The Irish Trainers’ Championship

The race to be Ireland’s Champion Trainer is still wide open

If you believe the markets, with a month to go, the British Trainers’ Championship is done and dusted whilst there’s all to play for in Ireland. Interestingly, there’s not much that separates the contestants in both tables –  Nicky Henderson is £644,000 ahead of Paul Nicholls in Britain and Gordon Elliott is €491,000 in front of Willie Mullins in Ireland.  However, the best I could find on the Exchanges was 1.06 for Henderson to retain his title, while across the sea there looks to be a genuine two horse race, with Betfair Sportsbook offering Mullins at 4/5 and Elliott at 10/11.

One reason the bookies might be finding it hard to put a rizla paper between the Irish contestants is, as history has taught us, Punchestown can change everything. Last year Elliott went into the Festival more than €400,000 ahead, only to finish €200,000 behind Mullins and be denied a first Trainers’ Championship. Elliott described the outcome as ‘Heatbreaking’.

He may have been the top Trainer at Cheltenham this year, but Elliott has made it clear where his priorities lie ‘If you ask me do I want to be leading trainer in Cheltenham or leading trainer in Ireland, there is only one place that matters’.

I sense an increased determination this year to wrestle the title from Mullins’ grip. I heard it said at a Cheltenham Preview Night that Elliott had left some horses in Ireland to focus on the valuable end of season  handicaps. Whilst I don’t know the evidence for this, you can always do worse that back blind an Elliott horse with Davy Russell on board in a handicap.

Elliott also enjoys  the patronage of the mighty Gigginstown Stud and with their retained jockies, Davy Russell and Jack Kennedy, firing on all cylinders, this season may well have a different outcome. To strengthen the argument, even if Mullins’ top rider, Ruby Walsh, does recover from his injury plagued season in time for the Punchestown Festival, there has to be a question over his fitness and psychological readiness.

There doesn’t currently appear to be a great deal of liquidity in the market for the Irish Championship and the odds might not seem attractive, on which ever camp you favour. However, if you are tempted and want to squeeze some value, you should be able to lay Mullins at evens. And that might be where the smart money should go.



Studying the Form

Barry Geraghty returns on Buveur D’Air after winning the Champion Hurdle

There are always many challenges facing punters in backing a winner at the Festival and this year’s preparation was even more tricky with the seasonally unusual heavy ground. Hours of study based on the assumption races would be run on good to soft, proved to be time wasted and the interminable round of Cheltenham Preview nights could provide no clues. Horses primed for a particular Festival race all season were either withdrawn or saw their chances greatly reduced, whilst the mudlarks were supplemented at the last minute.

If you look at the winners of the main race on each day, the task was even more difficult, because there was so little form on which to rely. Save for Champion Hurdle victor, Buveur D’Air – who arguably hadn’t had a test since winning the race last year- none of the other three had run more than once in the current season. Whilst at least Champion Chase winner, Altior, and Gold Cup winner, Native River, had been raced in the calendar year, Penhill who brought victory for Willie Mullins in the Stayers’ Hurdle hadn’t competed for 323 days.

This is in contrast to the winners of the corresponding  fixtures at the 2017 Festival, when Buveur D’Air, with three runs in the season, was the most lightly raced. The others – Special Tiara in the Champion Chase, Nichols Canyon in the Stayers’ Hurdle and Sizing John in the Gold Cup- had all been raced recently and each clocked up four runs during the season.

Doubtless too much can be read into this: statistics tend to be interpreted as we wish to view them and I’m sure the pattern isn’t repeated with all Festival races. However, I do wonder if it is a sign of a trend particularly with the main players to prepare their horses at home, rather than get them match fit through competitive races – Remember how we were all encouraged to back Melon in last year’s Supreme Novices’ on the basis of one race and the stories of how he was galloping around Willie Mullins’ back garden. The big trainers have vast state of the art facilities, where perhaps it is felt preparation for championship races is best undertaken, rather than doing battle at the race track.

Should the major events increasingly be dominated by such rarely seen horses, the problem for the punter is, it is impossible to study form, where there is none to study.




