Robin Oakley

Ireland’s love affair with horse racing

Their horses look set to dominate the Cheltenham Festival this year

Ireland’s love affair with horse racing
Irish-trained Al Boum Photo, favourite for this year’s Cheltenham Gold Cup. Credit: Frank Sorge/
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With the Cheltenham Festival close, the quest for serious punting money intensifies. I had one potential contributor identified at Kempton on Saturday. With trainer Dan Skelton on red-hot form, and his jockey brother Harry currently winning on 22 per cent of his rides, I reckoned that their candidate for the Sky Bet Dovecote Novices’ Hurdle, the clearly useful Calico, a decent horse on the Flat in Germany, was the business at a tasty 10-3.

Three hurdles out, Harry had Calico travelling strongly behind the two leaders and I was not only counting my money but also starting to frame a few ante-post doubles for the Festival. When he eased into second at the second last, and the pair pulled clear of the field, it seemed only a matter of time before he swooped on the leader Cape Gentleman. But when Harry gave Calico the get-go, and rode him hard to challenge after the last, Cape Gentleman wasn’t ready to yield. In the hands of Jonjo O’Neill junior he stuck out his neck and battled ferociously to fight off his challenger by three quarters of a length.

Cape Gentleman could clearly stay, having won the Irish Cesarewitch on the Flat, and it was a classic duel between two good horses who will both surely go on to better things. Calico did hit the second last and he turned out to have lost a shoe, but I’m not sure that affected the result. I had made a classic mistake: never underestimate the Irish threat. Emmet Mullins, Cape Gentleman’s trainer, has sent only 15 horses to run in Britain over five seasons and now six of them have won.

Largely thanks to Covid, we haven’t seen too many Irish raiders on British courses this season but British punters got it wrong big time in the £100,000 Caspian Caviar Gold Cup in December when Mick Winters, the County Cork man whose glorious accent has interviewers pleading for subtitles, won the big race by 15 lengths with the 16-1 shot Chatham Street Lad and then made good his promise to roll in the parade ring mud if he won. Not quite how Nicky Henderson or Paul Nicholls celebrate victory.

At Cheltenham’s November fixture meeting, Emmet Mullins won the Greatwood Hurdle with The Shunter and there seems little question of Emmet’s Uncle Willie becoming champion trainer yet again at the forthcoming Festival. At the 2020 event, the last big race meeting most of us were able to attend, the Irish won 17 of the 28 races with 14 of them shared by Willie and his biggest Irish rival Gordon Elliott. More sobering figures leapt out at me from the Racing Post this week: four of the past five winners of the Gold Cup and of the Ryanair Chase were trained in Ireland and five of the past six winners of the Marsh Novices’ Chase too. Underlining future potential, the Irish had a 1-2-3 in that race last March.

Ireland boasts the ante-post favourites this year for the Gold Cup (the hat trick-seeking Al Boum Photo), the Champion Hurdle (Honeysuckle), the Queen Mother Champion Chase (Chacun Pour Soi), the Ryanair Chase (Allaho), the Marsh Novices’ Chase (Envoi Allen), the Brown Advisory Novices’ Chase (Monkfish), the Supreme Novices’ Hurdle (Appreciate It), the Triumph Hurdle (Zanahiyr), the Mares’ Hurdle (Concertista) and the Champion Bumper (Kilcruit), the vast bulk of them trained by Willie Mullins. Of the key races, only the Arkle Chase, with Nicky Henderson’s Shishkin shading ahead of Willie’s Energumene, and the Stayers’ Hurdle, with Emma Lavelle’s Paisley Park seeking a repeat of his 2019 victory, have English-trained favourites.

To the Irish racing is lifeblood and a crucial currency. There was chariot racing on the Curragh as early as 110 BC, horse-racing in Galway in the 13th century. In 1673 Sir William Temple wrote to Charles II noting: ‘Horses in Ireland are a drug… We see horses bred of excellent shape and vigour and size so as to reach great prices at home and encourage strangers to find the market here.’ Ireland has more thoroughbreds and more racecourses per head of population than anywhere. Whether the Cheltenham Festival has come to dominate jump racing in Britain to an unhealthy extent is currently much debated but to the Irish there is no question that the true test of their jumping horses’ worth is to send them to Gloucestershire in March to take on the best opposition the Old Enemy can muster and to win.

The fearsome way Irish punters support their favourites is as much about patriotism as profit, typified for me by the Irish punter who one year won a small fortune on Irish runners over the first two days, enough to pay off the mortgage on his house, and then lost it all when Danoli, to the Irish ‘the people’s horse’, took a fall. He shrugged off disaster with the reflection: ‘Well, to be sure it’s only a small house anyway.’

What a tragedy it is that we won’t all be at this year’s Festival to share a Guinness or two and watch them in action.