, was a second-rate racing nation. We didn’t have the global success. If you move to the mid-1990s, we had a bit more Cheltenham success, but were still hoping for four or five winners, which was a great haul.
Then, along came Aidan O’Brien, who took over at Ballydoyle, and all of a sudden Ireland started to compete globally, on the Flat.
And Aidan O’Brien was going to be the detriment of Flat racing in Ireland. But, he wasn’t.
He has dragged Irish Flat racing to where it is now, and along with him have come John Oxx, Dermot Weld and Jim Bolger.
And then you have the middle tier on the Flat, the likes of Ger Lyons, Willie McCreery, Michael Halford, and a good few more, who are all competing and surviving.
That all came from Aidan O’Brien and Ballydoyle. It didn’t kill Irish Flat racing.
On the contrary. It is booming and, globally, Ireland is now a Flat-racing superpower. I greatly appreciate that Flat horses are a short-term thing, and there’s a global export market for Flat horses, which doesn’t exist for National Hunt horses.
But, the top didn’t kill the bottom in Flat racing. Just like the top doesn’t kill the bottom in rugby.
Without Munster, Leinster, Connacht and Ulster, kids don’t want to play for Cashel, Naas, Athy, Glaswegians, etc.
Same in GAA, where every kid who plays for their parish team wants to play for their county. There’s a top and a bottom in every sport, and to suggest the top is killing the bottom in jump racing is, in my opinion, off the mark.
I think it is the unbelievable success the point-to-points have become which is putting most pressure on the middle and small trainers.
It’s the turnover of horses on the Flat which makes it’s such a good business model. Most Flat trainers are also sellers so, at the end of their two-year-old year, a lot of their stock is sold, and they reinvest. The National Hunt trainer is probably saddled with a horse for life. The turnover isn’t as quick. But it is in point-to-points.
Now, with the extended point-to-point season, which starts in the autumn, takes a small break at Christmas, and then goes on until May, there’s a huge amount of opportunity for people to turn point-to-point horses into exports.
Point-to-pointing was always a wonderful nursery for future young horses and still is, but it has changed a lot also and is now is major shop window.
The National Hunt trainer is competing with the point-to-point market for the buying of the horses, and because it’s much cheaper to keep a point-to-point horse, they’re competing with them, too.
To me, that is where the squeeze has come. Buyers are not looking at bumpers any more, they’re looking at point-to-points.
Foot and Mouth can be blamed for a lot of things. It can be blamed for ruining the 2001 National Hunt season but, with it, also came the introduction of all those races at Sandown last Saturday, and that became competition to Punchestown.
They were introduced as replacement races for the season lost, but were never done away with. And with the Foot and Mouth came an autumn point-to-point season, and it stayed, as well. Instead of a season that was four and a half months, the middle and lower-tier trainer is now competing with a seven-month point to point season, which is unbelievably successful.
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