Cheltenham – What Price the Feature Race?

Davy Russell returns a win for Gigginstown in Thursday’s Feature Race

I must admit I was flagging a bit by Thursday at the Festival and at first I thought I just misheard it when the Ryanair was announced on the tannoy as the day’s Feature Race. However, when my racing companion Spread Sheet Martin, who has a far better sense for detail than me, also picked up on it I knew my ears weren’t deceiving me.  Perhaps he’d just misread the notes. There was nothing in the Card to suggest the race’s elevation in status and certainly no advertising in the lead up to the Festival pointing to the Chase replacing the Stayers’ Hurdle as the day’s highlight. But then came all the trimmings associated with the main event- The horse’s being lead out by mounted men in hunting red, the dramatic music and that razzmatazzy stuff they put on the screens.

I found it all very confusing. I had rather assumed there was some sacred law written on a scroll stating that the 3.30 on each day of the Festival was to be the Feature Race and that any change could only be achieved by armed struggle.

I feared I knew the answer, but before jumping to any conclusions I made some enquiries: I tweeted Cheltenham Racecourse, the Jockey Club and the Racing Post, but none replied. I expect they were busy.

I would have to do my own research and it didn’t take long.  A quick google of Ryanair Cheltenham Sponsorship and the answers were there on the Ryanair website.  We are informatively told that Ryanair is Europe’s favourite airline – There was me thinking it was best known for cancelled flights and poorly paid pilots- and that it has extended its sponsorship of the two and half mile chase for five years.  It proudly states it will increase the prize fund from £300,000 in 2017, to £350,000 this year and rising to £400,000 by 2022.  And then the inexorable conclusion “In the light of this significant boost in prize money, The Ryanair Chase will now become the feature race on St. Patrick’s Thursday at the Cheltenham Festival from March 2018 onwards”.

The lack of any publicity by the racing authorities of this change prior to the Festival, might hint at a degree of embarrassment  on their part and I do wonder if Ryanair owner, Micheal O’Leary, was engaged in a back room power struggle with Cheltenham to have his race moved to the 3.30pm slot as well.

It turned out to be a good day for Mr O’Leary. Not only was the feature race run in the name of his company, but for the first time since he has sponsored it, one of his horses from the Gigginstown Stud won. The joy must have been enough to take his mind off the impending strike by Ryanair employees.

Perhaps in the final analysis, other than highlighting the power of money and influence of O’Leary in National Hunt racing, this doesn’t matter a great deal. However, whilst enough cash may buy you the main event and the winner, it can’t guarantee a great race. The Ryanair only attracted six runners, whilst fifteen started in the Stayers’ Hurdle and treated us to a far more thrilling finish.

The Prestbury Cup – State of the Nations

Davy Russell raises the Tricolour to celebrate another Irish victory

With still more than a day’s Festival racing left, the screens flashed up at Cheltenham confirming that Ireland had an unassailable lead in the battle with the British to train the most Festival winners and had, therefore, retained the Prestbury Cup. Thursday finished 6/15 to the Irish and although the Festival ended with a slightly reduced margin of victory 11/17, there is no doubting on which side of the Irish Sea the balance of power lies.

This bare statistic, however, doesn’t tell the full story. All but two of Ireland’s victories were from either Gordon Elliott’s or Willie Mullins’ Yard, with a final result of 8/7 to Elliott.

If this duopoly is worrying, consider the concentration of ownership. Ignoring the Willie Mullins victories, there was only one Irish winner that didn’t race in the colours of Gigginstown Stud. Michael O’Leary owner of Gigginstown and a man who appears to relish playing the role of Pantomime villain, famously withdrew all his horses from the Mullins’ Yard due to an increase in training fees, and now largely favours Elliott to stable his large number of expensive thoroughbreds.

Whilst the big beasts of Anglo training, Nicky Henderson and Colin Tizzard, took the major Festival prizes, eight British trainers sampled the winner’s enclosure and none more than twice. The glory was also shared amongst a number of owners.

