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Ireland v Britain - Are the Irish a 'cut-above' when it comes to Horse Racing?

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

There has always been the argument of which is better, Irish racing or British racing. Each has had its fair share of wonder horses and winners over the years, but it seems as though in the modern-day, the Irish are taking over. Whether it's down to a lack of funding, too many high-grade races or an issue with the selection process, it's evident something needs to be done if British racing is to reign supreme again. Take this year's Cheltenham Festival for example, an embarrassing year for the British as they were well and truly torn apart by their Irish counterparts. Let’s look a bit more in-depth at just how much of a wake-up call this year's Festival has been for Britain and its trainers.

· Of the 28 races contested at The Festival this year, 23 of those were won by horses from Ireland. In 2020, 16 of the winners were from Ireland, and in 2019 it was even at 14-a-piece, showing a steady increase in the past few years.

· Not only did they dominate the majority of races, but they had a lower percentage of runners too. Only 40% of the runners at the Festival were Irish, meaning they managed to achieve an 82% win percentage with a considerably lower number of runners overall, 12 of which were in Grade 1 events.

· Of the 23 Irish-trained winners last week, 17 were bred in Ireland, too. Three of the four British-trained winners were also Irish bred making that a total of 20/28 winners. The number of Irish-bred winners at the meeting has averaged 15 over the past decade.

Graph showing the number of Irish winners at Cheltenham since 1975

Willie Mullins took the top trainer spot with 6x 1st places, 7x 2nd places and 5x 3rd places, with Henry De Bromhead closely behind again on 6x 1st places but missing out on the places with 3x 2nd’s and 1x 3rd place. Denise Foster took 3rd spot with 3x 1st places, 4x 2nd’s and 2x 3rd’s. Notable winners from these camps include Honeysuckle in The Champion Hurdle, Minella Indo in the Gold Cup, Appreciate It in The Supreme Novices’ Hurdle, Monkfish in the Novices’ Chase, Allaho in The Ryanair Chase and fan-favourite Tiger Roll in The Cross Country Chase. There were also winners for Irish trainers; Emmet Mullins (The Shunter), Peter Fahey (Belfast Banter) and Gavin Cromwell (Flooring Porter and Vanillier).

British winners however were limited, those being Shishkin in The Arkle, Vintage Clouds in The Ultima Handicap Chase, Sky Pirate in The Grand Annual Chase, Porlock Bay in The Open Hunters’ Chase and Chantry House in The Marsh Novices’ Chase.

The top British trainer was Nicky Henderson with just 2x 1st places, 2x 2nd’s and 2x 3rd’s. The only other trainers on the board with winners were Sue Smith, Jonjo O’Neill and Will Biddick with 1-a-piece. Other UK trainers including Dan Skelton (2x 2nd’s and 2x 3rd’s), Champion Trainer Paul Nicholls (1x 2nd and 2x 3rd’s) and Colin Tizzard (3x 2nd’s and 1x 3rd) only managed placed efforts.

A table of the top 10 rated horses for both Chase and Hurdles races and the country they are trained

So, we’ve established from the horror show that was Cheltenham that it was a one-horse race if you pardon the pun… But what exactly are the reasons for this? And how can they be addressed? Let’s take a look.

Firstly, the structure of racing is a major issue in British horse racing. In Ireland, the big festivals punctuate the jumps season, with trainers choosing to aim their best horses at one of these i.e. the Leopardstown Christmas Festival, the Dublin Racing Festival etc. In the UK, there are far too many graded events every week. This means a trainer can enter a horse in a Grade 1 event knowing there won’t be many, if any, major dangers thus avoiding any potentially useful opposition. This not only makes the horse look good because it won a high-grade event but also boosts its rating significantly. Once a top festival like Cheltenham comes around and the horse is pitched against talented horses from Ireland, they are simply in another league. This is because the structure of the races in Ireland allows for significant progression to get a more valid reading of how good a horse is, which is shown by how dominant the Irish horses have been in recent years against opposition which is “supposedly” a similar quality.

Last year in Britain, 60.3% of National Hunt races were handicaps, a slight increase from 56.1% back in 2013. In Ireland last year, there were just 527 handicap races (hurdles and chase) total, which combined is approximately just 36% of the 1434 total jumps races staged there. In Britain, National Hunt horses raced for an average of £13,331 in prize-money per race, compared to the Irish jumps horses that were running for an average of £17,970. This instantly outlines the issues, not only with prize money but also the types of races available and the frequency of them. Having so many of these types of races isn't good, the calendar is too clustered and the higher-class horses have a wider spread of races available, meaning they rarely have to race against each other. Aiming a horse at one of the few festivals in Ireland means all similar horses have to compete with each other in the build-up to it, giving an accurate outlook on how good the horse is and the type of opposition it would be competitive against. A similar stance must be taken in Britain before things get out of hand and the horses are dominated in every aspect by those from the West.

