Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Talking Horses: ban on Irish entries would be abject admission of defeat

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The Flat campaign on turf is off and running and the first Classics of 2024 are less than six weeks away but Ireland’s dominance at the Cheltenham Festival remains a fierce issue of debate, thanks in no small part to the Grand National-winning trainer, Dr Richard Newland, who seemed to suggest in a blog posted on the Racing TV website last week that Irish-trained runners in Britain should be strictly limited, and perhaps even banned altogether.

“Personally,” Newland wrote, “I would have that blanket [ban] for all races. But if we are to allow them to race in the UK once a year, maybe let that be at the Cheltenham Festival with perhaps one runner allowed per trainer in each race – not coming over every Saturday and winning everything.”

Leaving aside the fact that only three per cent of National Hunt runners in Britain in 2023 were trained in Ireland and thus the Irish are not, in fact, “coming over every Saturday and winning everything”, the idea of even a partial ban on Irish-trained runners in Britain is an affront to the basic principles of competition and friendly international rivalry that have been a fundamental part of racing under both codes since the sport’s earliest days.

It would be an abject, and embarrassing, admission of total defeat on British jumping’s part, leave the 14 championship races at Cheltenham in March as Grade Ones in name only and strip the Festival meeting of its claim to be the pinnacle of the sport.

For these reasons, among many others, it is simply not going to happen. Cooperation, rather than isolationism, is the only realistic approach, and since Britain is Ireland’s biggest market for jumps-bred horses, the Irish too appreciate that the current imbalance cannot continue indefinitely. They will be far less inclined to engage – over moves towards more integration of the pattern of Graded races, for instance – if the Brits are building barricades at Holyhead.

Quick Guide

Greg Wood’s Wednesday tips

Show

Wincanton

2.00 Regal Renaissance  2.30 Sherborne

3.00 Elle Est Beau

3.30 Shirocco’s Dream

4.00 Goonhilly

4.35 Don’t Tell Su

5.05 Plaisir Des Flos

Hereford

2.40 Stay If U Want To

3.10 Famoso

3.40 After Many Days

4.10 Deadlock

4.45 Grizzly James

5.15 Rocking Man 

Kempton Park

5.30 Mukaafah

6.00 So Quiet

6.30 Cracking Gold

7.00 Rohaan

7.30 Rey De La Batalla (nb)

8.00 Abraaj (nap)

8.30 Profit And Loss    

Thank you for your feedback.

But if we have already reached the stage where a senior trainer is calling for a ban on Irish-trained runners, it is anyone’s guess how much further we might descend into hysteria and blind panic if – or rather, when – Irish pre-eminence continues over the next season or two at least.

The Grand National on 13 April, for instance, could well recruit a few more converts to the isolationist cause. As things stand ahead of the next declaration stage on Tuesday, no fewer than 29 of the top 34 horses in the list – ie. those guaranteed a run – are trained in Ireland, and one of the remaining five trained in Britain has already been ruled out.

Willie Mullins alone, meanwhile, has 10 of the top 34, which raises another interesting possibility for British jumping to ponder.

The trainer Dr Richard Newland, pictured at Aintree in 2014, has recommended banning Irish-trained horses from British jumps racing. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

Dan Skelton, with £2,566,293, was the narrow leader in the trainers’ championship race before racing on Monday, just £59,000 in front of his former boss, Paul Nicholls, who is aiming for his 15th title in the last 19 years.

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Mullins, after a nine-race haul at the Festival, is still £650,000 adrift of the lead with a month of racing left, having saddled 14 winners in Britain this season. A one-two in the National, however, with perhaps some minor place money too, would put him neck-and-neck with the leaders.

Mullins has largely swerved the Aintree Festival in recent years, preferring instead to save his stable stars for Punchestown a couple of weeks later. But he had 34 runners at the meeting back in 2016, and six winners, when he was engaged in a battle for the title with Nicholls that went to the final week.

Vincent O’Brien, in 1953-54, was the last Irish trainer to win the British title over jumps, and Mullins is still a relative outsider at around 12-1 to bridge the 70-year gap. Nicholls and Skelton are sure to pick up plenty of smaller pots over the next few weeks and will have fancied runners in the Aintree Grade Ones as well.

Having become the first trainer to win 100 races at the Cheltenham Festival a couple of weeks ago, though, it would add an intriguing flourish at the end of another remarkable season if Mullins were to launch a late run for the title. Aidan O’Brien, of course, has been crowned Britain’s champion on the Flat six times since 2001 without anyone calling for Irish horses to be banned from Ascot, York and Goodwood. In the current febrile atmosphere, though, it could be more than the fragile egos of some British trainers could bear.

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