Last Saturday the cheers that greeted the horses as they crossed the strip for the opening race of the Dublin Racing Festival made me smile. I don’t know why, but it happened. The noise, the atmosphere, maybe an adrenaline rush, but something so cool to be on this grandstand, soaking it all up.
And the race certainly didn’t fail to deliver what was always going to be the Willie vs. Gordon spectacle.
Closutton outplayed Cullentra, as they always have here, but it was the first round, and although the second round is an away game in Gloucester, it is starting to look like a home game.
Fourteen winners apiece at Cheltenham would give the home side bragging rights – despite not being a team – a feat they claimed in 2019. The last time the locals produced more winners than the visitors , that was in 2015, and 2021 has seen a record number of breeds being exported across the Irish Sea.
It’s a trend that seemed unimaginable, and the cup doesn’t matter, but only highlights the gap between the strength of one sport in two countries that no one could have predicted 20 years ago. Perhaps Cheltenham is just underscoring the divide between British and Irish horse racing.
All sorts of theories have been debated around “why?” and ‘how?’, but now it seems that more and more English or British trainers are willing to avoid the biggest event of the National Hunt race.
Why do they just leave it to the Irish to plunder? Prestige, prize money, crowds, publicity and fame are all on their doorstep, but all I seem to read is ‘it’s not all about Cheltenham’.
It never was, but Cheltenham has, in my lifetime, always mattered the most. Many great days lead and follow the Cotswolds, but the horses that win in March are always the champions. It can’t be as simple as Ireland having all the best horses, so why doesn’t the home team want to play?
At one point, the Schweppes Hurdle was a highlight of the season, but it fell out of favor like a popped balloon. It may be the fear of losing, but this afternoon, for Europe’s second most valuable handicap hurdle prize and with no Irish horse traveling to Newbury, only 14 British horses turn up for the Betfair Hurdle.
Over 300 horses have contested a race like today’s in the UK this season, mostly for a fraction of today’s purse. So where are they today? I mean, why would you consider trying to make some $80,000 on a Saturday when you could make $3,000 on a Monday? Complaining about low prize money levels is futile if you don’t support the races with prize money.
But perhaps the answer is obvious. Britain’s fixture list is bloated beyond a limit that could help competitiveness. This suits racetracks because their business models require them to be open and racing to generate revenue.
Apparently this works for bookmakers, but oversupply in any market dilutes interest, and repeating similar runs across the board creates a weaker product in which bettors can find value.
So, maybe this is mostly for the participants. Not in a “divide and conquer” way, but in a sharing method. Spread all the races and they can all win a little, which also helps breeders and pedigrees because more races equal more winners.
The export of British and Irish horses to other racing industries has also had an impact on the number of competitors in Britain and the decline in the number of foals born there. However, the number of races continues to increase. Small fields will always exist at the top as only a few will be good enough to compete, but it’s the mid-to-low numbers that are worrying.
It will be a tricky trend to correct because those ready to make the tough decisions in Britain do not have enough power to implement them.
BHA does not have the same weight as HRI, but if UK racing is to turn the tide they need to make significant changes. Their matches must decrease and their races must stop competing to maximize interest in each race and increase drawdown.
This would maintain or increase the pot for the prize money, divided into fewer ways. An increase in prize money and competition makes winning more attractive, and bringing some big investors back into their sport can give them the firepower they need to compete.
Horse racing is a sport practiced in many countries. British and Irish racing should be seen as one product in this part of the world. It will still be organized as two sports, as it should be, but one needs the other for competition. At present the National Hunt section of UK racing is in decline which needs to be rectified, and the suggested changes need to be applied to Flat as well.