Our Conor beating Diakali is the Grade 1 Spring Juvenile Hurdle at Leopardstown

Secondly, the lack of prize money is also a big issue in British racing. The median return via prize-money is less than 7p per pound, which, combined with frailties in the ownership experience highlights the size of the issue. In Ireland, some of the biggest investors nowadays include Gigginstown, Coolmore and Cheveley Park Stud who are involved in a number of the big horses, the latter with horses seen running in the red silks with the white sash such as Envoi Allen. If the fixture list was altered accordingly and the prize money was increased in the right areas, it would make British racing far more attractive thus drawing in these bigger owners. In turn, not only does this bring in higher quality horses, but it makes it far easier to retain these sorts of owners too.

Irish handicapper Andrew Shaw said, “It's a bit like the Premier League versus the Championship. We simply have the best horses. It's all about the economics. The money is here, the best horses are here." The biggest reason for the success of Irish-trained horses in recent years is largely down to the emergence of J P McManus and Michael O’Leary, who have a much larger disposable income than their British competitors. Willie Mullins said, “In Ireland when we gave the running of racing to the IHA (Irish Horseracing Authority) and then HRI (Horse Racing Ireland) it made government-backed racing planning and prize money. It has ensured that we have a good environment for people to spend money on nice young horses and there is prize money for them to run for. Whereas I find over in England there is very little prize-money in the novice races and you have to go into the big handicaps. That sets the horses back. You get the odd horse that is well handicapped and will win, but English racing is a diet of pointless handicaps and there is no incentive. Nobody sets out to buy a handicapper, you set out to buy a good horse, and we have a better system to educate and bring on good horses. I’m sure these things are cyclical, however, these things turn around.”

Once revenue and prize money is increased, a wider variety of better horses becomes available. Whether it is for racing or simply an older horse for breeding, the UK bloodstock could be completely transformed offering a selection of world-class horses on the doorstep, much like in Ireland currently. Current top sires in Ireland include the likes of the mighty Doyen, Sholokhov and Yeats, whilst the highest on the list currently active and standing in Britain is Scorpion at 28th. In the modern-day, jumps horses tend to be acquired either from nurseries in France which is where a large number of the British stock comes from (and why it's risky as there's no real way to tell the level of opposition it ran against and it may never reproduce such from in Britain) whilst a lot of the Irish horses come from their point-to-point sphere which is well established at picking out the top quality horses and keeping them within the Irish pool. This means the stock available for British owners is limited, as not only are they forced to pay large sums of money for what is effectively "the worst of the best bunch", but the quantity of foals in Ireland is almost double that of Britain at present, putting them well ahead of their British competitors. Without improvement in the first two areas it is going to be difficult to attract any of the top-class horses and near impossible to improve facilities enough to rival what is currently available in Ireland.

The dramatic end to a race at Fairyhouse

The final point is the handicap system, which seriously needs re-evaluating. The winner percentage of Irish horses in handicaps at The Cheltenham Festival is higher than that of the British horses and has been every year since 2012. This year alone, of the 194 horses that ran in handicaps there, 129 of those were British, making up around 70% of the overall fields. Despite this, only 2 British winners make up a strike rate of just 1.55% compared to the 10.77% of the Irish-trained horses (65 runners which makes up 33.5% of the overall fields). This isn't necessarily an issue that can be solved without the three steps I have already mentioned. Restructuring British racing, increasing prize money and attracting the bigger investors will lead to a wider variety of better horses being available. This means that the British and Irish horses will be more evenly matched for future contests. Currently, by rule of thumb, there is around a 5-8lb swing from Irish to British handicap marks in jumps racing. This means that a 168 rated horse in Britain would only be somewhere around 160 in Ireland. Making this alteration creates a level playing field for all involved and the horses would be handicapped accordingly. This would rectify the current issue that the Irish horses are essentially rated “too low” and have a significant advantage over the British contenders.

Beginning to make alterations in these areas could significantly improve British racing in the years to come. This would put them on a more even playing field with their Irish counterparts, which in turn creates more even and thrilling races at festivals throughout the year such as Cheltenham. Although it is quite apparent what needs to be done to fix the current “sorry-state” or affairs, there is still some way to go before this issue is fully resolved.

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