Colm Greaves peers into his crystal ball in search of tips and talking points for the year ahead
Despite some strenuous lobbying by Horse Racing Ireland last autumn which they supported with an impressive array of compelling data, the Minister for Finance was unmoveable and the State’s budget allocation for racing in 2018 remains unchanged at €64 million.
Maybe it really doesn’t matter that much.
The economic hoof print of horse racing on the Irish economy is deep and the momentum should continue.
€2 billion in expenditure, 30,000 jobs, 9,000 foals born, lots of them exported at high prices.
The best guarantee of continued growth remains a strong product and good horses are the best product you can get.
If all the hype is correct then Gordon Elliott’s brilliant novice Samcro could be the greatest product of this, or indeed, many generations.
His year begins with a reappearance at Naas early in the month where he treats good opponents with disdain and wins on the bridle.
A brilliantly creative initiative debuts at Leopardstown on the first weekend of the month.
Branded as ‘The Dublin Racing Festival’ the major races from Leopardstown’s traditional post-Christmas meetings are consolidated into a single weekend of luxurious racing quality.
Fifteen races, €1.5m in prize money, all races worth at least €75,000.
And with six weeks recovery time to Cheltenham there should be a stronger turnout of Cheltenham Festival favourites and hopefully a stronger hand of British raiders.
Gordon Elliott runs Samcro in the Deloitte Hurdle but can’t decide between Jack Kennedy and Davy Russell for the ride. To keep the peace, he legs them both up and Samcro still wins by 20 lengths, hard held.
Cheltenham month. At the start of every season Irish jump racing comforts itself by asserting that not everything is all about Cheltenham, that it’s also about Limerick and Leopardstown at Christmas, Fairyhouse, Punchestown in the spring and Galway in the summer.
Don’t kid yourself — March in the Cotswolds is truly where it’s at. Irish horses will have their work cut out this year in the championship races with Buveur D’Air, Altior and Might Bite all looking like strong defenders.
The highlight of the festival comes in the Ballymore Novices Hurdle on the Wednesday.
The tape goes up and Samcro nonchalantly gives them a good head start before setting out in pursuit of the field. He takes up the running at the back of the last and wins with his head in his chest.
Unfortunately, there’s a backlash in Britain against Samcro and his Cheltenham antics.
The Racing Post has dubbed him the ‘Conor McGregor’ of horse racing, citing arrogance and disrespect.
As a result, Aintree is bypassed and his racing season closes with an easy home win at Punchestown, where he runs the final furlong backwards and on two legs.
Meanwhile at Aintree itself Blakloin’s big heart defies his short stature and he proves he is a proper Grade One horse running in handicaps by winning the Grand National by 10 lengths under top weight.
The flat season is now here in force and Aidan O’Brien is already beside himself with anxiety wondering how he can improve on last season’s world record haul of 28 Group1 victories.
Things ease a bit for him after May’s first weekend at Newmarket when Saxon Warrior wins the 2000 Guineas and Clemmie hoses up in the fillies equivalent a day later.
In reality, things might get tougher for him from now on. Ballydoyle’s greatest rival, Godolphin, have started buying from Coolmore stallions again, ending a 12-year spat.
There is little doubt that the better bloodlines will strengthen their resistance over time.
In the meantime, Samcro wins the Eurovision song contest in Lisbon before heading out to grass for the summer.
Nothing screams ‘summer is here’ quite as loudly as the Derby meeting at Epsom and the polished extravaganza at Royal Ascot.
The high summer middle distance contests this year should be dominated by returning older champions such as the John Gosden-trained Enable and Cracksman.
Not since Denman eyeballed Kauto Star across his barn door have potential champions been so intimately trained and for once Flat-racing might have stumbled on a charisma that rivals the jumping code.
A longevity of rivalry and repeated clashes of older champions.
Ah, July! Bright, warm evenings, summer holidays, provincial hurling finals and Goodwood v Galway. Pimms v Porter.
Obviously Gaillimh wins this choice hands down and although there will still be no political fundraising tents again this year, another leading indicator of improving Irish economic strength will return. Helicopter trips to the track at 2017 festival were up by a quarter on the previous year, but it was still only about half the total of 2007, so expect the skies around Ballybrit to resemble attack scene in Apocalypse Now.
There will be a second front in the western war this year too. For a couple of decades it was as certain as death and taxes that Dermot Weld would be top trainer at Galway. A virus hit his troops last year and Willie Mullins stormed the hill. Weld will not allow this to stand easily.
August proves just why Irish racing is the best on the planet.
A month of long holiday evenings at local festivals on provincial courses with races sponsored by the local butcher or breadman.
Elsewhere expensive two-year-olds are sorting out this year’s pecking order but it’s in the provinces where the real racing heartbeats purest.
Tramore, a week of Flat and jumping on a cambered saucer only a mile round.
Ice creams and hurdy-gurdys on the seafront after the last. Later there’s Killarney, American tourists loudly acclaiming the beauty of a fading sun on Reeks as the horse’s jostle for position down the back straight. In and around these meetings there is Kilbeggan, Roscommon, and Ballinrobe. Magical evenings for less than €20 at the gate.
If last season is anything to go by then a summer saga will again be the Flat jockey’s championship and this should be heating up nicely by the time September comes.
The chief protagonists will again include Pat Smullen and Colin Keane, although Donncha O’Brien’s time may have come.
Donncha could be on the same career path as his older brother, Joseph — Classic victories, jockey’s championship, weight struggles then a training yard.
He will have more horsepower this year as the depth of Joseph’s yard continuously improves and will add many further opportunities to his book of rides from Ballydoyle.
After a two-year excursion to Chantilly the Prix De L’Arc de Triomphe returns to its spiritual home at Longchamp near the centre of Paris following a substantial redevelopment and upgrade to the place. Unlike our home team at the Curragh who decided to ‘make do and carry on,’ the French moved out of their HQ lock stock and barrel during construction and will stage its first Arc under the bright and shiny new stand on the first Sunday of October.
Enable and Cracksman are already vying for favouritism and its 33-1 bar these two.
Meanwhile in County Meath, things are warming up for winter. Samcro has schooled over fences and Gordon Elliott already has him half fit for the upcoming jumps season. This should be plenty.
Winter is truly coming now, proper Grade One jumping has returned, the trainers are planning campaigns and the only certainty is the uncertainty as to who exactly will still be standing.
Just a month ago we all looked forward to the prospect of a Douvan-Altior clash in the Tingle Creek and again in the Champion Chase.
Now, Douvan is already done for the season and Altior’s health looks cloudy.
Hopefully all the old warriors will be back to defend their crowns from up and comers like Samcro who has just recently won his first novice chase. Some dreamer suggested that he should have been in Australia for the Melbourne Cup but his owner, Michael O’Leary, said he’d rather have his hands cut off than send him Flat racing. This time he meant it.
The 2018 roll of honour is complete.
Might Bite wins the Gold Cup and Buveur D’Air the Champion Hurdle.
Blaklion takes the National and Saxon Warrior wins the Derby.
It turns out that Cracksman was a better horse than Enable after all and he adds the Arc to his victories in the King George and Eclipse Stakes.
Aidan O’Brien trains Europe’s best two-year-old who he describes as a “serious horse, the best we’ve had.”
And Samcro? Well, happily it turned out that all the hype was justified and he really was as good as we hoped at Christmas 2017.
And as the previews are prepared for 2019 he still stands front and centre.
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