As the proud holder of an Irish passport, I am of course pleased that we won the Prestbury Cup and the dominance is all the more impressive when you consider that Ireland’s top jockey Ruby Walsh missed a majority of the four days, having aggravated a leg injury from which he had only returned to the saddle. However, it seems to me that so much power and money in the hands of so few isn’t good for the sport and it is actually British racing that is in the more healthy state.

Back To The Drawing Board – Part 4

So to the climax of the Festival and my take on whether the favourites will win the Grade 1 races on the final day.

Triumph Hurdle – Apple’s Shakira. Current best odds 7/2. The only rival I could realistically make a case for is Redicean, but where Apple’s Shakira has the edge is her experience of Cheltenham. Unbeaten in a four race career, her three runs  since arriving in England have been at Prestbury Park, most recently on Trials Day.  That race turned into a bit more of a contest than many anticipated, but when it came to a battle on the hill, she easily proved herself. And perhaps also significantly, will have learnt a lot. She has my backing.

Albert Bartlett – Santini. Current best odds 9/2. What Santini has is his favour is that he has won at Cheltenham and on ground that Nicky Henderson said wouldn’t suit him. However, this a race in which favourites have a poor record and is often won by outsiders. It is also a contest which, in the context of novices, experience counts. Santini has only raced twice under rules and yet to run the three full miles. This looks like a step too far, too soon and I’m opposing him.

Gold Cup – Might Bite. Current best odds 4/1. The big one and I’ve probably struggled with this race more than any other. On paper, you have to say Might Bite is a worthy favourite. Following his eccentric victory in last year’s RSA, he hasn’t blotted his copy book this season. However, I do wonder what a genuine test the King George was on Boxing Day.  The great unknown, of course, is given his waywardness in the RSA how he will behave on his return to the Course. Well, he’s looked very straight forward this season.  I know the excuses have been made for Sizing John’s defeat in the Christmas Chase at Leopardstown, but it must be a worry and, leaving aside Best Mate, history is not on the side of back to back winners.  As impressive as Native River’s run was in the Denman Chase last month and looks well timed as preparation for the Festival, it was only a three horse race and it’s been his sole outing since third place in the Gold Cup last year.  With talk of the ground turning softer, there have been those bigging up Definitely Red, but I can only see this as a contest between Sizing John and Might Bite. Both have questions to answer, but of the two, I am less troubled by the one raised by Might Bite and I will back him…….I think.


Back To The Drawing Board – Part 3

Answering the question whether the favourites will win the Grade 1 races on day three of the Festival is as simple as it is difficult.

JLT Novices’ Chase – Invitation Only. Current best odds 4/1. With the withdrawal of last year’s Neptune winner, Willoughby Court, this is the difficult one as the market has been thrown into confusion. You’d struggle to put a cigarette paper between Invitation Only and Monalee on the prices, although the RSA has always been the presumed destination of Monalee, who is still trading in that race at 3/1. You fancy he could do well in either, but it looks an open race and whoever starts off favourite, has to be worth opposing.

Ryanair Chase – Un De Sceaux. Current best odds 2/1. Now for the easy bit. I can see why money has come in for the unbeaten Waiting Patiently, although he is untested on a track that compares to Cheltenham and I’m not convinced has won against illustrious company. Last year’s winner Un De Sceaux is lightly raced this season, but has undoubted class and not only is he familiar with Cheltenham, but knows how to win there. For those reasons I’m backing him.

Stayers’ Hurdle – Supasundae. Current best odds 4/1. It’s nip and tuck in the market between Supasundae and Sam Spinner, who you can back at 5/1. This doesn’t look like a strong renewal.  After last year’s race showed  Unowhatimeanharry  was beatable, no one has come to claim his crown. The  highlight of the season was undoubtedly Beer Goggles’ win in  the Long Distance Hurdle at Newbury in December. He proved if nothing else this is a division capable of surprises and with no outstanding contender, don’t rule out a shock in the feature race on the Thursday. There may be plenty of movement in the market before then, but whoever goes to the post as favourite, I can’t see that they will have my backing.